In Memoriam: Phyllis A. Roth

In Memoriam: Phyllis A. Roth

3/25/2012

Phyllis A. Roth, longtime professor of English and former dean of the faculty who served as both acting and interim president of Skidmore College, died March 25, 2012, in Saratoga Hospital, of complications from pancreatic cancer.

Born Jan. 6, 1945, in New York City, Phyllis earned an A.B. degree cum laude in English at Clark University, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She earned master's and Ph.D. degrees in English at the University of Connecticut. Her doctoral dissertation, titled "Lunatics, Lovers, and a Poet: The Doppelganger in the Novels of Nabokov," helped to establish her reputation as an authority on the author. She also was a scholar of Bram Stoker, publishing in 1977 the article "Suddenly Sexual Women in Bram Stoker's Dracula." It remains a part of the Stoker critical canon.

Phyllis began her career on the faculty of Northeastern University's Department of English, then joined the Skidmore community as an assistant professor of English in 1976. Over the next 10 years she combined teaching and research with involvement on an assortment of College committees devoted to administrative and curricular concerns. By 1985 she had achieved the rank of professor and was named chair of the department, a title she held for five years.

In 1990, following a national search, Phyllis was named dean of the faculty and chief academic officer at Skidmore, joining the cabinet of President David Porter. An anecdote from Make No Small Plans, the history of the College, illustrates her sharp wit. Professor Mary C. Lynn, author of the book, writes, "The number of administrators named David in these years led Roth, when introduced as the new dean in the faculty meeting, to quip: 'Phyllis, as you know, is Welsh for David'."

As dean of the faculty, Phyllis was "a force of nature, someone to be reckoned with, but who respected, listened to, and responded to the concerns of those surrounding her," said Susan Bender in 2010, when Phyllis retired. A professor emerita of anthropology, Bender served as associate dean while Phyllis was dean. Phyllis worked to raise the academic tone of Skidmore and understood the importance of communicating the value of the liberal arts. Committed to strengthening the interdisciplinary nature of Skidmore's curriculum, she collaborated with key trustees to develop the Lubin Chair for Women in the Sciences and the Zankel Chair in Management for Liberal Arts Students.

Phyllis was deeply involved in the development of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, helping to define its mission and identity. She had a role in the selection of Antoine Predock as the museum's architect and worked closely with him on decisions about the site and shape of the building to ensure its location at the geographical center of the College's academic and co-curricular lives.

David Porter, Tisch Family Distinguished Professor and president emeritus, summarized Phyllis's accomplishments upon her retirement in 2010. "Skidmore College was blessed to have Phyllis Roth for 10 years as its dean of faculty, and I to have her as colleague, collaborator, and yes, occasional conspirator." Her success was the result of a "host of contrasting talents and capacities," noted Porter, including her "strategic vision for the future and attention to myriad daily minutiae; toughness balanced by compassion, candor by confidentiality; people skills paired with financial acumen; swift action when possible with calm patience when necessary…"

He added, "Without Phyllis Roth's leadership and love, the Skidmore we all know today simply would not exist."

After stepping down from the Dean's Office, Phyllis returned to the classroom, where students again were her top priority. She relished Skidmore's collaborative research programs, which she firmly believed represented a distinctively Skidmore experience. She incorporated the special collections of Lucy Scribner Library in her course work, tasking students with assignments to develop exhibitions using rare books and ephemera. Most notable among these efforts were library exhibitions that showcased a gift from alumnus Christopher Giancarlo '81, who donated a collection of vampire books and materials in her name. Phyllis delighted in the vampire collection, which was the focus of exhibitions held in 2001 and 2005.

The special collections were the key to exhibitions on Jane Austen held at Skidmore and Union College following seminars on Austen that Phyllis taught. She and Annette LeClair of Union worked together as part of the Mellon faculty exchange program and presented a talk about the seminars and exhibitions to the Jane Austen Society of North America in 2008.

One of the last courses Phyllis taught at Skidmore allowed her to channel her inner scientist. In 2008 and 2009, she teamed with Biology Professor Bernard Possidente to develop and teach a Scribner Seminar titled "Human Origins: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry," in which students were invited to participate in the National Geographic Genographic Project, to take sessions in the College's biology and anthropology labs, and to visit the American Museum of Natural History.

English Department Chair Mason Stokes said, "For Phyllis, the classroom was always the space of new possibility, of discovery.  It would have been possible for her to coast in her post-Dean years, but she did, of course, the opposite.  She dedicated herself to new approaches, new courses, new questions, continually inventing a future both for herself, and for her students. The individual legacies of such dedication and intellectual curiosity are too many to map, too many to catalog.  They are the product of a life's commitment to the College, and its students. They will go on and on."

Phyllis received a number of awards and honors, including a Mellon Faculty Development Grant for study at the School of Criticism and Theory at the University of California at Irvine; a Mellon Grant for Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov, and an ASE grant from Skidmore for work in Bath, England, on Jane Austen. She was named an honorary alumna of Skidmore in 1999 and received a President's Award in 2002. She was designated a Woman of Distinction by the Girl Scouts, Adirondack Council, in 2005. She served as a member of the board of trustees of the Emma Willard School and was a co-director of Saratoga Reads.

Upon her retirement in 2010, her Skidmore friends and colleagues established the Phyllis A. Roth Retiree Initiative Fund "in grateful recognition of her extraordinary contributions to Skidmore" to promote continuing vital relations between the college and all its retirees.

Vice President for Academic Affairs Susan Kress, herself a professor of English, knew Phyllis as colleague and friend. Susan said, "I have known Phyllis since she came to Skidmore.  She loved the place and made it her home and lavished upon it all the gifts of her intelligence, energy, and imagination.  She was an outstanding leader and a powerfully generous friend. No one has done more for Skidmore, no one has made more of a difference — and no one embodies more fully the spirit of a can-do, will-do Skidmore. Her legacy survives her, but she will be sorely, deeply missed."

Phyllis is survived by her daughter, Ruth Holmes, of Los Angeles.
Tags: Memoriam, English, Phyllis A. Roth
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