Wells Remarks - In Memoriam: Evalyn A. Clark, 1903-2001
October 1, 2001
I am truly honored to be sharing with you today some treasured memories of Evalyn Clark.
When I arrived at Vassar in 1958, Miss Clark was one of the brightest stars in Vassar’s galaxy, a shining lodestar in the History Department that was brimming with outstanding professors, such as Mildred Campbell, James Bruce Ross, Clyde Griffen, Carl Degler, Don Olsen, Joan Kennedy Kinnaird, and Johanna Menzel Meskill.
I feel very fortunate to have been one of her students for she became an integral and very important part of my life, and I always admired her unusual abilities and talents.
She had a spirit and a magnetism that drew me to her demanding courses even though I doubted my ability to meet the requirements.
She had a rare ability to motivate me and my classmates to spend endless hours reading—or at least try—the pages and pages of primary sources on the weekly assignments. I never dared to go to class unprepared because I feared she might see, with those sparkling, penetrating eyes, that my hand was not one of those waving, madly signaling I had the answer to her provocative question.
Her fierce intelligence and incisive, analytical mind could unearth the essence and significance of any source or event or relate an intriguing tale of an historical figure that would be indelibly inscribed in our minds.
Above all, her masterful teaching opened a window on the human spirit and gave me a glimpse of mankind at its best and worst in the last three centuries of Europe’s history. She made the past come alive and transported me to Paris in 1789 where I felt I was a member of the petty bourgeoisie penning my grievances against the king, or a Berliner in the late 1930s, captivated by Hitler speaking charismatically over the radio.
I am grateful that she was honored by her professional colleagues as an outstanding teacher, which she truly was, and given the Asher Award for Distinguished Teaching by the American Historical Association.
And I am proud that she recognized a need felt by many women historians and was an early supporter of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, later becoming its President.
But Evalyn did more than make me love history or show me how to use it as a tool for increased international understanding or to make history policy relevant. She did more than demonstrate it wasn't enough to just recapture the past, but that we should add to it what we have learned. She was much more than a brilliant historian, a disciplined, focused, conscientious, human being who cared deeply about the art of teaching in the schools and at Vassar.
She was more than a role model and mentor for those of us who entered the teaching profession.
She was, above all, a strong pillar in my life, a loyal and unfailing supporter of any career path I chose. When I changed direction, she was always encouraging, never critical or judgmental, even when I had to jump-start my career after a period of all-consuming family responsibilities. She was always interested, sometimes even wryly amused, when I delved into 17th century US diplomatic history as a State Department historian, preparing historical studies to educate diplomats for an upcoming state visit of the King of Morocco or the Dutch queen.
Most importantly, she became a close friend. She helped me to go through a metamorphosis and shed the protective cocoon of the "professor on a pedestal" relationship, a transformation I found very hard because of my deep respect for her. Even Carl Degler humorously chided me only nine years ago and exclaimed, "Sherry, I cannot believe you are still calling her Miss Clark!" She was a kind, loving, sensitive person who cared deeply about her students and her close friends. She followed events in our lives with interest and compassion - and an incredible memory. I was touched that she attended my wedding, showed a keen interest in my husband and his career, and followed the antics of my children with some amusement.
I will not only miss her deep friendship. I will also miss her advice that always proved her farsighted - and annoyingly right.
Sometimes her advice was even unsolicited! I wish to share the most recent example. Two and a half years ago, I telephoned her to say we were taking my high school junior son on a tour of colleges. Five years had elapsed since she had seen him as a lanky sixth grader, a time when she and Margaret Wright, her beloved and devoted friend, had come to dinner at our home. I warned her on the phone that he was not interested in applying to any of the institutions that had educated his parents so well, and therefore we were not coming to Vassar. She exclaimed in her confident, assertive tone we all remember so well, "Well, if Chris is not going to benefit from Vassar's History Department, he must go to Yale, must major in history, and must do his graduate work at Harvard."
I was stunned and dropped the phone which crashed noisily to the floor. When I picked it up again, Evalyn said,
"Sherry, are you all right?"
"Yes, Evalyn, I'm fine.
"Did you hear what I said?"
"Yes, Evalyn, I did."
"That would be the best course of study for him," she asserted. "Next to Vassar's history department, Yale's undergraduate history professors are the best in the country."
Having recovered slightly, I took a deep breath. And not wanting to disappoint her, I said, "Evalyn, I very much appreciate your advice, but as you well know, Vassar graduates try to teach their offspring to think for themselves. At present, Chris is most interested in physics, but he will make his own decisions."
"Sherry, of course I know that," she replied confidently and very clearly, "but this is what he should do."
I thanked her, told her I would let her know what transpired, and quickly hung up the phone.
Months later, I happily reported to her that Chris appeared to have followed her advice, at least the first part of her three-part edict, for he did decide to apply to Yale and was accepted. What I did not reveal was that he learned of her wise words only after the acceptance letter arrived. As we chatted on about Vassar, I marveled that even at 95 years old, with amazing clarity of mind, sound judgment, unerring certitude, she cared enough to guide not just her own students but the future generation.
As we celebrate Evalyn's life today, I am reminded of the remarks of the writer, William MacLeish, when he discussed the impact on him of the death of his famous father, Archibald MacLeish. He said that once the grief had passed, he had a newfound feeling of self-confidence and a renewed faith in his own abilities, a surge of energy to pursue what he could do best, a burst of enthusiasm to develop the talents he had been reticent to explore, and a strong desire to try to do everything just a little bit better. Evalyn would be pleased if these inspirational gifts were among her many legacies for all of us, and for future generations.