Alum shares memories of late historian

Last week, Vassar lost a living treasure. Elizabeth Daniels ’41 passed away at the age of 93. Alive for more than half of Vassar’s existence, Betty arrived as a student in 1937—closer to the Civil War than to the iPad. Her involvement with Vassar spanned seven decades, during which she served as an English professor, department chair, Dean of Studies, and Dean of the Faculty. In 1985, she famously retired from Vassar for a single weekend before becoming Vassar College’s first official Historian.

As Dean, she changed Vassar forever—she was instrumental in declining Yale’s invitation to merge the two colleges, offered solutions to overcoming budget struggles in the 1960s and ’70s, and oversaw the transition of the school to a coeducational institution.

But it was her last job, as Vassar’s storyteller-in-chief, that cements her legacy. Daniels authored ten books on the College. Her favorites were “From Main to Mudd and More: An Informal History of Vassar College Buildings;” “Bridges to the World: Henry Noble MacCracken and Vassar College;” and “Full Steam Ahead in Poughkeepsie: The Story of Coeducation at Vassar, 1967-1974.” Well into her eighties, she created the VCEncyclopedia, an online compendium of Vassar’s history featuring deeply researched articles on everything from the dawn of electricity at Vassar to biographies of the original Trustees (if you’ve never procrastinated by surfing vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu, I highly recommend it).

I got to know Betty as her student intern for two years, and then for a research project I did on the history of The Miscellany News. I met with her regularly in Special Collections, before the College Historian’s office got its place of honor in the renovated Old Observatory. I would come with a list of specific questions to fill gaps in my narrative. Sure, Betty could handle those “who-what-when” type questions. But that wasn’t really why I went to see her. Every query, no matter how simple, was answered with a story—from an old classmate who edited the Misc in the ’40s, to a faculty colleague who advised the paper in the ’60s, to an administrator who despised it in the ’70s. In an age of quick access to bits of data, Betty was a woman who still taught and thought anecdotally.

That mattered not just for her career as an English professor but for her second career as our Historian. Betty knew that narratives shape institutions as much as institutions shape narratives. When she started her historical digging in the 1980s—literally digging through dusty cardboard boxes of records in Main’s basement—Vassar’s narrative had become scrambled. We were historically elite but financially fragile, founded for women but desperately recruiting men, and traditionally Republican but suddenly becoming more radical. It was Betty who wove together those torn threads. Through her books and articles, she wrote the story of Vassar as a college founded on principles of access, proud of its heritage but with eyes firmly cast on what to do next.

Betty died on January 28. On January 27, the Vassar 150 World Changing Campaign held its celebration dinner in New York. That evening toasted Vassar’s amazing success in raising $431 million—funds that will create new scholarships, support a modern science curriculum, and ensure that our Vassar stays as progressive and magical as we’ve always known it to be.

There’s a chronological poetry in those hours between January 27 and 28, as past slipped into present into future. It’s easy to imagine that Betty refused to leave 12604 without the peace of mind that it was secure for the next generation.

Though Betty will be missed, her tales will hold strong. Her narratives inform the way our College talks about itself and thinks about itself. Her passing gives way to an immortality—a final merger into a place she had long ago become indistinguishable from.

 

—Brian Farkas ’10 was a student intern with Elizabeth Daniels ’41 and served on the Vassar 150 Campaign Committee. He was Editor-in-Chief for The Miscellany News’ 142nd Volume.

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