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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Maria Dickinson McGraw: A Glimpse Backwards

Speaking in Cleveland to the Associate Alumnae of Vassar College at their annual luncheon on February 8, 1913, Maria Dickinson McGraw ’67, one of the first four students to graduate from the college offered “A Glimpse Backwards.”

In June, 1862, my High School seatmate, Hattie Warner, and I signed an agreement that in the event of our going away to school we would go together. We had heard that there was to be a Vassar College sometime. In June, 1863, we had finished the classical or college preparatory course of our school. The boys of our class passed naturally into the University of Michigan or other colleges. The girls were not even so much as denied admission, because no one had the temerity to do so much as suggest it. Inquiry was made as to the Vassar College of which we occasionally saw newspaper mention. The answer was that the buildings were not yet erected. So we settled down again, and took our school’s one-year English Course. Then we were eager for college, and confidently asked for information of Vassar. The report this time—1864—was “The buildings are not yet ready for students.”

Miss Warner decided to go to Kalamazoo College in Michigan for a year, at least. I went on reading Latin and Greek with my teacher. In June, 1865, we were startled by the receipt of circulars announcing the opening of Vassar Female College, in September of that year. The long delay had whetted, rather than dulled, our appetites; and our parents thought well of the venture, so formal applications were made, and we carefully followed all directions to would-be students. Meantime Hattie Warner had made ready for college, and rooms were reserved for three of us together.

By this time I was nearly twenty-two years old, and engaged to be married. My fiancé was my escort to Poughkeepsie. We registered at the Gregory House—now Morgan House—and I was assigned to its choicest room—just east of the parlor. No regular means of transportation to the college had yet been established, so we hired a horse and box buggy and drove out as we were directed. We caught no glimpse of the college until after passing the north boundary of the estate, and then the four buildings were in full view—dark and grim as they faced the high September sun. My companion groaned, “O the prison walls!”—a bit supersensitive—likely due to an enforced and protracted visit to Libby Prison—in the city of Richmond—three years earlier. There was no shade of tree, leaf of vine, or inch of drapery at a window. But there was no mistaking the place: for, high above the portal, in gleaming letters, on bands of white stone, we read VASSAR FEMALE COLLEGE.

Neither of us had ever seen a porter’s lodge before; and so awed were we, that we secured the horse to the fence on the opposite side of the road, and walked up to the Main building. We were quickly admitted and shown into the parlor at the left. There stood Miss Lyman in the center of the room by a small table, and grouped about her were four or five of the lady teachers. I introduced myself and presented my companion, and we in turn were presented to the teachers. Never had we seen so resplendent a person as was Miss Lyman:—tall and large of frame, though rather spare with wonderful snow-white curls framing the rarely fair and beautifully strong face. Her dress was of silvery gray silk, her shoulders were draped with an exquisite white shawl, a white cap of finest lace, with a streamer of rose pink ribbon on either side, covered the top and back of her head. I think she wore white kid gloves, but am not sure—her face and head so held my eyes.

I should explain that this state and grandeur was not in honor of students—they were not expected until next morning—but was purely a social function offered the townspeople. However, we had gone simply as sight-seers, knowing nothing of an arranged reception. There were no other guests at the time, and we saw not a soul coming or going. Only this minute as I write, after forty-eight years, has it come to me why Miss Lyman opened her eyes wide and questioned, “Your room, Miss Dickinson?” when I asked if we might see my room. She had never suspected that so mature appearing a woman with so tall an escort was a possible student! I said, “Yes, Miss Lyman, Mr. Warner wrote, asking a room for me with his daughters.” She at once turned the leaves of a register lying at hand, then said, “Miss Grant, will you show Miss Dickinson to room 23, Second South?” As we were following our guide from the room, Miss Lyman called, “You have brought your letters Miss Dickinson?” I turned and said, “Yes, Miss Lyman,—my friends feared too many of them.” With her broadest, kindest smile, and in fairly caressing tones, she answered, “I am not at all afraid of that!” And this was an augury fulfilled throughout my two years in college: life ran very smoothly with me—my only really great tribulation being declarations of adoring love from two very young students, one middle-aged teacher —a woman, and one old man—not an officer of the College. When we reached the room which was to be mine until I left college, I found pasted upon the door a small piece of writing paper with the number of the parlor, and the bedrooms designated “A Miss Dickinson and Misses Warner.” And that little scrap of paper I loosened from the door as I was leaving in 1867, and carefully preserved, until I took it to college last June, with other relics, for the Alumnae Historical Museum.

