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New WVSU dorm honors renowned judge

INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- Judge Damon Keith cried as he recalled the first time he stepped onto West Virginia State University's campus in 1939.

It was the first time he had a black teacher. He was the first of his family to go to college. And in the midst of the Great Depression, he worked his way through school and then went on to become a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, heading landmark decisions.

Keith stood on State's campus Friday afternoon and pointed to Prillerman Hall, where he once lived in dorm room 314C. He still remembers the room number.

Now, that building is being demolished to construct a new 291-bed, suite-style residence hall that will bear his name. The Judge Damon J. Keith Scholars Hall will be the first new dormitory built on State's campus in 44 years.

Keith joined WVSU President Brian Hemphill, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, the school's Board of Governors and other officials Friday afternoon for a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the new residence hall, which is slated to be open for students next fall.

Keith is the recipient of the Springarn Medal -- the NAACP's highest honor. Fellow recipients include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Colin Powell.

One of his rulings, commonly referred to as "The Keith Decision," prohibited President Richard Nixon and the federal government from engaging in warrantless wiretapping.

"West Virginia State shaped my entire future. It's like the cataracts in my eyes were taken off. I felt motivated," Keith said. "Thank you for all you've done for me and for those yet to come."

On Friday, Keith also announced that he will contribute $50,000 to the university for scholarships.

Friday's event also served as a kickoff for Hemphill's inauguration ceremony Saturday, marking his first year as State's president.

The ceremony takes place at 9 a.m. in the P. Ahmed Williams Auditorium in Ferrell Hall.

In addition to making the long-desired new residence hall a reality, Hemphill has dedicated his one-year stint as president to attracting more students to the once all-black university.

Enrollment of first-time freshman at WVSU has increased by nearly 50 percent since this time last year.

"When I became president one year ago, I knew that there were many opportunities before us," Hemphill said Friday. "Specifically, I knew we needed to create a solid foundation for our future with innovative thinking and a significant investment in recruitment and retention."

Hemphill called the new residence hall -- which will include a café and a game room -- "a home for future generations of yellow . . . a symbol of growth and prosperity for this university.

"We needed to provide a living and learning environment that would foster student learning and engagement," he said.

A biography of Judge Keith, titled "Crusader for Justice," is expected to be released this fall.

Also on Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded WVSU more than $500,000 to fund a research and development project focused on expanding online biology and agriculture courses.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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