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Birthday Wishes for Betty Daniels: Still Vassar's Cheerleader After 65 Years!

Posted: 05/11/2012 2:29 pm

Happy Birthday, Betty Daniels! As she now asks us to call her. But back in the day, it was always "Dean Daniels." Elizabeth Adams Daniels celebrated her 92nd birthday on May 8th, coincidentally "National Teachers Day," and has worked for Vassar College for 65 years, nearly half the existence of that 150-year-old institution.

She started as a lecturer in the English Department in 1947, became a full professor, chaired the English Department twice and was Dean of the Faculty. When I was a student, she was Dean of Studies. Since 1985 she has been Vassar's official historian, creating an online Vassar encyclopedia. She created her position of college historian, too. There were none before her.

The Wall Street Journal, in an April 24 item, lauded her longevity at this pioneering liberal arts school for women where she enrolled as a Vassar freshman in 1937.

She has been instrumental in preserving millions of student and faculty records that otherwise would have been lost to the ravages of Father Time; some found tucked away in drawers in basements of buildings, others on tables standing in pools of water.

Vassar, the first of the "Seven Sisters" to be chartered as a college, was founded in 1861 in Poughkeepsie, New York as the Civil War was getting underway. Founder Matthew Vassar, a beer brewer, had no children of his own. Vassar was his progeny. His stated mission was to establish an institution of higher learning for young women equivalent in quality to that of Harvard and Yale, all male at the time.

Then came another first for Vassar. The first of all the nation's women's colleges to go coeducational. As a member of the first coed freshman class in the fall of 1970, I can attest Dean Daniels was there every step of the way birthing it into being. I remember the Admissions Office prospectus sent to high school seniors considering applying. On its white cover, it said: "Vassar is not unique. Every Vassar student is."

Daniels headed a study group on whether to accept Yale's invitation to merge and move to New Haven, Connecticut or stay put in Poughkeepsie and either establish a coordinate male college there or go coeducational at its one-thousand-acre campus. Full coeducation on campus won the day. The alumnae were split, but the faculty overwhelmingly preferred it.

As she tells it, Vassar's move to New Haven would have been to property suddenly available with the Culinary Institute of America leaving for Hyde Park not far from Vassar's campus in Poughkeepsie. The New Haven location was at the edge of the city and seen as a less desirable property than the current Vassar campus, recently designated an arboretum for the variety and multitude of its trees.

The effect of coeducation at Vassar? Historian Daniels says, "It opened up a new set of possibilities in a new context, offering a new point of view with new voices related to gender. Men don't necessarily think the same way on all issues as women."

While Dean Daniels greatly impacted Vassar, Vassar greatly impacted her growing up. She told me going to Vassar was a lifesaver for her. Her mother died when she was a sophomore in a public high school in Westport, Connecticut and her father died during her sophomore year at Vassar, leaving her orphaned. Her father was a mechanical engineer. Mine had studied mechanical engineering, too. Perhaps following in her father's footsteps, she started out in the sciences as a chemistry major but later switched to English. She spent a lot of time at Vassar thinking about why her parents had died so young, she said.

Legendary English professor Helen Drusilla Lockwood '12 was one of several at Vassar who took the young Elizabeth under her wing and encouraged her to reach for the stars.

Reaching for the stars, was Vassar's first faculty hire -- the nation's first woman astronomer Maria Mitchell for whom an observatory was established on the Vassar campus. Daniels' current office is in the Maria Mitchell Observatory. My own father, a NASA rocket scientist, someone else who was always reaching for the stars, made a point of visiting it when he would visit me.

Both English majors Daniels '41 and Mary McCarthy '33 were mentored by Victorian studies professor Anna Kitchel. Betty felt a kinship with Mary, although eight years her junior, because both had lost their parents early in life. Daniels said McCarthy and her work, had a great influence on the college.

McCarthy is best known for her controversial bestseller The Group. It's a fictionalized account of eight Vassar grads' home, work and sex lives depicted in a daringly frank way when it came out in 1963. Evidence of The Group's influence, can be seen in the hit cable series Mad Men . Actress January Jones (Betty Draper) is seen reading the book in the bathtub in Season 3, Episode 10.

As Vassar students, we watched The Group in black and white when it was made into a movie, starring Murphy Brown/Boston Legal TV actress Candice Bergen. It was her film debut at age 20. Daughter of famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his Charlie McCarthy doll (I had one), Candice, also a University of Pennsylvania Homecoming Queen, had left school to follow her father into show business. A guy I had a crush on had a huge poster of Candice in his room. Who could compete? But then again, I had one of Clark Gable.

Historian Daniels' thoughts on Vassar's recent year long sesquicentennial birthday celebration:

"I'm pleased to be associated with Vassar College, the first college for women in the US, a liberal arts college and still going strong, better than ever. Now coed and equally good in that capacity. It is a very interesting college with an outstanding curriculum. Vassar has been in the forefront in students being able to put together their own majors. It has worked out fine. Vassar's always given guidance to students in doing this, and there's a lot of liberty and a lot of relating to the faculty. The students I meet and talk with on campus -- it's a pleasure for me to talk with them. I only run into a few who are dissatisfied."

Dissatisfied. Thinking back to the demonstrations and protests and sit-ins of the '60s and '70s, she concludes of that period: "It was good in a way. Everything got off people's chests. It was brave of them, the students. It wasn't pleasant necessarily. Those were difficult times. Many new issues were addressed."

She had me at brave. It was brave of the students, she told me. That's not what most adults said or thought in those days. It wasn't pleasant necessarily. Again, her words, not mine. It was good in a way -- everything got off people's chests. And that's why she's still there, unretired. And why we love her. Birthday wishes and a thank you to Betty Daniels during National Teachers Appreciation Week as you continue to cheerlead for Vassar, and we continue to cheer for you!

 
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