Skidmore History

Make No Small Plans

Mary Lynn
Mary C. Lynn

A five-year project originally conceived of as a "picture book with a short essay" has come to fruition in a much more comprehensive form as the first scholarly history of Skidmore College.

Written by professor of American Studies Mary C. Lynn, Make No Small Plans—at 489 pages and more than 200 photos—is an in-depth look at the growth and development of Skidmore.

Lynn has traced the chronology of the Young Women's Industrial Club and the Skidmore School of Arts, the early years of Skidmore College, the Depression and war years at the College, pivotal changes during the 1960s and 1970s, and such themes as academics and campus life. The effort was a collaborative one. Professor of History Patricia Ann Lee wrote a chapter on college founder Lucy Skidmore Scribner, there are forewords by President Emeritus David Porter and former Dean of the Faculty Phyllis Roth, and an afterword by [former] President Jamienne S. Studley. Scope editor Sue Rosenberg edited the volume.

When college officials asked Lynn to tackle the Skidmore history she reports, "At first I said no, because this is often a job given to the oldest living faculty member, and I didn't think I was old enough!" She agreed to reconsider and after beginning to work, she says that she realized it needed to be a full-scale research project instead of a collection of photographs accompanied by a brief essay.

A historian by training, Lynn says one of her biggest hurdles was learning at the outset of the project that the College archives were temporarily inaccessible due to the Scribner Library renovation, which had just started. She nevertheless discovered a silver lining in that cloud. "It turned out to be a blessing," she explained. "Because I was forced to search the campus for records, and in North Hall I found two boxes of material. They were marked 'Skidmore College Historical and Cultural' and contained letters written by students, staff, and administrators, about all aspects of College life, from the 1910s through the 1960s."

After reviewing the material, Lynn thought, "This is pretty exciting." One folder labeled "The War Years" contained "wonderful, quite touching" documents. She learned that a small labor crisis developed during the 1940's "when all the housekeepers and waitresses quit working at the College to take jobs in the defense industry. So the students were enlisted to perform community service activities in dormitories and dining halls." One letter told of a housekeeper who found a pistol under a student's bed. "It turned out to be the student's fiance's dearest possession and she was keeping it for him for when he returned from the war," Lynn related.

“Here we were, in the late 1990s, 25 years into Margaret's retirement, talking to her about Skidmore. ... At the time we spoke to her, Margaret was an elderly woman who was nearly blind, and—as it turned out—near the end of her life. Yet she was so joyful. We were exhilarated.”

Lynn had help from student researchers Karen Northrop '96, Kelli Butler '97, and Krista Senator '99. She and the students spent time at the Saratoga Springs Public Library, the basement storeroom of the Presbyterian church, the College archives (after the library reopened) and dusty closets on campus. One of Lynn's favorite tasks was interviewing people about their Skidmore recollections. There were about 60 interviews all together, and some were especially memorable. Says Lynn: "Krista and I went together to talk to Margaret Paulding (professor emerita of physical education and former chair of the department). She came to Skidmore in the late 1930s and here we were, in the late 1990s, 25 years into Margaret's retirement, talking to her about Skidmore. She still loved Skidmore, and felt that it had given her much to enhance her life. At the time we spoke to her, Margaret was an elderly woman who was nearly blind, and—as it turned out—near the end of her life. Yet she was so joyful. We were exhilarated after talking to her."

Others whose memories had special significance were former first ladies Ruth Wilson, Anne Palamountain, and Helen Porter. Notes Lynn, "I got a whole new vision of what life at Skidmore was like for them."

Lynn says she treasures many memories from Skidmore's history, but some—like the tale of Skidmore's only football game—truly shine. The event took place in 1946 when Skidmore temporarily opened its doors to male students, many of whom were veterans. The College had two campuses—in Glens Falls and in Saratoga Springs—where men enrolled as day students. Says Lynn: "They wanted a 'real' college education, which included a strong athletic experience. So they organized a football team and challenged the Vassar men to a game. The president of Vassar declined on behalf of the Vassar men. Finally, the Skidmore football team organized a game with the Brown School—a prep school for older men, housed in what is now the Surrey Williamson Inn.

"Approximately 1,500 people attended the game, which took place on the old campus athletic field and ended in a scoreless tie. The story was in the newsreels of the day and according the "Skidmore News," was reported in more that 300 newspapers."

Other anecdotes resonate because they echo ongoing campus themes. Lynn recalled a spring 1971 incident in which a group of white and African-American students seized the office of then-President Joe Palamountain and demanded the establishment of an Afro-American studies department and the enrollment of more minority students. She explains, "The college was in terrible financial condition at the time and not very responsive to the students' demands. In fact, the college obtained a court injunction to end the occupation of the president's office. But these students were both determined and committed to make Skidmore more ethnically diverse, so about six months later some of then spent their January Winter Term working to recruit students of color. And while it was not a wholly successful initiative, it did give the students an idea of the difficulties involved in trying to effect a major change."

One student who spent January 1972 working to make Skidmore a better place was current Trustee Linda Jackson-Chalmer '73, who, according to the book, "noted that her activism 'shows how much we liked the College,' as she and others worked to help Skidmore become more diverse, rather than giving up and transferring to another college."

Now that her task is finished, Lynn is reluctant to indicate which part of the job was her favorite. "Both the research and the writing were a lot of fun," she acknowledged. "The research was wonderful in terms of finding out stuff. I've always loved whodunits, and there was a lot of that. But the writing was a way to impose some order on a whole lot of chaotic information. I've weighed evidence and data and hope that I've made convincing arguments."

In addition to her writing and research collaborators, Lynn says she is especially grateful for "two people who made the project possible": Rosenberg, her editor, "who made my prose so much better"; and Michele Dunkerley '80, whose 20th-reunion gift to the College subsidized the book's publication. Lynn called Dunkerley "a terrific woman who was a bright and lively student. Her contribution means we can offer this book to a broader audience, including current students."

Make No Small Plans is on sale at the Skidmore Shop (ext. 5490) or online.

(Reprinted from the December 18-31, 2000, issue of Skidmore Intercom.)

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