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.

October 1, 2001

It may seem presumptuous of me to speak about what Evalyn Clark meant to me, when her contributions within and beyond the gates of Vassar were so significant. But, however important Evalyn was in terms of institutions and organizations, it was the way she touched and profoundly influenced individual lives, that we are primarily celebrating today.

Carl Degler has recently written that from his very first days in the Vassar History department he felt accepted as a teacher, scholar, and professional.1 That was my experience too, and I have Evalyn to thank for it. From the beginning, amazingly, she listened to me, questioned me, shared her ideas with me. Without flattery, she conveyed quiet satisfaction and pleasure in my and her other young colleagues’ professional development. And I was fortunate enough to be, in a very real sense, one of Evalyn’s students. Several of you here today benefitted from Evalyn’s teaching in the classroom: I benefitted from it immediately after her classes.

Several times a week, over coffee in the back room of Swift, I witnessed—or, rather, participated in—Evalyn’s immediate reactions to the class she had just had. She tended to dwell on what she claimed had gone wrong, rather than all the things that had, we knew, gone right! In typically self-deprecating manner, she mulled over the class’s handling of her assigned sources and whether she had been successful in getting her students, (to quote her), to “distinguish opinion from fact, to take into account different points of view, to judge the reliability of the author and to refrain from drawing conclusions unless the evidence warrants.”2 Had the discussion raised broader issues, such as, again to use her own words, “moral...values” and “humanistic value judgments”?3 From these down-to-earth, conversational post mortems, I learned my craft. Evalyn also taught me the value of balancing compassion and concern for students with discipline and exacting standards. I also found inspirational the way Evalyn projected, after so many years in the classroom, her continuing commitment to, and excitement in, teaching. Can you picture her response if you had had the temerity to ask her if she had ever experienced “burn out”!

IF, in my early years at Vassar I observed Evalyn’s teaching skills and techniques, so I did, again, quite recently. Every year Judy and I would bring Evalyn together with the English undergraduate who had won the Evalyn Clark Scholarship to study at Vassar. It was wonderful to witness how, when she was well into her nineties, Evalyn could quickly dispel the trepidation these young students naturally felt on first meeting her (they had heard of her formidable reputation and steely intellect). A few deft questions, some engaging reminiscences about what life was like for her generation of women scholars, and apprehensions vanished, replaced by fascination and delight! She retained, almost to the end, her sure teaching touch, her instinct for reaching out to young minds, her engaging enthusiasm for, and dedication to, serious ideas and ideals.

I have recently been going through some of Evalyn’s papers and have gotten to know her better. (Did you know that she loved quantitative analysis? Her reports are peppered with it! She wrote that “The pursuit of the percentage”—that is, statistics—are “a keen intellectual pursuit” and one “I recommend as being better than a detective story.”4 Far more important, from her papers, a woman of remarkable courage and principle emerged. I already knew, of course, that Evalyn was a woman of strong convictions, strongly expressed. However, when I started at Vassar she was already in her sixties, an age at which it is somewhat easier to speak your mind. Now, from her papers, I discovered that as early as the ’30s (when she was still in her thirties), she placed a higher premium on her principles than on her professional advancement. In 1935, Evalyn, then an untenured faculty member at Rutgers, had criticized the head of the German department for defending anti-Semitic acts in Nazi Germany—and this before a committee of the university’s trustees! “‘But, Miss Clark,’ asked one of the trustees, ‘you do not mean to say that you have ever found any antipathy towards the Jewish race on this campus?’ ‘Yes’, calmly replied Miss Clark, ‘I have. For a long time there were no Jewish members of our faculty. Our former dean said she never would have a Jew on the faculty.’”5 This forthright response captures for me much of the essential Evalyn—her courage, integrity, probity.

I also learned from Evalyn’s papers that in her early days at Vassar the US War Department’s Military Intelligence Division asked her for an analysis of the top Nazis, Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, and others. Her detailed report was, of course, scholarly. But her personality still comes through: “One of the few Nazi leaders”, she wrote of Ernst Bohle, “who finished his education and got his degree [. . . ] even though”, she added, “it was a business degree”. The (to quote her) “rudeness . . . arrogance” and “pretentious ignorance” of the Nazi leaders offended her.6 More significant, her report burns with hatred of their cruel contempt for law and human life. Evalyn loathed fascism and indeed fanaticism of all stripes. She once confessed to me that she had considered leaving the ’States, she was so ashamed that it had not entered the war in 1939.

