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Honoring Our Own

June 5, 2022

As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, Kirkland is still present at today’s Hamilton graduations. Many graduates carry on a tradition of presenting green apples to Hamilton’s president or wearing apple pins (you can find those stories at these links: Graduation Kirkland Style and Gone – But Not Forgotten). 2022 was no exception, but truly exceptional: two of our own took part in the ceremonies.

Elaine wearing an historic Kirkland gown.

At Hamilton College’s 210th Commencement on May 22, 2022, author Elaine Weiss (K’73) received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree. Appropriately, Elaine received this honor from fellow alumna Susan Skerritt (K’77), who is also a lifetime Hamilton trustee.

We thought it would be worthwhile to include here the written text of what Lori Richard Reidel (K’77), President of the Kirkland College Alumnae Association, recently shared with us via email. You can also watch the video, starting at about the one hour mark:

Here are Sue’s remarks before conferring this honor.

Having recently celebrated the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s passage, it is most fitting to honor your accomplishments as an author and journalist, because your highly regarded book, The Woman’s Hour, illuminates the little-known, final battle in the suffragists’ fight to win the right to vote.

With deep research, historic perspective, and terrific storytelling, you bring to life leaders on both sides of the struggle that unfolded in Nashville, TN. The Woman’s Hour, praised in The New York Times and in many other reviews, and has been called a “riveting, nail-biting political thriller” with “powerful parallels to today’s political environment.” Accolades include the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, the group’s highest honor for media and arts that furthers public understanding of the law and justice system.

You said in an interview, “My hope is that the story I tell in The Woman’s Hour, the defining battle in Nashville and the saga of the suffrage movement, will reassure a new generation that protest is patriotic, and will inspire American women — and men — to honor the legacy of these warriors for democracy by registering and voting in the next elections.” You can be sure you have motivated readers to value what the suffragists strove so long and hard to achieve.

The book was just the latest achievement in an award-winning career that stretches for decades. Your first book, Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army of America in the Great War, explored another little-known piece of history — the women “farmerettes” who were dispatched to rural America to take the place of men who went to fight during World War I.

You’ve written for The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Times, and other publications and media outlets, receiving a Pushcart Prize “Editor’s Choice” award. We would like to think the spirit of Kirkland College runs through your work and through your passion for democracy. With great admiration and respect, we present you with this honorary degree.

At a celebratory dinner the previous evening, Elaine gave this speech to Hamilton’s president, senior officers, faculty members, trustees, and the other honorees. 

Thank you President Wippman, trustees and faculty, for this honor: allowing me to join the long and distinguished list of Hamilton Honorary Degree recipients, and enter into the small sorority of Kirkland educated-women who’ve been accorded this degree:

My friend Christie Bell Vilsack—an educator and public servant in so many notable roles,
The brilliant social commentator and cartoonist Roz Chast,
And the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Melinda Wagner—who entered as a K student, but holds a Hamilton degree.

Tomorrow I will march in the Commencement procession wearing a green Kirkland academic robe, which belonged to Kirkland’s first Academic Dean, Dr. Inez Nelbach. It is a very rare and special garment: there are only two in existence—Sam Babbitt owns the other one– and both are over half a century old. They have a charming history:

In truth, there is no such thing as a Kirkland gown: the graduating classes chose not to wear gowns and mortarboards, we wore our own clothes to the ceremonies—a rainbow of color and styles. The faculty wore, as Prof. Thomas Colby phrased it, the “academic racing silks” of their own PhD institutions.

But founding Kirkland Trustee Grant Keehn—also a member of the Hamilton board–thought that for the new college’s inauguration of President Babbitt and Dean Nelbach, the academic officers should have proper Kirkland Green robes. Such robes did not exist—so he  had them made.

I will be wearing Dean Nelbach’s—which has been kept safe all these years by a Kirkland alumna. The gown is a bit long on me—Dean Nelbach was a more imposing figure than I am—but it will be fine. I’ll try not to trip.

