Fifty years ago, the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. This landmark amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 for any U.S. citizen. Did you know Davis & Elkins College has a significant role in this historic event?

West Virginia’s own U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph is known as the “Father of the 26th Amendment.” In 1942, he introduced legislation to lower the voting age. This would have provided the ballot to many soldiers serving during World War II. While his legislation initially failed, Randolph would not be deterred. The 11th time he introduced the legislation proved to be the charm. In 1971, the amendment was sent to the states for ratification and received the required support.

So, what in the world does Davis & Elkins College have to do with this piece of history? The answer is a Senator and a College freshman.

Before his election to Congress in 1932, Randolph served as a faculty member and director of athletics at D&E for six years. Beginning in 1938 he joined the D&E Board of Trustees and served as a member for the next 24 years until 1962, at which time he was elected as a Trustee Emeritus. Clearly, Senator Randolph and D&E were bound together.

In 1972, Senator Randolph received a call from the Nixon White House. The President suggested that since West Virginia’s Senator was the driving force behind the amendment, he should have the honor of registering the first 18-year-old in the country to vote. As luck would have it, Sen. Randolph was in Elkins that day. Where better to find an 18-year-old than at Davis & Elkins College.

D&E Freshman Ella Mae Thompson ‘75 happened to be working in Halliehurst on February 11, 1972.  When the call came into the College President’s Office to “find an 18-year-old” Ella Mae was nearby.  She was asked and agreed to accompany Sen. Randolph to the Randolph County Courthouse to register to vote.

Ella Mae Thompson Haddix, now a retired Randolph County teacher, joined us on campus this past May to commemorate this historic anniversary. Ella Mae told the story of the drive to the courthouse with the distinguished Senator. She smiled as she recounted sharing the news with the Democratic Senator that she was a Republican. Senator Randolph smiled back and told her the most important thing was not party affiliation, but the exercise of our constitutional rights.

There is one final poignant twist to the selection of Ella Mae. Long before the fateful day of her registration to vote, Ella Mae’s older brother, Robert, had been drafted for the Vietnam War and ultimately gave his life in service of his country. Ella Mae recounted her pride in registering to vote in memory of her beloved brother who never had such a right.

This past Friday, 50 years to the day that Ella Mae registered to vote, I was honored to travel to Charleston to participate in a ceremony with West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner honoring Senator Jennings Randolph, Ella Mae Thompson Haddix and Army Sergeant Robert Dewey Thompson for their service to our country.

The journey continues….

Chris A. Wood
Davis & Elkins College