Leaving the administration building we made our way easily to the Observatory, for there were no obstructing trees. Miss Mitchell stood alone as we entered—severely plain in mien, manner and attire, grandly handsome, the direct opposite, and as unique a personage, as the Lady Principal herself. She made no objection to our looking about, until I approached the door leading to her living-rooms on the ground floor, and then she said in the brisk, decided way which some of you may remember—“Not there—Not there.”

As we approached the Porter’s Lodge in leaving the grounds, a door opened suddenly, and a woman angrily asked, “How’d you git in here?” I answered, “We walked through that gate.” With much emphasis she declared, “Well if I’d seen yer, yer never’d got into this colludge.” The next morning, September 20th, 1865, we boldly drove through that gate, all unchallenged. Knowing my room I went directly to it—the same, with the number unchanged, that Miss Richardson has for many years called hers. That bit of paper with my name on it made me feel entirely at home, and ready to show hospitality to my room-mates when they arrived later in the morning. The day was spent in unpacking and settling rooms, looking about buildings and grounds, and making acquaintance with people and things. The two meals in the largest dining room most of us had ever seen were events of importance. The gathering of all the students and the teaching force in the chapel that evening, when also we for the first time saw the Founder, was the grand climax of an exciting day—the sublimest hour that Vassar has ever seen; and there can never be such another until the final service of prayer and praise is said.

With Saturday came the thought of preparation for Sunday: I asked Miss Lyman how we were to go to church. She replied by asking if my parents had arranged for my going to town for worship. I answered that they had not, nor had they made any of the arrangements for my coming to college—I had written all letters myself. Then she asked had I conscientious scruples against going to chapel service. I told her I had not, but that chapel was not Church. So she said, “Very well, I will arrange for a teacher to go with you, and to have an omnibus sent out.” I naturally spoke of the arrangement when I rejoined my friends; and the one dear young widow in our midst was glad, for she yearned for the solace of God’s house. Great was her amazement when Miss Lyman, in reply to her inquiry, said that the young ladies were not expected to go to town for worship, except church members for their stated Communion service. When Mrs. Miller referred to me, Miss Lyman informed her that circumstances were quite different in my case—Mrs. Miller was a devout Baptist!

The next Wednesday my travelling companion on his way home from New York called to see how we were getting on, that he might render account to our families. He had stepped into the business office to ask for me: the Junior Matthew Vassar—Young Matt, we called him then—heard the inquiry, and showed his interest by going at once to call me. He knocked at our parlor, opened the door and said excitedly, “O Miss Dickinson, there’s a young man in the office wants to see you, Come quick.” So I trotted on beside him—or behind— as best I could, and met my friend. The case was unprecedented; and we had been given no rule covering it. So I led the way upstairs to the parlor, seated my guest, and hurried away to find Miss Lyman. I explained how Mr. Vassar had come to our parlor for me, and what I had done with my guest, and asked if I might receive him. She smiled and said at once, “Why yes, certainly, Miss Dickinson, entertain him. But you know, Miss Dickinson, that we cannot have every Thomas, Richard and Henry coming to see our young ladies!” I had never heard “Thomas, Richard and Henry” until then, while I had known “Every Tom, Dick and Harry” all my life—and this was Tom! However, I quickly recovered, and remembered to ask if my room-mates might also see our friend. This, too, was most graciously granted. Later, Mr. Schou, the Registrar, who was in charge of the office, felt an apology was due for the unconventional way in which my visitor was announced, and concluded it by saying, with his quaint foreign accent which made it very funny, “Why he rushed off, puffing like a little steam tug on the river.”

Another week went by and still we had no regular classes. A former schoolmate at home, learning of this, wrote to me, “So Vassar is a slow coach!” Yes, Vassar was a slow coach, and safe and sure, as she is today.

With good reason the President felt and showed the strain he was under—made greater by the too-evident impatience of a few students, and he was not far from scolding one day in chapel when he inveighed against “unreasonable demands for the Music of an Italian Conservatory, and the Greek and Latin of a German University.” The classical students thought pretty well of themselves, but had no idea they were asking anything out of the ordinary, and so were as much surprised as chastened.

However many absurd, ridiculous, and seemingly impossible situations this glimpse may reveal, I wish you to know that at this distance of time, I believe as I did then, that no one could have managed better than did Doctor Raymond and Miss Lyman—No, not even Prexydearipse!