And when I am hooded with a blue Hamilton honorary degree hood tomorrow morning—the blue adorning and supplementing the green–it will be the visual manifestation of how the two colleges worked together to educate their students—women and men– who were privileged to draw from the very different strengths of both institutions for a decade. It will be symbolic of my—and all Kirkland women’s–dual education on this Hill.

When I accept the Honorary Degree tomorrow, I will be representing all my Kirkland sisters; we are a small and finite band of spunky women.

We are the women who came to this Hill as brave pioneers, as agents of change. As visionaries and builders, as intrepid explorers of new paths. We changed this Hill forever. And the legacy of Kirkland can be felt in an invigorated Hamilton today.

In just a few weeks, the first Kirkland women to climb this Hill—the Charter Class—will be returning here to celebrate their 50th reunion.The first woman to ever deliver a 50th year Annalist Letter for her class –Betty Haggerty Marmon ’72—will speak from the pulpit in the chapel. Many of us: Kirkland  alumnae and faculty and administrators—will be returning with the Charter Class for a grand All-Kirkland reunion weekend. I’ll be there. 

So will Samuel Fisher Babbitt, Kirkland’s first—and only—president, returning to greet the Kirkland women—now (ahem) Senior Citizens—whose lives Kirkland touched so profoundly on this Hill. I don’t think he’ll be wearing his green robe, but it will be  historic. And bittersweet. 

My education of this Hill—the green and the blue—the Kirkland and Hamilton—prepared me, in mind and in spirit—to write the books of history for which I am being honored with the Honorary Degree.

It’s no coincidence that these books are about women pioneers—iconoclasts, change makers: they were Kirkland-type women, just ahead of our time. 

They are women whose names—and accomplishments—were, for the most part, unheralded. Women who faced societal and political resistance, and personal attack, as they used their wits and strategic genius to overcome obstacles to women achieving autonomy, agency, and equality. Doing what had never been done before.

Their roles in making history had been ignored for so long—though the historical record revealed a much richer story of their participation. And I wanted to tell that story.

My most recent book, The Woman’s Hour, is about extraordinary women organizing to win the vote, centered on the drama of securing the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

It was one of the pivotal political battles in American history, and women were at the center, the driving force, of it. There are many timely lessons to be learned from the suffragists’ tactics, and their persistence–and even from the opposition they faced. The arguments against equality they heard then are still being voiced today.

I dedicated the book to Natalie Babbitt—my mentor and close friend for four decades, who, as I say in the dedication, taught me how to be a writer.  She and Sam supported and encouraged me long after we’d all left the Hill. Natalie died just a week before I turned in the manuscript for The Woman’s Hour—portions of which had been written sitting on the Babbitt couch in New Haven.

The spirit of Kirkland –the ethos of exuberant exploration–has animated my life—and my career: giving me the nerve to try something new and scary—a new career—leaving journalism to write books–after my 50th birthday. Venturing into a new field—narrative history—without an academic historian’s credentials. And parachuting into new topics with each new book.

It is all, well, very Kirkland.

When I wrote The Woman’s Hour I thought I was just writing a book of history–a great story in itself: about how half of the citizens of the nation rose up to demand they have a voice in their own government. Even if it was not written into the Constitution: the Founders had no intention of allowing women to participate in our government “by and for the people”.

Then change the Constitution, the suffragists said. And they forced that change.

But I could not know that we’d now be in a time when the themes of the book are actually in our headlines today: voting rights again under attack; essential women’s rights in jeopardy; our democratic system itself under siege.

And books of history are being banned by state legislators and local school boards, because they reveal uncomfortable truths. I’ve been alerted that The Woman’s Hour—especially the Young Readers edition used in schools and libraries—might well be banned from use in several states.

States where recent laws forbid teachers discussing, or using books, that deal with controversial aspects of our history. Laws requiring librarians to submit the titles on their shelves to a state-appointed commission for approval.

It’s true: The Woman’s Hour deals extensively with the racism and misogyny at the heart of the battle over women’s suffrage: I’m very proud to have caused such therapeutic discomfort. I know my Kirkland and Hamilton professors would be pleased.

