June 7, 1940
In conjunction with Commencement, some 2,500 alumnae and over 1,000 guests helped Vassar celebrate President MacCracken’s 25th year as president and the college’s 75th Anniversary.
On Sunday, June 2, Dr. William Lyon Phelps, emeritus professor of English at Yale, delivered the baccalaureate address, and on June 7 alumnae, graduates and their guests celebrated Class Day for the Class of 1940. A member of the college’s first graduating class, Harriet Warner Bishop ’67, welcomed ’40 into the company of Vassar alumnae, and alumnae trustee Jean Ellis Poletti ’25 praised and thanked President MacCracken. “We are grateful,” she said, “that the president has a deep and sympathetic feeling for larger problems of humanity while retaining interest in the specific welfare of each student. We, the Associate Alumnae, hail our president who is both a rare scholar and rare gentleman and wish him well for his future years at Vassar.” Alice Campbell Klein ’17 reported that the 75th anniversary fund stood at $1,933,429.37, just short of its $2 million goal. Exclusive of contributions to the anniversary fund, gifts to the college for the year totaled $106,000.
In the afternoon, the alumnae, led by a brass band, marched from the Library to the Outdoor Theater for Class Day exercises. Mrs. Bishop ’67 received a thunderous cheer as she entered on President MacCracken’s arm. A play, “Twenty-five—Fifty—Seventy-Five,” compared and contrasted recollections of Vassar life twenty-five and fifty years ago with the present. At the play’s conclusion, the daisy chain, walking on each side of the seniors, escorted them to their class tree.
On June 8, a symposium, led by Professor of English Helen D. Lockwood ’12, addressed the question of the day,” What Should a Woman’s College Do Today?” Progressive education innovator Dr. Marjorie Page Schauffler '19, spoke on “A College Graduate and Her Family”; engineer, physicist and inventor Dr. Edith Clarke '08 discussed “College Women in Professions: the Experience of an Engineer” and community leader Ethel Cohen Phillips '30 spoke on “College Women as Members of the Community.” Following the addresses, participants were invited by Professor Lockwood to disperse into symposia addressing nine relevant topics: “Community or Conglomerations of People,” “the Nature of Peace,” “the Ideal Community for Public Health,” “Economic Responsibilities for Women,” “Women in Professions,” “Volunteer Work in Social Welfare and Politics,” “Bringing Up Children in a Thinking Family and Community,” “Religion in a Thinking Family and Community” and “the Arts and the People.” The symposia were led by alumnae prominent in the relevant fields.
In the afternoon Marjorie Hope Nicolson, dean of the faculty at Smith College and national president of Phi Beta Kappa gave the Phi Beta Kappa address in the Chapel. She drew sharp distinctions between education in the liberal arts and what she termed “craft” education. Admitting that the former sometimes taught the useless and the impractical, she claimed that in the end a liberal arts education taught freedom. “Freedom,” she said, “is something internal, something within the individual. No matter how much men may be deprived of ‘outward freedom’ by superior force, no man or woman can be deprived of inward freedom—save by himself. If the liberal arts college is to continue to exist it can only be upon this basis.”
Also in the afternoon students welcomed visitors to 29 exhibits of “The College at Work Today,” explaining and demonstrating their academic work. Nine teas in Main Building refreshed the gathering, garden tours and a tour of “a community plant at work” were given and, in what The New York Times referred to as “a chatty tour,” President MacCracken led a large group of visitors through the campus, explaining various features and traditions.
The Experimental Theatre presented several performances of Vassar’s Folly: a Chronicle, a history of the college rendered in its “living newspaper” style. Originally written by the 1937-38 play-writing class as a study of the college’s founding, the anniversary version was in two parts. The first part, "In His Lifetime," presented Matthew Vassar's life and his founding of the College. Part two, "Permit Us to Resume,"written by Mary St. John Villard '34, focused on the growth of the college, its influence and the influence of its graduates. The play's closing song engaged the audience in a call to action:
The problems ahead are so great.
We must work together
Men and women together--
Freedom for women a small part in a great pattern--
Freedom, never won and always in danger....
Addresses by two presidents, a trustee, an alumna, a faculty member and a student were given at the Anniversary Convocation and the following garden party on June 9. President MacCracken, the main speaker, spoke of Vassar’s past and of its accomplishments, saying that, at this point in its history “Vassar learning makes the world its goal.” The effective cessation of free inquiry in many of the world’s institutions of learning made, he continued, the engagement of Vassar with and in the world all that more important. “Finally,” he concluded, “we must dedicate ourselves to peace, since war means the end of true liberal learning.” Other speakers at the occasion were the chairman of Vassar’s board of trustees, New York lawyer Morris Hadley, prominent alumna Martha Hillard MacLeigh ’78, Professor of Classics Elizabeth Hazelton Haight ’94 and Barbara Austin ’40, who read the speech of the Students Association president Priscilla Lamb ’40.
President Roosevelt, an honorary trustee of the college since his resignation from the board in 1932, had intended to deliver an address but he was, as he put it in a letter to President MacCracken, forced to withdraw by “circumstances beyond my control…. The ominous days in which we live afford the reason for an action which causes me keen personal disappointment.” At his garden party—at which the President’s mother, Mrs. James Roosevelt—was the guest of honor, President MacCracken read Roosevelt’s remarks “It is of the highest significance,” he wrote, “that this celebration takes place at this time. In fact, this hemisphere is now almost the only part of the earth in which time and thought and effort can be devoted to that paramount pursuit of peace, education. Elsewhere, war or politics has compelled teachers and scholars to leave their great calling and to become agents of destruction.”
