Generous Orthodoxy  




Sunday, May 24, 2015

A love letter to Sweet Briar College

This blog post will be a very personal account of my relationship to Sweet Briar, from which I graduated with the class of '59. Other former students will have different memories and will rank them differently in order of importance. Close to the top of virtually everyone's list would be lasting friendships, and that is certainly true for me also. However, since that will be emphasized by almost everyone, I am going to write about something else.

I have tried not to think about Sweet Briar during these past months. I have had work to do, and every time I read something about the college I had to fight down my emotions. During the past week, however, as I have read more and have glimpsed pictures of the campus, I have tried (unsuccessfully) to come to terms with what has happened. As I looked at the photographs, unbidden tears repeatedly came, and unwanted lumps in the throat. It is hard for me to write this little memoir without deep pain.

I doubt if there are any living alumnae who have had a longer or deeper relationship with Sweet Briar. My beloved aunt Mary Virginia Parker was in the second graduating class, and she talked with the greatest affection about Sweet Briar all of her long life. I particularly remember her devotion to, and indeed reverence for Miss Benedict, the first president. (In the tradition of the University of Virginia, no presidents or faculty members were called "Dr." in those days at Sweet Briar. It was assumed--rightly--that all faculty were  "Doctors" in the sense that they all had PhDs, so no one had to draw attention to it. In my day the president was "Mrs. Pannell," and professors were "Miss Muncy" and "Miss Barton." Why some of the men--not all--were called "Dr.," I do not know.) Because of my aunt, Miss Benedict became part of my mental furniture; therefore it was with the utmost interest that I read of her quite heroic tenure as the founding president in The Story of Sweet Briar College by Martha Lou Lemmon Stohlman (magna cum laude, '34). Mrs. Stohlman's book is an exemplary history, very well told with an acute mind behind the writing, and I highly recommend it to all alumnae and interested persons.

My mother, Alice Dabney Parker, graduated in the class of 1932, and my chief impressions from her memories were two. The first is that all English majors were required to study the ancient Anglo-Saxon language. That would have disqualified me from the outset! The second is that some of my mother's classmates were exceptionally brainy and well-read. They often visited us in later years; the level of conversation and wit among these women of the early thirties at SBC is worthy of note; they would have shone at any of the "northern" Seven-Sister colleges.

I myself was in the class of '59, and my sister, Betsy Parker McColl, who was president of "Judish" (the Judicial Board), was class of '63. (In addition, my mother-in-law, Evelyn Pretlow Rutledge, was class of '25 and very loyal to the college though she did not graduate.) My distant cousin Ross H. Dabney came to the faculty in 1973, raised his large family at Merrywood, and retired as Professor of English (his memoir, The Good Fight, has just been published by his family, and has priceless passages about Sweet Briar). I therefore have deep and wide connections to the college.

Martha Lou Stohlman, whom I came to know later in Princeton, gives a fine account of the early days of the college when it had to be built all at once in its rural location. The cluster of buildings which still forms the center of the campus is widely recognized as perhaps the very best collegiate Georgian architecture in the United States. I want to put special emphasis on these buildings in my reminiscences. They were designed by Ralph Adams Cram of Cram, Goodhue, & Ferguson of Boston, and their beauty is only enhanced by age and patina. Most of the photographs online fail to do justice to them, having been taken largely with an eye to the ravishing natural setting, but there was one photo of a student approaching Benedict (formerly known simply as "Academic") that took my breath away. Almost all of Cram's other important work for colleges and churches was Gothic, so his departure from the usual for Sweet Briar is all the more remarkable.

It is often noted that of all the arts, architecture affects the most people--more often than not without their realization. It is remarkable that Sweet Briar is only an hour away from the universally admired Lawn and Ranges at Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia. Having spent, or rather misspent, almost all my time in Charlottesville in the St. Anthony Hall fraternity house, I saw very little of The Lawn in those days, and similarly paid little attention to the elegance and dignity of the Sweet Briar buildings. In my later years I have spent much time on The Lawn, absorbing its unique atmosphere; it is of course one of the architectural wonders of the world. I now realize, all too late, that Cram's designs at Sweet Briar had a powerful and lasting effect on me without my recognizing it. Cram's buildings have a presence, a calming effect, and a meticulous attention to detail that I now understand is crucial in architecture. (I remember that there were scornful voices heard when the Dew dormitory was built in 1956, deploring its inferior design--imitative without being the least bit complementary--but I paid no attention to these discerning comments at the time.) Twenty-one of the school's 30 buildings, including the stunning Italianate villa-style Sweet Briar House, are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As I walked to and from my classes in my junior and senior years, I would repeatedly pass the often-open window of the first-floor office of Miss Barton, professor of the history of art. She never looked up from her desk; whatever work she was doing was completely absorbing to her. I found that inspiring. I still think about it. Unfortunately I did not absorb the lesson, being all-too-easily distracted myself, but I have always aspired to that level of commitment to scholarship.

In that image of Miss Barton in "the academic building" later named for Miss Benedict, the architectural and intellectual experiences of Sweet Briar meet and mingle for me. I don't know that the majority of alumnae would place the highest value on those factors -- at least two well-known, high-achieving alumnae have been disdainful of Sweet Briar -- but for me it was incalculable. I arrived at Sweet Briar as a very cocky freshman immediately assigned to advance placement in English literature. I had never received a grade lower than A- in any subject other than math in my entire experience as a student. One of the formative events of my life was receiving my first essay back from Miss Sarah Ramage. She gave me a D-.  I can still feel the shock! It was a turning point. Miss Ramage saw clearly that I was accustomed to coasting and trading on my native intelligence. God bless her...she made me into a serious scholar at one stroke.