Tomorrow I’ll march with the Hamilton Class of ’22. I’m sure they’ve been equipped with the intellectual tools and critical skills to face the challenges of the challenging and frightening world they’ll be entering.

But I hope they will also carry with them some of the Spirit of Kirkland that still abides on this Hill: giving them the audacity to make bold moves, take big chances, and tell the hidden stories that need to be told.

We’re so thrilled to have our alumnae recognized in this meaningful way, particularly in a year in which the Charter Class is celebrating its milestone anniversary.

Hooray for the Hard Hats!

May 28, 2022

For many of us, Kirkland was the right place at the right time in our lives. Our unique college education gave us the tools to become leaders, creators, builders, and makers. But the Charter Class, of course, paved the way for the rest of Kirkland’s alumnae—they literally watched the campus come into being. That’s why each of these intrepid pioneers was presented with a personalized green hard hat on which Natalie Babbitt had written her first initial and last name. (I confess I get choked up whenever I hear bagpipes or see a green hard hat like the one in a display case in McEwen’s lobby.)

The display case in McEwen Hall.

To welcome all Kirkland classes back to campus in Hamilton’s bicentennial year, everyone was gifted with a plastic version of the hardhat – so those of us who had lost theirs along the way could envy our sisters with originals! The alumni parade that year featured a sea of green.

On the occasion of their 50th reunion, let’s celebrate and thank the Charter Class.

Here is Donna Kerner’s recollection of her hard hat:

My hard hat hung in my home office next to my laminated Kirkland Diploma “First Lot Inspected and Passed” for many years while I was in graduate school, during two years of fieldwork in Africa, and later during my period as an itinerant adjunct faculty member at a number of different institutions in the greater New York area. When I relocated to New England (first New Hampshire to teach at U of New Hampshire and then Boston (Tufts) I was on a full time, but contingent contract. My hard hat and diploma remained in storage (along with most of my belongings) until I landed the tenure track job at Wheaton College (MA). While I moved my belongings from New York to my new home in Providence, Rhode Island (a short commute from work), my hard hat and diplomas did not emerge from storage and find pride of place in my office until I received tenure six years later. Similarly I did not purchase my academic gown or PhD hood until that time. I think I didn’t want to jinx my chances of finding a permanent academic home. When I finally unpacked them they adorned my office for the next 27 years. 

Donna’s chair, with hat!

However, the Kirkland chair lived a very different life. Awarded to me by the Hamilton Alumni Council for service following the end of my time as the first woman VP, it was in great demand by friends during my days as an academic itinerant, serving as a side and desk chair in a number of different homes. Now that I have retired it is reunited with its beloved hard hat in my sunny dining room, though it sometimes enjoys a stint on my porch in the good weather.

Charter Class Reunions: Keeping the Faith

January 29, 2022

The decades go by, and memories get hard to retrieve. Was there a 5th-year reunion in 1977, I wondered, or only the one I could vaguely recall: our 10th, in 1982? My first child had been born the year before, and I had photographic evidence of him playing in the dorms. I wanted to know more: what really took place then? How did the Charter Class deal with the dissolution of our unique alma mater?

This is when cross-class alumnae connections, and our access to the Hamilton College Archives proved their value to me. The current archivist, Jeremy Katz, quickly responded to questions, saying “… it looks like Reunion Weekend changed from fall to summer in 1981.” While a fifth-year cycle is somewhat established, it’s clear that the College gives special attention to the 10th, 25th, and 50th year anniversaries. So there was no gathering five years after Kirkland’s first class graduated.

The first Charter Class reunion was not only its 10th – it was a gathering for all classes, organized by a dedicated cohort whose names have become ever more familiar to those of use who pitched in later on. A video of the 1982 Reunion Dinner, was captured and ultimately digitized in the archives. It runs a full hour and a half, but for the impatient among us, here are some highlights:

00:05:37 Dean Inez Nelbach takes the mike

00:21.35 Elaine Weiss ’72 reads a letter from Sam Babbitt, who calls us “….gifted, fortunate deviants, with a role to play….”

