To his family, Ted DeLaney Jr. was proof that a strong work ethic paired with an embrace for education paved the way to a bright future.
To the academic world, he was living a historical document.
DeLaney, a renowned figure at Washington and Lee University, died Friday, according to the school. He was 77.
His son, Damien DeLaney, said he had battled a long illness, but declined to provide more specifics out of respect for his father’s privacy.
Damien DeLaney, now an attorney in Los Angeles, said his father was a highly influential figure to him growing up.
“He was a constant presence in my life,” Damien DeLaney, 43, said Saturday. “We had the kind of relationship where we did a lot of things together.”
Damien DeLaney spent much of his childhood in Lexington, where Washington and Lee is located, and recalled practically growing up on the campus. Damien DeLaney said he never formally took a class from his father, but the passion for learning and knowledge was definitely imparted.
“Oftentimes, I would tag along with him on campus on the various things he was doing,” Damien DeLaney said. “As I got older, his influence as an educator on me as a student was significant.”
Born in Lexington during the fall of 1943, DeLaney had a remarkable and even somewhat unusual journey that included an almost life-long association with Washington and Lee.
DeLaney graduated from Lylburn Downing School, which was at the time an all-Black institution, according to biographical facts shared by the university.
He could have attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, but declined the United Negro College Fund scholarship that would have allowed him to attend the institution. His mother had concerns over his possible involvement in the civil rights movement there, according to the biographical information.
DeLaney instead went to work as a gardener and waiter and at one point spent a short time as a postulant in a Catholic monastery of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in upstate New York.
He eventually joined the institution that he would decades later retire from — he took a job as a janitor at Washington and Lee in 1963. He was quickly promoted to laboratory technician and would years later in 1979 enroll in his first class at the university.
DeLaney, at the non-traditional age of 42, graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1985. His academic record also included 15 undergraduate credits from the Virginia Military Institute. He would eventually go to the other side of the state, where earned his doctorate in history from the College of William & Mary in 1995.
This years-long academic ascension left a strong impression on DeLaney’s son, who ironically did his undergraduate studies at William & Mary but earned his law degree in 2003 from Washington and Lee.
While he ended up in a clearly different field than his father, Damien DeLaney said watching his father growing up — including the time he spent in what his son called “more physical jobs” — instilled in him the importance of education and hard work.
“I think part of what he wanted to impart to me was education is a path … to have economic stability and to be able to provide for your family, in addition to pure knowledge,” Damien DeLaney said. “I think a lot of that [pushed] my interest in the law, and I think my dad encouraged me to pursue whatever intellectual pursuits inspired me.”
After graduating from Washington and Lee, DeLaney taught American history for three years at the Asheville School in North Carolina before embarking on his graduate studies. He spent a few years at both Washington and Lee and the State University of New York at Geneseo before returning to the former in 1995 to become a full-time faculty member.
Among other roles, DeLaney was a former chairman of the Africana Studies Program at Washington and Lee.
Molly Michelmore, head of the history department at Washington and Lee, said she was always impressed with his strong interest in exploring other aspects of history, even if it necessarily wasn’t what he was originally trained in.
DeLaney was trained in colonial history but, in addition to that, also taught courses on the Civil Rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance and gay rights, among other topics, Michelmore said.
DeLaney also provided added authenticity to his lessons, particularly the ones on the Civil Rights movement due to growing up during the Jim Crow era, Michelmore said.
One of his renowned courses was based on the historic Freedom Rides, when activists in the 1960s took bus trips throughout the South to protest segregated terminals.
For that course, DeLaney would rent a van and take his students through parts of the South to visit significant sites of the Freedom Rides. Michelmore said that was intended to let students put themselves in the shoes of the activists.
“He was kind of a living historical document in some ways,” she said.