As part of the far-reaching and long-lasting legacy of former Longwood president and noted Virginia public school architect Dr. William Henry Ruffner, the William Henry Ruffner Alumni Award is presented to Longwood alumni who have achieved outstanding success and national distinction in both their personal and professional lives and embody the ideals of a citizen leader.
It’s fitting that this year’s honor goes to a Lancer whose legacy as one of the most decorated athletes in school history has been outshined only by the lives she’s touched during her decades-long career as a teacher, coach and athletics administrator since her graduation in 1981.
Julie Dayton, a lacrosse All-American and field hockey standout and one of the most nationally accomplished student-athletes to ever come through Farmville, is this year’s winner of the Ruffner Alumni Award.
Considered the highest and most prestigious award Longwood University can present to an alumnus, the honor has been awarded to Lancers who are public servants, members of the armed services, international ambassadors for the United States, professional athletes, and more – all sharing the common bond of citizen leadership and national prominence. Dayton joins that long list of Lancer greats as a nationally renowned lacrosse player and United States Lacrosse Hall-of-Famer who for the past 20 years has guided the athletics department at the Richmond-based St. Catherine’s School as Director of Athletics.
She is the second former Lancer student-athlete to receive the honor, joining the late Jerome Kersey, who shared Longwood’s campus as a freshman with the then-senior Dayton in 1980-81.
“I read a lot about [Dr. Ruffner] because I thought, ‘My goodness, what does this really mean? What kind of legacy did he leave?’” Dayton said of receiving the Ruffner Alumni Award. “And I’m quite honored to have my name associated with anything like that.
“I know so many Longwood alums from my era, from earlier eras and from recent eras, and just reading about the other award recipients makes me really humbled about it all.”
Humble in nature, Dayton need not expound her achievements because they speak for themselves. She was a two-time lacrosse All-American, a team captain for both Longwood field hockey and lacrosse, and perhaps the most prolific two-sport athlete Farmville has ever seen.
And that’s before her athletic career really took off.
After leading Longwood’s field hockey and lacrosse programs from 1978-81, Dayton parlayed her collegiate success into a decade-long tenure with the United States Lacrosse Team from 1982-91. In those 10 years with the national team, she was selected for the 1984 Olympics Exhibition squad and played in the 1986 Lacrosse World Cup. She was enshrined into the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2016, becoming the first Longwood student-athlete to join that elite group.
Those Team USA exploits preceded a career in collegiate coaching, which saw her serve as head coach of both Virginia and Dartmouth before she joined the high school ranks by taking on the position of Director of Athletics at the private, all-girls St. Catherine’s School in Richmond. But even as her career as both an athlete and coach continued to blossom after her days as a Lancer, she still credits her formative days at Longwood with helping mold her into the citizen-leader she has become.
“Longwood was such a community—it was a big enough community that you could reinvent yourself and go a lot of different directions with different interests and passions, but a small enough community that I felt like I could find my way,” she said. “When I got there I felt embraced. When I visited Longwood, it felt like home. It felt like a place where you could do anything.”
Upon enrolling at Longwood in the fall of 1978, one thing Dayton did not need to reinvent about herself was her athletic ability. As a recruit of the then-ranked No. 6 field hockey team in the nation, she was originally unsure she was good enough to get on the field with a Longwood program that was not only a Virginia powerhouse, but a force on the national level. But those self-doubts disappeared in short order, as she was named team captain in 1979 and led the team in goals in 1980.
But even as good of a player as she was with a field hockey stick in her hands, it was a chance encounter with a lacrosse stick in Iler Gym that forever changed her life.
“My high school in Delaware only had field hockey, basketball and softball for girls, and the field hockey coach at the time at Longwood was Dee McDonough. She took about 10 or 12 of us who had never played lacrosse and put a stick in our hands, took us in Iler Gym in the winter before lacrosse and taught us the game. I thought, ‘What is this? This stick in getting in my way.’ It was a little challenging at first to pick up a new sport at 18, but it was a new challenge where I was completely out of my comfort zone. I was insecure and afraid, but speed helps, and once I got it after 3-4 weeks, I loved it.”
Longwood lacrosse was never the same. Dayton went on to score 93 goals over the next four years, and she became the first member of the program elected into the Longwood Athletics Hall of Fame, doing so as part of the inaugural class in 2005. And while her growth as an athlete may be the most visible element of her legacy at Longwood, it’s merely part of the four-year journey she enjoyed in Farmville.
“I have often said that when I got to Longwood, I was like a lightning bug let out of a jar,” she continued. “My experience growing up was small town and small community where everybody knew everybody, and when I got to Longwood it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there are people from here and there,’ and I just didn’t realize there was a whole wide world out there. Literally I don’t think I walked anywhere—I ran. When classes were over, I ran to visit friends in the dorms. When practice was over, I ran to meet friends in the dining hall. I loved it.”
That same passion that carried Dayton (quickly) around Longwood’s campus and on the field stayed with her into her days as a coach, first at Virginia from 1992-93 and then at Dartmouth from 1993-99. It even followed her throughout what she labeled a “complete right-hand turn in my career” that took her out of the collegiate coaching circuit and into high school administrative ranks at St. Catherine’s.
“I hadn’t planned for that, it was not a dream, a goal, or anything I had considered,” she said of the change. “It was like walking out on a skinny tree branch and thinking, ‘Where am I going to land?’”
But Dayton landed on her feet and fell in love with the new challenge, much like she did shortly after coach McDonough first thrust a lacrosse stick into her hands.
Similarly, success has followed Dayton in that role. She is the namesake of Julie Dayton Field, St. Catherine’s home for field hockey and lacrosse, and in 2008 she was awarded with the Virginia Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (VIAAA) Independent School Athletic Administrator of the Year. She has grown the St. Catherine’s athletic from 32 teams to 42, and during her tenure the Saints have won 87 League of Independent Schools and 46 Virginia State Championships.
“It was a big shift, but honestly that is the biggest joy of this level and this job—what a gift it is to be around teenage kids,” she said. “They keep you on your toes, they keep you current to some degree. They are funny, they struggle with certain things and you have to help them through it with the guidance they need. It’s a great situation, and then to see them in seventh and eighth grade to then develop into varsity athletes and into college. I don’t see my job as a job—I look forward to it every day.
“I get out of bed every day with a grateful heart to go to work and work with a lot of great people, especially the student-athletes and coaches.”
For Longwood’s winner of the 2020 William Henry Ruffner Alumni Award, others likely say the same about her.