There were more than three hundred female persons ranging between fourteen and twenty-four, or more, years of age: they were mostly strangers to each other and to the teachers. They came from East, West, North, and South, from all grades of schools, with every degree of preparation and non-preparation for the life and work of college.

The first sign that regular class-work was soon to begin was the President’s announcement in chapel one morning that the names of those deemed worthy of admission to Miss Mitchell’s department would then be read, each student to signify her wish by answering yes or no as her name was called. Several had said Yes before my name was read, but I said No, in an unnecessarily loud and emphatic manner. Miss Mitchell used to enjoy telling me in later years how I had hurt her feelings; but I consoled myself by thinking how much more she would have been hurt had I thrust myself into that select band of mighty mathematicians. But she so far forgave, as to ask me to take her Father’s breakfast to him at the Observatory, whenever conditions were unfavorable for his usual coming to the Faculty table.

Dr. Avery occupied an occasional evening with a short instructive lecture, in the chapel, on general hygiene; sometimes greatly shocking a sensitive student who had been taught the indelicacy of mentioning the parts and processes of the human body. Miss Lyman talked frequently to the students in a kindly, gentle and persuasive way on social ethics. And when she led the chapel service her reading and prayers were most impressive. She believed in the efficacy of prayer, and thought no point of duty or well-being too trifling for a petition. She prayed not only for the college family but as well for “those in the homes—the fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, and those who are dearer.”

While we were still waiting for regular class work, Miss Lyman urged the formation of a literary society. There was at first no great enthusiasm in evidence. Most of us had written “compositions” and one girl announced that she wrote poetry. I was firm in the belief that we couldn’t have a society, because that would necessitate a president, and there appeared to be no one capable of filling the office! But shortly it was discovered that one student had taught school—therefore was a possible president. We came to be very much in earnest. I bought Cushing’s Manual as a guide in organizing. Many of the older students made valuable suggestions. Professor Knapp helped us to a name; and in due course the Philalethean Society was an entity, with Dr. Raymond as its first president. He was not reelected.

Affairs were running smoothly enough before Thanksgiving Day made the first break in routine. More students remained over the recess than left the college, but there was room at the tables for the professors and their families, and most of them accepted the invitation to dinner. Each table had its fine large turkey and the usual fare of those days. In the evening President Raymond entertained delightfully with readings from Shakespeare.

At Christmas vacation there was a general scattering of teachers and students and no obvious diversions for those remaining. When it was discovered that most of those there had never seen a Christmas tree, it was decided that we must have one. But the Christmas tree was not then an article of commerce; so we turned our eyes towards the little nursery of evergreens, which was about where the Quadrangle now begins. Now Mr. Cyrus Swan, the superintendent of material things, held all as sacred; he knew every tree and shrub, every blade of grass. There was call for careful work, so it was after supper on Christmas eve that Professor Tenney, Professor Farrar, Dr. Avery and I followed the gardener with his lantern to the little nursery, and selected a suitable tree from an inconspicuous spot. This was dug up with a ball of frozen earth to protect the roots, put into a laundry tub, and carried to the college parlor early Christmas morning. There were no gifts, but the tree was well festooned, and quite brilliant with cranberries and popped corn. We stood and sat about the tree: there were recitations and charades—all very informal as we had only ourselves to entertain. Quite the most interesting feature of the celebration, was the stealthily getting the tree out of its place and back again. I do not know whether the good Mr. Swan ever accounted for that one tree’s not thriving, and finally dying the next year. But it is certain none of you may claim it as a class tree.

