Darden celebrates first professor on his 100th birthday

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Doctor John Douglas Forbes—that’s “J.D. Forbes,” to the readers of his mystery novels—will celebrate a belated 100th birthday on Friday, as part of a reunion weekend for classes of the Darden School of Business. Forbes arrived at the University of Virginia in 1954 as a professor of business history and, with Professor Forrest Hyde and Dean Charles Abbott, created the curriculum for Darden’s 1955 inaugural class. He taught his final class at Darden in 1980. 

Doctor John Douglas Forbes, who designed the first curriculum for UVA’s Darden School of Business, told his students that their imaginations were their most valuable tools in business. “Your imaginations have atrophied,” he told classes. “What I’m going to do is stir them up.”

“I came in with my head bowed,” says Forbes. “Shaking my head.” He told his students it was his last day of teaching—his profession for 40 years at that point, although he would teach plenty more.

“I’ll tell you why I’m so depressed,” Forbes told his students. “My colleagues, many of them, have been in their offices in the late afternoon, and have heard a gentle tap at the door, and have said, ‘Come in.’ And a young woman has come in, one of their students, who has said, ‘Professor, I love your course, it’s an inspiration to me. But the fact is, I’m not passing.’” For a passing grade, these students said they were prepared to do anything —anything—a professor might suggest.

“And why am I sad?” Forbes asked his students. “Because this has never happened to me.”

During lunch with a reporter last week, both Forbes and his nurse, Patrice Farley, recounted more than a dozen stories from Forbes’ tenure at Darden. Ninety minutes into their tales, it seemed there were few things under the Rotunda that had not happened to Forbes.

Forbes was born in San Francisco on April 9, 1910. In the 40-plus years prior to his time at UVA, he curated paintings for the 1940 World’s Fair, chaired the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Kansas City, Missouri and taught history at Bennington College. While at Darden, Forbes began each year by asking students to answer a 75-question test that covered everything from brands of women’s perfume to works of literature to names of French couturieres; while at lunch, he asked me to tell him who “Rikki Tikki Tavi” was. (I answered correctly. “Good boy.”)

Given his interest in architecture and fine arts, Forbes felt he had no business in a business school. Instead, he was going to teach “civilizedness”—for example, table manners for a dinner meeting with a potential employer. “It never occurred to me,” says Forbes now, “to discuss business.”

While at UVA, Forbes published two biographies of figures connected to business giant J.P. Morgan, as well as a few pieces of fiction. In a 1966 article titled “Professors: Where They Have Gone,” a TIME reporter catches up with Forbes in California, where he “is flying kites and writing detective stories while on a visit to his married daughter.” When he left UVA (“mandatory retirement at 70”), Forbes continued to lecture on art history as part of UVA’s Continuing Education program.

At 100, Forbes remains admirably busy. He does exercises to straighten his spine, takes piano lessons each Wednesday, and had a hand in planning his own party as part of the Darden reunion—a tea dance featuring a favorite band, Sentimental Journey.

But, back to his last day. In fact, Forbes didn’t leave Darden in 1980 on a sad note.

As his final class ended, Forbes moved towards the door, then heard a woman in the back row speak up. “Mr. Forbes? You know, I love this course, but I’m not doing very well, and it occurred to me…”

“And she didn’t get any further than ‘it occurred to me,’” finishes Forbes. “And I ended in a blaze of glory.” 

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