Praising the college’s historic demonstration “that women have capacities for all types of intellectual life which were once thought to be the exclusive provinces of men,” the President said, “During my ten-year term as a Trustee of Vassar, I came to value certain definite contributions to education made by the college. The social equality that prevails in all plans for student life, and its system of student self-government, are in themselves fundamental courses in democracy. The free play of ideas between scholar and teacher, an institutional tradition, is the achievement in academic practice of the principles of democracy. The nation-wide scope of student enrollment at Vassar is a potent corrective for the few ills of sectionalism that remain to us.”
“I am glad,” President Roosevelt concluded, “to send greetings to Vassar and to express on this seventy-fifth anniversary the feeling of gratitude which the American people have for the services which the college so ably renders. I hope that this first seventy-five years is but the prelude to a long life in the service of education in America.”
The 75th anniversary of the college continued and expanded a practice established at the 50th anniversary celebration in 1915, the publication of various volumes of scholarship. 16 books and four pamphlets appeared, bearing the inscription “Published in Celebration of the Seventy-fifth Anniversary of Vassar College and in Honor of Henry Noble MacCracken in the Twenty-fifth Year of His Presidency.” Among the books was Hawaiian Mythology, a comprehensive study of Polynesian mythology and folklore by Research Professor Emeritus of Folklore Martha Beckwith, The Roman Use of Anecdotes, by Professor of Latin Elizabeth Hazelton Haight ’94, American Housing, by Catherine K. Bauer ’26, from the United States Housing Administration, Pecuniary Panaceas, by Associate Professor of Economics Margaret Myers and The Astronomy of Scotus Erigena, by Associate Professor of English Erika von Erhardt-Siebold and Rudulf von Erhardt. Pamphlets published included You Are a Taxpayer, by Professor of Economics Mabel Newcomer and Dutchess County Goes to Market, a product of Vassar’s Social Museum for use in grammar schools.
Student Scholarship was represented by a special anniversary number, Volume XIII of The Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies, comprised of six of the best papers prepared for classes in the last year, 12 papers reprinted from earlier volumes of the journal and a cumulative index of authors and titles for all volumes. Two other volumes occasioned by the anniversary were Vassar Women, by Agnes Rogers ’16 and Life at Vassar: 75 Years in Pictures, by Marion Bacon ’22. Rogers’s book, with drawings by Anne Cleveland ‘37 and Jean Anderson ‘33, drew on college records and extensive use of questionnaires to present a wide range of statistical and attitudinal conclusions about the generations of Vassar alumnae, and Bacon’s book supplemented the analysis with 140 carefully chosen photographs. Other works commemorative of the anniversary included a color reproduction of a painting in the Brooklyn Museum by Professor of Art C. K. Chatterton and two musical compositions by Martha Alter ’25 “Bill George,” a march song for baritone and orchestra and “Bric-a-Brac Suite,” for harpsichord and piano.
Rain fell on the Chapel on June 10, as President MacCracken conferred the bachelor’s degree on 270 members of the Class of 1940. Nine master’s degree candidates also received their degrees. He offered the class a “footnote” to his usual remarks. “Be glad,” he said, “that your education has not been so exact, so definite, so complete that only what is statistically certain may be anticipated. The liberal arts are a training for emergencies. They give you values, not certainties. They teach resourcefulness, not routine. The readiness is all.”
In her commencement address, Dean C. Mildred Thompson ’03 also addressed the uses of education, broadly defined. "Education," she said, "whether it be of the form of a four-year Liberal Arts course, or whether it be the training, unsystematic but no less real, which experience forces upon us, has value only in the use which comes from it, not in it as a possession, as an ornament." The dean then spoke of war and peace. She blamed her generation for letting peace become “a lifeless, sterile thing,” rather than making it an active concept and a continual goal. Admitting that “hatred of war and devotion to peace” were commonly held sentiments and that “desire for peace is the common denominator among college students,” she declared, “If peace means to us nothing more than ‘keeping out of war,’ then we may expect of life nothing more than a succession of Munich appeasements, a series of mustard plasters to reduce surface inflammation with no real diagnosis of the disease, or attempt to reach the source of the infection…. Peace, sought just for itself, just to avoid war, may lose the chance of making a fairer and more decent world and may in the end prove to be the surest path to war….
“I am not warmongering, but I am trying to say that the job of eliminating war from among the human plagues is going to take a lot more hard work and profound thinking than the easy way of signing petitions and shouting with the mob… I can believe,” Dean Thompson concluded, “that the real peace for ourselves and for others, which we all passionately desire, can be attained only by the most honest thinking, not intellectual sham, and by response to decent emotions of righteous anger against brutal aggression and pity for the oppressed and the suffering…. These are the qualities…of human civilization itself. In furthering the cause of peace in the world, with mercy and justice, in lessening the poverty and in finding a solution for unemployment, here are the jobs to be done, man-sized jobs right here in our own country.”
Academic dress at Commencement was worn by the graduating class for the first time, and after Dean Thompson’s address, at a signal from President MacCracken, the class rose and in a single gesture, shifted the tassels of their caps from right to left and then ascended the platform to receive their diplomas. The New York Times, The Miscellany News