On Tuesday, Jan. 28, Vassar lost a valuable member of its community. College Historian Emerita and Professor Emerita of English, Elizabeth “Betty” Daniels ’41, passed away at the age of 93.
“The Vassar family has lost a most remarkable member, and [for] many of us, a dear friend and colleague,” said President Catharine Hill in an announcement to the College.
After graduating summa cum laude at Vassar and continuing her education at the University of Michigan and New York University, Daniels returned to Vassar in 1948 to begin teaching in the English Department. Apart from being a professor, Daniels took on many other roles during her Vassar career, including Chair of the English Department, Dean of Freshmen, Dean of Studies, and Acting Dean of the Faculty.
Daniels also played a vital role in Vassar’s decision to become coeducational. She served on both the Vassar-Yale Study Committee, which focused on the option of merging the schools, and the Committee on Alternatives, which focused on the option of making Vassar co-ed. After the decision was made, Daniels was a member of the Committee on New Dimensions and created “The Comprehensive Plan,” which included Vassar’s new curriculum.
When she retired from teaching in 1985, Daniels became Vassar’s first historian. Along with her colleague, the current College Historian Colton Johnson, and students, Daniels created the online Vassar Encyclopedia. She retired from her position in 2012.
Daniels served many roles in service to Vassar, but she was first a student and for the remainder of her life a proud alumna of the Class of 1941,” said Associate Vice President of the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Communications and the Executive Director of Alumnae/i of Vassar College, Patricia Lichtenberg ’90, in an emailed statement.
Lichtenberg continued, “She was a class leader having served countless terms as president as well as many other volunteer positions. In fact, she was held in such esteem by her class that they funded a room in Special Collections [section of the library] at their sixtieth reunion named The Elizabeth Adams Daniels Seminar Room.”
“Betty was also a favored guest speaker at numerous Vassar Club events and in 2006 she received The Spirit of Vassar Award. She was chosen for the honor not only because of her contributions to her class and the Poughkeepsie Area Vassar Club, but also because of her extraordinary service to Vassar as a student, professor and college historian,” she continued.
Present historian, Dean Emeritus of the College and Professor Emeritus of English, Colton Johnson. “I had known Betty for almost fifty years. She and her husband were very good friends when she was the dean of studies in 1965,” he said.
Johnson recalled an anecdote about Daniels’ commitment to Vassar history, remembering “She became interested in Vassar history when she was the acting Dean of the Faculty and I was the Dean of Studies. We discovered—with the exception of academic records, which were stored upstairs in Main—all other records were stored in rooms in the basement of Main.”
Johnson continued, thinking back to his own experiences with Daniels. “I only noticed because sometimes the Dean of Studies’ office would get a call and someone would have to go down and get something. When I mentioned something to Betty, she just acted on it. She got in touch with an alum[ae/i] who was an archivist, obtained a grant—all well before she created the historian’s office—and began the process of microfilming in the Jewett basement, before Jewett was renovated,” he said.
He went further, speaking to how he came to be the current College Historian. “Betty also got me interested in working on Vassar history. We collaborated in 1985—when she “retired for the weekend” and came back the next Monday as Vassar’s historian. I asked her if she was willing to sit down over a period of time so I could ask her everything about Vassar. Much of that academic year was spent going to the dean’s house and recording videotapes; there ended up being over fifteen hours,” he said.
Johnson went on, “She came up with ways of learning a lot of things about Vassar that hadn’t been considered. She had an energy that was extraordinary. She recorded over 200 oral histories of Vassar. She went around and discovered members of the community in their last years—employees, faculty, alums—and recorded their history at Vassar, their recollections, with a tape recorder.”
He concluded, “What struck me was the variety of ways she secured Vassar history; I wonder what we’ll find in the future. She had a remarkable energy and determination. Betty had all the abilities of a teacher and a scholar. I don’t think anyone she interacted with—students, faculty—could think of her as anything but generous and eager to help.”
“Betty was loved by so many generations of Vassar students, alumnae/i, faculty and staff. We will miss her,” said Vice President of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development, Catherine Baer in an emailed statement.
Lichtenberg added, reflecting, “A Vassar life well lived.”
Daniels wrote on her time at Vassar in the sesquicentennial edition of the Alumnae/i Quarterly in winter 2011, the same year she celebrated her 70th reunion at the college. She wrote, “It was hard losing both parents within the space of four years, but if it had to happen, Vassar was a very good place to be. I was getting to be known on campus by then. I was a good student. And I found some alternate parents on the Vassar faculty.”
Daniels concluded her piece by saying, “That’s the real reason I can call Vassar my alma mater. It was a fostering mother to me.”
According to President Hill’s bulletin, “If you would like to communicate with Betty’s family, they have created a special email address, firstname.lastname@example.org for messages and remembrances.” The Alumnae House will be hosting a “lifetime celebration” for Daniels later in the spring.