A recent article in The New York Times Sunday Review section,   "What's the Point of a Professor?" by Mark Bauerlein, has received a lot of attention (NYT  Sunday Review, May 10, 2015). Mr. Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory. Here's a link to his piece:
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/opinion/sunday/whats-the-point-of-a-professor.html
His description of what a professor used to be is, to me, entirely reminiscent of the way it was at Sweet Briar, only more so. When you not only see your professor during office hours but all over campus, it is a unique privilege. Virtually all the faculty lived in their own houses on the Sweet Briar grounds. We babysat for them, we had tea with them, we met for honors seminars in their homes. Not only so, we saw them being friends and colleagues of one another before our very eyes, in the halls and on the walkways.  One of my cherished photographs is of four women faculty, all favorites of mine, holding cups of tea and sharing a joke. They look genuinely mirthful. One of them went on eventually to the faculty at Wellesley (Miss Barton) and another to Boston University (Miss Hosken), but each of them gave their all to Sweet Briar while they were there. I must admit that I feel resentful that Sweet Briar's closing was announced by a man. Unlike the Seven Sisters, Sweet Briar had women presidents from day one (with one anomaly, in the 70s). Smith did not have a female president until 1975!

I don't mean to idealize the Sweet Briar faculty. One of them, and one of the chief administrative officers, ended up running off with students, and there were rumors of student-faculty affairs. Yet to me, the spirit of academia at Sweet Briar is illustrated by a little story. When hearing the news of the aforesaid professor who abandoned his wife for an academically accomplished student, an outraged longtime female member of the faculty said, "She [the student] lied to me on the eve of the Phi Beta Kappa initiation!" I still think of that affectionately as an illustration of the older idea of honor along with intellectual distinction.

I was always very proud of Sweet Briar's academic excellence. Thanks to the exceptional energy and high standards of President Martha Lucas ("Miss Lucas"), we had a Phi Beta Kappa chapter before our neighboring rival Hollins did. Miss Benedict fought with all her strength to keep Sweet Briar from bending its academic standards in the early days, and I always liked to think of her influence still pervading the college. Sweet Briar was never a "finishing school." It never had a "riding major." It was never just about the May Day extravaganza. I am among those who believe that if Sweet Briar had been named "Fletcher College" (after the founder's maiden name, "Williams" having already been taken) it would have had a better chance. In fact, according to Martha Lou Stohlman, Miss Benedict was not enthusiastic about Sweet Briar as a name, preferring Fletcher. She (Miss Benedict) recounted the reaction of another college president, who scoffed, "What a name! I would as soon have a diploma from Lily-of-the-Valley College!" (Stohlman, p. 88)

The other person from the earliest days of the college whose reputation made a deep impression on me at second hand was Miss Connie Guion, later the celebrated Dr. Constance Myers Guion who was the first woman in the United States to be named a professor of clinical medicine, and the first woman to receive the Cornell Medical School award of distinction. Lured by Miss Benedict, she came from an instructorship at Vassar to teach chemistry at Sweet Briar in 1908, and stayed until 1913 when she left to enter medical school. To this day, I have on my wall a photo of Miss Guion, later "Dr. Connie," inscribed to my aunt Mary Virginia, class of 1912. As every Sweet Briar alumna knows, the college science building is named for Dr. Connie.  Who will care about these things when Sweet Briar is sold?

Martha Lou Stohlman, as I came to know her, was a woman of charm, but also of rigorous intellectual standards. She is too polite to say anything directly critical of the college in her invaluable history, but there is one little zinger. When she describes, in some detail, the design of the Sweet Briar college shield with its unassailable Latin motto Rosam quae meriut ferat (left untranslated by the knowing Mrs. Stohlman, but it means "she who merits the rose may bear it"), she can't help slipping in the comment that the Sweet Briar shield was designed in red and blue because "pink is not a proper heraldic tint" (p. 47). I myself began to feel a bit alienated from Sweet Briar when pink became the dominant color on its website; I don't remember pink from my day.

These assorted reminiscences and reflections are very personal. I don't expect others to see Sweet Briar in the same way. Other alumnae will have other contributions to make. These, however, are precious to me in ways that I could not have put into words before I knew that the college may disappear forever. I am taken by surprise to realize, at this late date, how very much I love her--Alma Mater.

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P.S. I am now convinced -- the college can be saved. I am joining the army of donors through Saving Sweet Briar, Inc., and will attend a meeting to that end in New York City at the end of June. 

Professor of English Ross Dabney's daughter Joan has written a letter worthy of her father, and of the heritage of our college. Everyone who cares about Sweet Briar (and even those who don't!) should read this:
http://www.unsolicited.guru/sweet-briar/letter-to-sweet-briar-board/

Of all the articles that are coming out, none are more important than this one. Be sure to read all the way to the end.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/04/06/for-a-family-whose-ancestors-were-slaves-at-the-sweet-briar-plantation-a-loss/


Because of all the beautiful big trees, it is impossible today to take a picture that shows the relationship of the historic buildings to one another. The best I can do is to post this old tinted postcard, showing the Ralph Adams Cram buildings (plus the gymnasium in the foreground) before 1955 when the much less architecturally distinguished additions were built. Needless to say, the bricks are beautifully mellow, not the shrieking red of the postcard!