It was not very long before we began to think of proper celebration for Mr. Vassar’s birthday. It really was a great deal of work to make ready for the Inauguration of Founder’s Day, but everything went well until we were nearly upset by Professor Wiebe’s insisting that the original song—words and music—must be printed. The committee thought that he should make enough copies by hand to suffice. A goodly sum had been subscribed by Faculty and students, but most of us were unused to lavish, or even generous, expenditure of money for mere pleasure. However, when it became a choice between print and no song the money was voted for the printing. The story of the first Founder’s Day has been told times without number; and some of the features have been depicted by actors as you know. In settling up accounts the balance was on the right side and to be disposed of. It was suggested that we buy a flag as the college had none. The recently closed war had made us acquainted with the Stars and Stripes, accustomed us to its sight, and not at ease without it. We decided to ask for a students’ meeting to consider the matter. Some individuals of the faculty thought we should give the money for some cause in New York for which there had been soliciting at the college. Permission was given for the meeting; and after prayers on a Saturday morning President Raymond turned to me and said, “Now, Miss Dickinson, for your meeting!” I said the request was for a meeting of the students’ association. (I had lately learned the phrase and not its technical meaning.) The President looked alarmed and said rather severely, “I know of no such organization.” I explained that I simply meant a meeting of the students by themselves, without the Faculty. He looked puzzled—such a thing had never been thought of—hesitated a moment, then, with a bit of a smile, looked up and said, “The Faculty are devited.” Miss Mitchell and Professor Tenney rose at once and left the chapel. The others followed slowly, looking very doubtful. When the chapel door closed upon them, Dr. Raymond said cheerfully, “Now Miss Dickinson, you will need a chairman.” I replied, “Yes, President Raymond, we will choose one as soon as you have gone.” Our good President’s face was a study: he said nothing: gathered up his notes and “other spectacles,” and slowly walked the length of the chapel amid the densest silence, while the awed students sat with bated breath. The outcome of this entirely harmless meeting was a vote to ask if we might not use the Founder’s Day balance to buy a Flag; and I was deputed to make the formal request. Dr. Raymond was very decided, saying that the Faculty had contributed as well as the students; that the case in point was a pressing emergency, and the money was to go towards its relief. Ever after on her subsequent visits we spoke of the good lady who had presented the cause as The Pressing Emergency.

As this first year neared its close, students were asked to say whether they expected to return in the fall. Notwithstanding Miss Lyman’s flattering expression of regret when I answered negatively, I left college with no thought of returning. But my parents—my Father especially—took deep interest in Vassar and my fuller education; and I was really in love with college life, so September found me returning for another year. The elder sister of my new roommates who had scorned Vassar Female College at its opening, now felt such respect as determined her to see for herself. About a dozen other Detroit girls joined us on our return.

Some of these made a particularly bad showing in examinations: upon which Miss Lyman said to one of us, in a tone of undeserved rebuke—as we had nothing whatever to do with their going—“You see now that not all Detroit young ladies are well educated.” But at most, there was hint of a compliment for the pioneers, so we were soothed.

Several weeks later the President announced in chapel that the regular college course students had been classified, and he would then read the class lists. He said, “We have a small, but highly respectable Senior Class of—one, Miss Harriette Anna Warner.” Then there was a commotion, although no demonstration, while thirty or forty names were read as Juniors, and much larger numbers for each of the other two classes. When we were dismissed at least three students were very alert. Miss Geiger told how she had read much more Latin and Greek, French and German than had Miss Warner. Miss Woodward had done as much in Languages and more in Science than had Miss Warner. I had studied for five years in the same classes as Miss Warner, so what could be the matter with my record? Well the Faculty found that I had read no Tacitus—so I took steps to remedy that. Where the others were thought to be lacking, I never knew. But after a time the four named were classed as seniors, and were directed to sit together on the north end of the front middle seat in chapel. However, there were few recitation classes in which we were together, although Miss Warner and I were separated only by Astronomy and Tacitus.

After Founder’s Day was again celebrated, the year’s end seemed very near: Monday morning, May 6th, there came a note from Miss Lyman saying that the President wished to see Miss H.A. Warner and Miss Dickinson in his office. After the greeting, he said he had sent for us because he considered that we were really the graduating class, and the other two seniors only incidental. (Miss Geiger had come to Vassar as a student-teacher, and Miss Woodward had been there but one year, so neither had part in the general student activities.) He wished to close the year with Commencement exercises; and desired to have a Latin Salutatory and Valedictory, and we might decide for ourselves which each should take—an English essay also being required of each. I inclined to the Salutatory while Miss Warner liked it less because she felt she did not pronounce Latin readily. We consulted our teacher, guide and friend, Professor Knapp, and he approved our choice. The Valedictory, being universally held the greater honor, belonged properly, too, to Miss Warner, for she was by far the better scholar. The time for preparation was short—the date of Commencement being June 19th— so we all set to work at once—Miss Woodward on her Poem, and Miss Geiger on her French essay. Meantime we had a class meeting and instituted so many offices that they went nearly twice around. We decided our motto must be in Greek, so Professor Knapp again lent his aid, with the result that was adopted—“Let us run well the race that is set before us.” You would doubtless catch the full significance of the Greek, but I give you our English rendering, because I wish to assure you that we chose the motto with no reference whatever to the fact that Vassar Campus was formerly and originally the famous Duchess County Race-course!

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Maria Dickinson McGraw ’67, “A Glimpse Backwards,” The Vassar Miscellany, Vol. XLIII, No. 5, 1 March 1914

Transcribed, CG, 2014