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Spring 2003

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12 things we know about Lucy

Lucy Skidmore Scribner founded Skidmore College—we know that story. But of Mrs. Scribner herself, we have precious little: a nine-page typewritten memoir dictated when she was seventy-five, a Victorian crazy quilt she stitched in childhood, a little clock, a few more items. Her portraits in Scribner Library and Gannett Auditorium depict “a small, erect, stiffly corseted figure, the face dauntingly stern.”1 But a careful search of the few documents extant reveals a livelier Lucy.

1. She was wealthy. Described as “a great lady in the manner of her time,”2 she was the daughter of a well-to-do New York City coal merchant and married into the Scribner publishing dynasty. She kept servants, carriages, and motorcars, traveled, bought art, and wore jewels, silks, and laces.



2. She was religious. Hers, she said, was “the story of a woman…whose whole life was entrusted to her Heavenly Father whose direction she followed implicitly.”3 Fortunately for the college, Mrs. Scribner’s Heavenly Father was a Presbyterian who believed in “the Gospel of wealth”: personal riches were to be wisely stewarded into charitable donations and good works.

3. She suffered immeasurable losses. Her baptism, at a few weeks old, was a combined ceremony with her mother’s funeral. She lost the two babies born to her, and then her young husband, Blair Scribner, died after a brief illness. In her memoir, Mrs. Scribner recalls poignantly that her “grief and desolation were unspeakable.”3

4. She endured terrible health. In 1905, typhoid fever almost killed her, leaving her spine permanently damaged. By 1910, she went nearly blind from retinal hemorrhages. “She could never see a thing by looking at it directly,” but “by directing her gaze just to the side she could get a somewhat blurred image.”4

5. Her favorite color was yellow. She loved sunlight. She called her house at 791 North Broadway “Sunshine Cottage,” wall-papered it in yellow, and always kept the window shades up.

6. She was shrewd and tough. In dealing with builders, plumbers, and electricians, “she read and understood every phrase of the specifications [and] spotted every little mistake in addition. Those who thought she was easy and kind and not very discerning she swooped down [upon] with a speed and crushing force that was devastating.”4 Fiercely nurturing of Skidmore, she bearded bankers in their dens and actively enlisted patrons.

7. She was tiny (at least in old age). Helen Crane Hill ’20 once remarked: “To see her go along on [President Keyes’s] arm, why, he looked like he almost had a doll.”5

8. She always said she was no genius. In her own words, she was “never considered clever, in fact, sometimes dull.”3 If she was lacking in high intelligence, she developed character instead (see nos. 2, 6, and 9).

9. She was gutsy. While deathly ill in 1905, she reportedly told her doctors she had important work to do and bade them good afternoon.6 She learned to bicycle at age forty. In her fifties and partially blind, she traveled through Europe and met her hero Theodore Roosevelt in Aswan, Egypt.

10. She was a late bloomer. She was fifty years old when she started the Young Women’s Industrial Club. She mastered touch-typing at sixty. (She lived to age seventy-eight.)

11. She didn’t start with a grand strategy. When asked, after the Young Women’s Industrial Club became Skidmore College, whether she had had this vision for the club at the outset, she responded stoutly, “Certainly not,” adding that she sought merely “to better present conditions.” She was fortunate, she said, that her staff included “women of broader ideas.”3

12. She had sharp tactical skills. “She looked this way and that, learned as much as she could about the problem in hand, and [when] convinced that the way was clear…she never looked back,” observed personal secretary Charlotte Kimball, adding, “There is nothing that leaves one freer to make good decisions later. One doesn’t even have to try to be consistent.”4

One final note: Formal portraits be damned, the august founder of Skidmore College “had the greatest little giggle that was very contagious.”7BAM


1 Patricia-Ann Lee, in Make No Small Plans: The History of Skidmore College, by Mary C. Lynn, 2000.
2 Professor Grace Cockroft, interview, 1958.
3 Lucy Skidmore Scribner, typescript memoir, 1928.
4 Assistant Dean Charlotte Kimball, interview, 1941.
5 Helen Crane Hill ’20, interview, 1986.
6 G. Hinman Barrett, Lucy Skidmore Scribner: A Memoir, 1971.
7 Personal companion Mary Larsen, interview, 1982.

 


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