Skip to contentSkip to site navigation

Kinnaird Remarks - In Memoriam: Evalyn A. Clark, 1903-2001

October 1, 2001

Welcome to this Memorial Service in honor of Evalyn Clark, one of the truly great teachers in the history of Vassar College. As we all know, Evalyn was a legend in her own lifetime. I was privileged to know Evalyn in three relationships: as a student in the late 1940s, as a departmental colleague in the '50s and early '60s, and now, for slightly over fifty years, as a personal friend. So I was honored to be asked to chair the program this afternoon.

The mind sometimes reacts in unexpected ways to news of real import. When I heard the word that Evalyn Clark had died, I was startled to have the title of a book flash into my head, a book that I had read in 1940 and had never revisited. The book was Elie Wiesel's A Beggar in Jerusalem, and though it came out of nowhere, I knew what the thought association was immediately. It had nothing to do with the narrative of the book, nothing at all. And it had nothing to do with any of the characters. Rather the association was with Wiesel's discussion of loss and memory. We often say of people who were important in our lives that they touched our lives. Sometimes we say they live on in our memory, and on rare occasions we might even say they seem to have become part of us. But Wiesel says something quite different, more austere, and I think more compelling. For him, memory is not a consolation, it is a charge. He says we will the continued presence of those who are important to us among us by agreeing to accept their legacy and actively to honor it in our own lives. This afternoon, as we listen to tributes to Evalyn Clark and to reminiscences of her life and work, some serious and some lighthearted, perhaps we will be able to discern her special charge to us.

Evalyn lived a life rooted in loyalties. Prime among them, or a prime one, was the Vassar History Department, and so it seems fitting to begin our program with reflections by Anthony Wohl, Professor of History on the Eloise Ellery Chair, on Evalyn as historian and colleague.

[Presentation by Anthony Wohl]

Evalyn Clark had the extraordinary capacity of being able to identify virtually every student she ever taught by the student's class year. And on the rare occasions when that extraordinary power of recall faltered, she could not rest until she had got out that directory, found the student, and was able to fix her, and later him, in their precise moment in time. I always found that preoccupation with class standing, class year, a little perplexing, not the preoccupation but the intensity of that preoccupation until it was pointed out to me that really there was nothing puzzling there at all. The class was the basic unit of the Alumnae Association. And from her graduation in 1924 on, Evalyn had been a faithful and enthusiastic proponent of the Alumnae Association. One thing that I have come to recognize of late about Evalyn is that she always put herself in a continuum. That is reflected in her conception of the College and of her mission within it. She did not see Vassar College as it was when she was a student or even as it was when she was a teacher: current faculty, then current students, administration, and staff. Rather she placed herself in a continuum and like Edmund Burke, saw the College as the association of generations of all those who in any capacity had ever in the past, currently were, or in the future would be associated with its great cause of enlightenment and defense of reason. That I think was the importance for Evalyn Clark of that class year.

When the three of us who are Alumnae met to discuss the program, we were looking for ways to simplify the text, and we decided we could eliminate academic titles, but we all knew that we could never omit the class year. Our next two speakers are alumnae who went on to became professional historians in their own right. Elizabeth Lewishon Eisenstein is Professor Emerita of History from the University of Michigan, and she is Class of '45-44. And Sherrill Brown Wells is Professorial Lecturer in the History Department at George Washington University, Class of 1962. They will speak to us on Evalyn as teacher and as mentor.

[Presentations by Elizabeth Eisenstein and Sherrill Wells]

Retirement - mandatory, in her lifetime, at age sixty-five - was for Evalyn Clark an unwelcome and wrenching experience. She never allowed it, however, to affect her relations with her successors. Hsi-Huey Liang, Rhoda Rappaport, and David Schalk inherited Evelyn's courses with her blessing. Once again we find her placing herself in a continuum - this time the continuum of a department with traditions to impart, new directions to anticipate, and young colleagues to encourage. We close our program this afternoon with reflections by David Schalk, Professor of History on the William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair, on what it was like to succeed a great teaching legend.

[Presentation by David Schalk]

Finally, on behalf of all of us here, I would like to express our gratitude to Margaret Wright, Evalyn's cherished friend. They met when Margaret came to Vassar in 1946 and forged a friendship that lasted for fifty-five years. That friendship especially gladdened the last decade of Evalyn's life because of their travel, experiences, interests, and companionship. And it was the gift of Margaret's devoted care to Evalyn that made it possible for Evalyn to continue to live right up the very last days of her life in her beloved home on College Avenue. From all of us who cared deeply about Evalyn, our everlasting thanks.

And now on behalf of Jane Plakias I would like to invite you for a reception at Alumnae House. Thank you.