00:40:58 Jane Whitney ’71 introduces and interviews facilities manager Joe (“Man on the Hall”) Mason.

00:45:30: Nancy Gay Bargar introduces a tribute to Comfort Richardson, who then gets up to speak.

There’s a ton more: Ann Baker Pepe ’77 reported on a data from a survey of Charter Class members; Constance Stellas ’72 elaborates on the “qualitative” insights; Jane Whitney returns to prompt and provoke stories from other alumnae (including this author, but you’ll have to hunt for that).

Was it a unique moment? The beginning of a tradition – or the extension of a long-hallowed one? This portrait probably only includes the ’71 and ’72 graduates, reflecting Hamilton’s tradition of class year affiliation. But over time the feeling that Kirkland alumnae are all one cohort has grown. I look forward to 2022 as another moment to reinforce that.

Kirkland College 1982 Charter Class Reunion

It must be noted that some of those in the video, and listed above, have since passed away. But please also note those who are, once again, are working to coordinate a landmark Kirkland Reunion (looking at you, Prof. Kerner!). And we can all remember what committees could be like at a school that encouraged independent thought. Fortitude recommended!

Rare, Remarkable, and Refreshing: All-Kirkland Reunions

January 25, 2022

Most colleges encourage graduates to return to campus for class reunions. And most follow a traditional reunion formula—alumni from an individual class will gather every five years to celebrate and reminisce. For example, one might expect in 2022 for colleges to host reunions of graduates from the classes of 1967, 1972, 1977, and so on in five-year increments.

Not Kirkland. As a closed college with displaced alumnae, our situation is unique. We do have a place to gather, but our campus isn’t ours any longer. We do possess the spirit and the desire to sustain relationships, but many of us don’t care to travel back to Clinton for a host of valid reasons. It’s too far, too painful, too alienating, too disruptive to our current lives. Somehow, though, we have managed to re-invent our own reunions and, in the process, help re-invent Hamilton’s as well.

The Charter Class’s 10th Reunion in 1982 was the first occasion in which more than just a couple of Kirkland’s classes were represented. For that event (see Jennie’s post, Keep the Faith), alumnae from all graduating classes were invited. Then, in the winter of 2006, the innovative reunion wheels began to turn again. In May, a kick-off committee meeting was held in person in New York City. By the following month, this small yet determined alumnae committee began to hold monthly calls via Hamilton’s conference call service. No Zoom yet! One fledgling committee turned into several sub-committees, each tasked with planning events and programming independently and then reporting back to the entire group as plans progressed. Another All-Kirkland Reunion was born.

Our second whole college reunion took place May 31 to June 3, 2007. It was as unique as any college reunion can be. First, the reunion encompassed ALL classes from Kirkland, 1971 – 1981. That’s only possible for a small college with a short life, but it totally made sense to do it that way. One benefit, from my perspective, is that alumnae from different classes have been able to meet one another and spark friendships that otherwise wouldn’t have likely happened.

In addition, the reunion planners decided that the all-Kirkland reunion could be much, much more than simply a parade, fancy dinners, class photos, and beer tents. Although there’s nothing wrong with a traditional reunion at all, the 2007 AKR aimed to shine a light on some of the talented women and creative pursuits that embodied Kirkland.

The 2007 AKR featured Inspirations, an alumnae art show in the Emerson Gallery; Kirkland Voices, an alumnae poetry and fiction reading in the Red Pit; Kirkland Echoes, a presentation of short plays written by Kirkland alumnae; and the film Indomitable Spirits. Other events included talks by Doug Raybeck and Sam Babbitt, the unveiling of the Kirkland display case in McEwen,  a guided meditation, a dance with Steak Nite, and a map of Kirkland landmarks. Wowza. Reunions on the Hill have never been the same since. The tradition of all-alumni gatherings took root, paving the way for similar celebrations in 2015 and the upcoming reunion in 2022.

We’ll be sharing more photos and memories of past Kirkland reunions in the months before the 2022 Charter Class 50th Reunion and the fourth All-Kirkland Reunion.

Click this one to enlarge
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