A former student talks about the influence of Dr. Murry N. DePillars

As a child growing up in Hampton, Virginia, Suzanne Boone Gwathmey (BFA ’82) watched her older siblings and relatives gradually disappear, only to return for occasional visits. She started questioning where they went, and the answer was always the same: They went off to college.

Gwathmey didn’t yet know what college was, but she knew in her gut that’s where she wanted to go, too. One day, she told an aunt of her plans, and her aunt responded that Gwathmey was too poor for college.

That’s when a spark was ignited.

“Right then, I was determined. Don’t tell me no,” Gwathmey says. “I started researching. I had no idea where I was going to go, what I was going to major in, or how I needed to pay for it. But I knew for sure I was going to go.”

Gwathmey later enrolled at VCUarts, where she earned a degree in Interior Design. She often looked to her mentors for guidance on navigating college and life beyond—including then-VCUarts Dean Murry N. DePillars, Ph.D.

In September 2020, the VCU Board of Visitors passed a resolution to recognize DePillars, Ph.D., by naming a School of the Arts building on West Broad Street in his honor. The longtime educator, who died in 2008, oversaw a period of tremendous growth as dean of VCUarts from 1976-95, and elevated the school’s national reputation. As part of an ongoing celebration, we’re speaking to students, colleagues, and artists about his lasting legacy.

Here, Gwathmey describes DePillars’ influence and mentorship.

How did you first meet Dr. DePillars?

I got to VCU, and then I learned that I had to apply to get into the School of the Arts. Tommy Tucker [a recruiter for VCU] took me to Dr. DePillars and said “She wants to go into the School of Arts, in Interior Design.” And I was just amazed. Here was a man, a very strong figure, a Black man, and I’m speaking with him. I’m thinking, he’s going to be my mentor, my savior, my everything. And he was.

I didn’t know anything about his prominence, his artwork. I had not a clue. I just thought it was wonderful that this Black man’s here, and that he was the head of the School of the Arts. Later on, after I graduated, I started to see things or read things about him. I went back to him and I said, “How come you didn’t tell me you were an artist?” He said, “Well, you needed to find out on your own.” He never boasted or educated me or maybe even other students about him. He was just this big statuesque man in his position, who was there for us.

How was he a mentor to you?

When I learned that, even though I entered as a student, I had to apply to get into the School of the Arts, he said, “Do these things that are required for admission, and I will review it.” And I was determined not to let him down.

He actually gave me a senior student, William “Blue” Johnson, to be my immediate mentor and teach me to draw to qualify for admission. When I asked [Dr. DePillars] later, “Why did I get accepted into the School of the Arts, when I couldn’t draw?” he said, “I could see something in you, a determination, and that’s what we needed.”

He even said, “Okay, I’m going to give you a chance. Don’t let me down.” That was a lot of pressure. I was just determined not to let him down. And in turn, I wouldn’t let myself down. That just gave me the determination that I was totally focused on school.

My classes were in the Pollak Building. Interior Design was on the fourth floor and his office was on the second floor. Whenever I felt stressed, or just needed a mentor, I stopped by his office, unannounced. I was never, ever turned away. He made me feel that I was important. I was in awe that he was there—usually with his shoes kicked off and pipe in hand—that I could speak to him, that he was on the level of students, but uplifting us at the same time. That he was so open, that he would work with us, that he was approachable.

How would you describe his legacy?

I think, first and foremost, his legacy is the people he mentored. He had a love for young people—but even more so for Black students, and Black people, to help engage us, educate us, to make us proud, and to grow, to know our Black heritage. I think he felt that maybe that was his purpose in life.

His artwork, and his jazz were part of educating us that we can have enjoyments in life. And to make us more culturally involved, to spread our horizons, that there’s more than just Richmond—there’s a world of art, there’s a world of music, there’s a world of jazz.