Approximately two months after the founding of the school, Edward H. Russell was unanimously selected as the first president of the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Fredericksburg. From his appointment in May 1908 until the opening of the first session of school in September 1911, Russell concentrated his efforts on the basic necessities of the new institution, such as selection of a site, construction of a campus, and the assembling of the faculty. After much debate, a 45-acre site on Marye’s Heights was chosen as the location for the school. Overlooking the city of Fredericksburg and the Rappahannock River Valley, the high elevation proved costly to develop. However, its beauty and dignity far outweighed the cost.
To enhance the natural beauty of the campus, Russell authorized the construction of two buildings. The dormitory, later named Frances Willard Hall, was constructed in the shape of a letter H to provide sufficient lighting and floor space to each room. In addition to the individual rooms, this building housed the dining hall, infirmary, and a variety of administrative offices. The main administration building, appropriately named Russell Hall, was built in the shape of a cross and provided a variety of services to students. In addition to classrooms, laboratories and offices, the building, now known as Monroe Hall, housed the auditorium, post office, and gymnasium, complete with a pool and locker room facilities. At full capacity on opening day, the school had room for 110 students.
Due to the limited accommodations, admission to the new teacher-training school was competitive, with applicants required to be at least 15-years-old, of good moral character, and possessing a thorough knowledge of subjects taught in grammar grades of the public schools. Social standards were equally high. Students were expected to practice self-control and required to wear clothing of simplicity and modesty. Though the school was not affiliated with any single church, Russell extended his policy of discipline to religious worship. Students were expected to attend some church, preferably the choice of their parents. Aside from the church-sponsored entertainment, students had numerous activities to choose from, including sports and clubs. The Russell Literary Society was particularly popular, as well as the Student Government Association and the school yearbook, the Battlefield.
The location of the school also had an impact on the available activities. Situated midway between Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C., faculty-sponsored trips to plays, concerts, and other events were frequent. The students developed warm relationships with the faculty members, whom Russell had selected from a downtown office in Fredericksburg while the school was being constructed. Of this initial faculty of 15, 11 held college degrees and only one held a graduate degree; however, all were chosen on the basis of their experience in the Virginia public school system.
Born in Petersburg on November, 26, 1869, Russell was an experienced educator. After attending Henrico County public schools and Richmond City High School, he graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 1891. He studied law at Richmond College until he became attracted to the teaching profession, which he developed into a career for the next 30 years. Russell served first as principal for Pulaski schools, as commandant at Fishburne Military Academy, and later as superintendent of schools in Bristol. In 1905, he became a member of the State Board of Public School Examiners for Eastern Virginia. It was during this period that he founded and conducted the Summer School for Teachers at Fredericksburg. As the first president of what is now the University of Mary Washington, Russell supplemented the normal school course of study, which included intensive training in general education, methodology, and student teaching, with curriculum in classical, commercial, and industrial courses, already envisioning a larger institution. His ambitious efforts weakened him physically, however, and in 1919, ill health forced him to resign the presidency.