Seniors at Eastern Virginia Medical School were allowed to submit up to three photographs in a sealed envelope to appear alongside a formal school picture on their personal pages in the 1984 yearbook, according to a former student who said he helped design most of those pages.
Designers would open the envelope and draw spots numbered one through three on a page to show where each photo should go, said Dr. William Elwood, who served on the Harbour’s staff the year a photo of a man in blackface standing beside a man in Ku Klux Klan garb appeared on Gov. Ralph Northam’s page.
A corresponding number was written on the back of each photo and then they were returned to the envelope before being sent along with the pages to the printer, said Elwood, who did not know whether Northam submitted the racist photo, or who was in it.
“To the best of my remembrance — and anything is possible — but it’s not probable that that was another student’s picture. We didn’t take the kind of security you do in the military with some things, but we did our best to make sure they were photos that people submitted,” said Elwood, who acknowledged his political views have little in common with Northam’s.
“In my experience, the most likely thing is he submitted that picture. ... Is it possible somebody could’ve switched the pictures after the fact? Yes. Is it probable? No.”
Northam, facing mounting calls to resign since the photo was posted online Friday by the conservative website Big League Politics, initially apologized for appearing in the picture. He backtracked Saturday, acknowledging he submitted the other photos on his page but saying he felt confident he had not posed for the picture. He said he’d seen the photo for the first time Friday and suggested that there could have been a mix-up with another student’s photos.
“I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe. The photo appears with others I submitted on a page with my name on it,” said Northam, who twice ran successful campaigns for statewide office without the photo becoming public.
“I have also had a classmate who I discussed this with this morning. We talked about this situation. And I said, ‘Is there a possibility, you think, that someone could have put a photo on the wrong page?’ She said it happened on numerous pages in this very yearbook.”
Elwood said he never heard of anyone having a photo misplaced. The 30-year Navy veteran, who has retired from practicing medicine, said he hasn’t spoken to any former classmates since the scandal erupted Friday afternoon.
He was older than Northam when they were enrolled at EVMS and doesn’t remember him as a student.
He did recall laying out most of the students’ personal pages, but said he can’t be certain he handled the Northam page. The design doesn’t remind him of his work, he said. He said he was one of three or four students who helped lay out the pages in their spare time.
Attempts Saturday and Sunday to reach Pam Kopelove, identified in the 1984 yearbook as its editor, were unsuccessful. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment Sunday evening.
Elwood said he remembers the photo from perusing the yearbook after it was printed to see how his page designs turned out. At the time, 35 years ago, it didn’t stand out, he said. If he had seen it before that, Elwood said, he wouldn’t have censored it.
“I didn’t have the editorial authority to say, ‘Oh, this is a potentially racist picture or could be viewed as stuff and I’m not going to put it on the layout,’” Elwood said. “That’s what the person wanted; that’s what they got.”
He said he wasn’t sure anyone exercised such authority, except on certain ground rules such as a ban on nudity. “All of the political correctness that we have today did not exist then.”
On Saturday, as it became clear that Northam’s page wasn’t the only one that included an objectionable photograph, EVMS President Richard V. Homan apologized and promised an external investigation of all the school’s prior yearbooks.
On the page opposite Northam’s in the yearbook, there’s a photo of three men wearing blackface and a reference to one of the men being dressed as Diana Ross. In another picture, a student gropes an unclothed mannequin: The caption reads, “I try never to divulge my true feelings while examining my patients.”
No one on the yearbook staff attempted to verify the identity of people in submitted photos, Elwood said, and students didn’t review the pages after submitting their photos.
He thinks political correctness has gone too far in many aspects, but said the governor owes the public a straightforward explanation.
“I think he should come clean and be honest about it,” said Elwood.