Somewhere in my boxes of personal memorabilia, I have a copy of a letter Walter S. Griggs Jr. wrote to my newspaper bosses. He praised me for my dependability and my professional approach and, best I can recall, my ability to persevere to get the job done in all kinds of weather. I can’t recall if he specifically mentioned that I never threw his newspaper on his roof.
I must have been 12 years old, and I was a paper boy. I delivered The Richmond News Leader, and Griggs and his wife, Frances, were neighbors and customers along my route. Now that I look back, it was my first letter of recommendation, and I remember thinking what a cool thing it was for a grown-up to do something that nice for a kid. I never forgot it.
Not long after the letter, both families moved from the old neighborhood, and we mostly lost touch. By the time I reconnected with Griggs a couple of decades later, he was well on his way to becoming a beloved professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business and I was still working for The News Leader, though by that point as a reporter. I discovered then that the sort of kindness Griggs had shown toward a kid with ink-stained hands years earlier was not out of character in the least. Turns out, he really was a nice guy to a lot of people.
And Griggs, who died June 30 at age 78, was plenty interesting.
I wound up writing a few columns about him over the years, mostly on his writing endeavors outside his day job at VCU as he flexed his curiosity, his hometown pride and his bottomless reservoir of droll humor to author books on subjects as disparate as the Civil War, the 1925 collapse of the Church Hill Tunnel and moose. Always moose.
Except that time he took a scroll saw to wood and artfully created almost three dozen fish — many depicting, in a good-natured way, Griggs’s colleagues or students — so he could string them from the ceiling of VCU’s undergraduate studies office and lighten the atmosphere.
“What I tried to do, frankly, is to make this office homey and not threatening for students,” Griggs explained to me then. At the time, he was associate dean for undergraduate studies in VCU’s School of Business. “I think I went overboard.”
When he retired from VCU in 2016 after a career in teaching, he told me, “I always saw [teaching] as touching the future, and whatever I could do to help somebody I was willing to do it. I always tried to put a lot of humor in it. I never took myself overly seriously. I avoided any hint of arrogance. I loathe arrogance.”
Occasionally rumpled and always original, Griggs routinely wore a bucket hat, sometimes paired with a blue blazer, and kept more than 200 stuffed moose in his office, many of them gifts from students and colleagues who were fascinated by his fascination. Walter Griggs was a lot of things, but arrogant was not one of them.
At this point, I should say that Griggs and I were related. One of his great-grandfather’s sisters was my great-grandmother, which made him my third cousin. Or something like that. The familial connection always seemed rather abstract to me as I never knew my grandparents on that side of the family, much less my great-grandparents.
I didn’t think of Griggs so much as a distant relative as a most genial (and genuine) character. And apparently a lot of people felt the same way.
The VCU School of Business, where Griggs taught for 45 years, served as department chairman and associate dean and was named “Best Teacher” several times, announced Griggs’s death on its Facebook page. The outpouring from former students and colleagues was immediate and heartfelt, using terms such as” incredible” and “phenomenal,” “amazing” and “unforgettable”:
“The MOST memorable of my all professors at VCU!!! Magnificent educator.”
“Integrity, intelligence, kindness, and a great sense of humor to get through it all.”
“A great professor and an even better human being.”
“He was a prince of a guy because he knew how to give people encouragement, he knew how to get the most out of them in terms of their potential,” said Robert J. Grey Jr., president of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity and former president of the American Bar Association who added: “Walter Griggs started Robert Grey in his career as a lawyer.”
Grey was an undergraduate student at VCU’s business school when he first became acquainted with Griggs. A few years later, when Grey returned to Richmond as a young lawyer and wanted to open a solo practice, it was Griggs as a department chairman who hired Grey to teach night classes in business law.
“In the day I was practicing law, and in the evenings I was teaching law,” Grey said. “That’s how I supported myself. If I hadn’t had VCU, I couldn’t have started practicing.”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Grey said Griggs was extremely well-read, “an amazing guy whose depth and breadth were very understated because he was such a self-effacing guy. He was very humble. He exercised a degree of humility that showed strength, not weakness, that showed character, not selfishness.”
When I asked Glenn Smith, a records management analyst at the Library of Virginia who was a student of Griggs’ in the early 1980s, what he remembered most about his former professor, he told me this:
“It didn’t matter what you wanted to talk about, he knew something,” Smith said with a laugh. “Whether it was business law, humanities, ethics. He could speak on just about anything.”
Smith’s class with Griggs was not business-related, but an elective course Griggs taught on death and dying.
“He was absolutely one of the most personable, quirky intellectuals I have ever known,” Smith said, “and that’s a pretty rare combination.”
He recalled one class in which Griggs was sharing some bit of information that sounded “a little off,” and a student asked Griggs where he was getting that information. Griggs reached for a paper on the desk in front of him and held up a copy of the National Enquirer to a collective groan in the classroom. Smith can’t recall the subject being discussed at that moment, but the point Griggs made has stuck with Smith for 38 years: “Know your source.”
Griggs was born in Richmond, and rarely ventured far afield, except in search of moose. He earned an undergraduate, master’s and law degrees from the University of Richmond. He also earned a doctorate in education from the College of William and Mary. He began his career at the Virginia State Law Library and also worked as a lobbyist for Life Insurers Conference before taking a teaching job at John Tyler Community College. He later moved to VCU’s School of Business where he taught law, history and religion courses.
Besides frequent letters to the editor in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and occasional op-eds, his published writing included seven books on Richmond history and three about moose.
“You aren’t the only one to wonder about Dad and moose,” his daughter, Cara, wrote in an email in response to a query I sent. “We don’t know how it all got started.”
Griggs himself might not have been certain. His daughter directed me to a book her father co-authored called “Moose-cellania,” in which Griggs wrote, “I frequently ask myself, ‘What is it about moose that I find so fascinating?’ And, this question is answered whenever I see a moose in its natural habitat. By looking at a moose, I feel the strength of a regal animal, whose curious configuration exudes the power of a creature that seems to be at peace with itself and with its world.”
Griggs’s family will receive friends 6-8 p.m. Saturday at the Parham Chapel of Woody Funeral Home. A service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at Cannon Memorial Chapel at the University of Richmond.