During the summers she spent in Europe, every year from 1927 to 1937, Evalyn witnessed what she called an “ostrich mentality”—the apathy and escapism that had facilitated the Nazi cause. This coloured and molded her personal philosophy of education, a phrase, I suspect, she would have scorned and snorted at! She took it as her mission to educate (and I quote) “intellectual and moral leaders in a world in intellectual and spiritual conflict.” A well-educated public, she hoped, will keep democracy strong and maintain what she termed the “democratic control of foreign policy”.7 To this end, Evalyn far preferred the “realist with vision” to idealists and visionaries, and this informed much of her teaching. In 1968 the year book, the Vassarion (dedicated, “with gratitude and admiration”, to Evalyn and also to Carl Degler), quoted a comment Evalyn had made in class: “Good intentions and idealism are not enough, and they can be dangerous . . . . ”; “moral confusion and loss of conviction”, she insisted, could result from wild generalizations and simplistic analysis. She hated ideologues for she had observed them, and their pernicious effects, at first hand in Germany. She loved passionate discussion—but only if it was based on scholarly objectivity, hard evidence, and cool reason. She was, in her modest way, a cold war warrior, working hard for rationalism, decency, and freedom of thought and expression.8 And she produced generations of teachers dedicated to the same mission. In all this, Evalyn was my model. She helped me appreciate that history has an ethical dimension—rightly used, it can be a weapon against fanaticism and hatred and so help us live more humanely and help us cope with the present in difficult times. I must briefly quote from a letter I received last week from Jane Plakias, class of ’42: “In 1939–42 all we had was the New York Times and Evayn to help us understand and react properly to the war news—so many tragic events not just Pearl Harbor . . . would have been remote and incomprehensible without her daily comments.”

In my early days at Vassar, I gradually realized (to my relief and delight) that behind Evalyn’s rather intimidating exterior there was a wonderfully kind and warm person. She was a modest and shy woman who led with her head, but whose heart was always, always, in the right place. She taught all those who came into contact with her the value (I want to say even social imperative) of modesty, industry, probity. It is so very appropriate that her memory and stature will be honoured by the establishment of the Evalyn A. Clark Chair of History.

I count myself privileged to have known this model historian, great mentor, and exceptional human being. Evalyn was a good woman. She had a profound influence on my professional and personal life. I will forever remember her with gratitude and love.

Anthony S. Wohl
Eloise Ellery Professor of History

1. “Virtually from the beginning . . I felt accepted as a teacher, perhaps as something of a scholar, and certainly as a professional.” Carl N. Degler, “Vassar College,” in William E,. Leuchtenburg, ed., American Places. Encounters with History: a Celebration of Sheldon Meyer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 100.

2. Evalyn Clark, “Freshman Year at Vassar,” Vassar Alumnae Magazine, June 1948, pp. 18–19. “To learn independence is the first mark of maturity”, she observed, ibid., p. 20.

3. Ibid., p. 19.

4. Evalyn Clark, “Vassar College: A Case Study of a Survey made in a Small Liberal Arts College,” Universities and World Affairs. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Document 3 (1 September, 1952), p.10.

5. New York World-Telegram, May 22, 1935.

6. See her report, “The Leaders of Nazi Germany”, comments on Von Ribbentrop. Last phrase was directed at Rosenberg.

7. “Ostrich mentality”, etc. is from her hand-written notes for “Responsibility of Higher Education in the National Crisis,” for the Convocation of a Summer Institute, July 5, 1951.

8. I get a great sense of this from ibid.

October 1, 2001

When I attended Vassar in the 1940s, the history department was celebrated for its remarkable group of productive women scholars. The tradition began with Lucy Maynard Salmon one of American’s first professional woman historians and author of 16 publications. The first was dated 1893; the most recent—a posthumous collection of essays: History and the Texture of Modern Life—just appeared in 2001. Miss Salmon’s immediate successors: Eloise Ellery and Louise Fargo Brown did not match this spectacular record; but both did publish long-lasting studies. During my college years, there was Violet Barbour (to distinguish her from art history’s tall and stately Leila Barber, we called her “little Miss Barbour.”) But there was nothing little about Violet Barbour’s Capitalism in 17th Century Amsterdam. First published in 1950, it went through 2 pb editions later on and is still regarded as a classic. In my day also, there was J.B. Ross with her medieval real-life thriller: The Murder of Charles the Good and the countless editions of her collaborative Medieval Reader and Renaissance Reader. And of course, there was also Miss Clark’s dear friend Mildred Campbell with her pioneering study in English social history: The English Yeoman. When my daughter was an undergraduate at Harvard, taking a course in Tudor Stuart England, The English Yeoman was on her reading list. By then it was decades old; even now it has not been surpassed.

Evalyn Clark’s legacy differed from that of the others. It was by means—not of a book—but of her presence in the classroom that she left a deep and lasting imprint on generations of students. This unique legacy may be related to the unusual trajectory taken by her career. After graduating from Vassar with honors in classics, she received her doctorate in ancient history from Johns Hopkins and then taught classical studies at the women’s college of New Jersey. From her training as a classicist, she would retain throughout her life, a strong belief in the virtues of the Socratic method. It seems appropriate that she would make her mark—as had Socrates himself—not as an author but as a teacher. a teacher who received nation wide recognition when she was singled out by the American Historical Association for its distinguished teaching award. (She had been nominated by Nancy Nichols Barker ’46. Nancy had a distinguished career herself, becoming a history professor at U of Texas in Austin before her premature death. One line from Nancy’s letter of nomination: “I marvel now as I struggle to motivate my own students at how much work Miss Clark managed to get out of all of us”.

Her fondness for the Socratic method may be traced to Evalyn Clarks’ training as a classicist but this training did not account for the sense of urgency that electrified her classes and that made her students attentive to her every word. That characteristic was related to the remarkable mid-career switch that she made in the 1930s—after summers abroad and reading foreign newspapers—alerted her to the gathering storm. The decision to turn from ancient history to contemporary Europe cannot have been easy—it required two years of retooling as a postdoctoral student at Columbia and Harvard—but it helps to explain why the new courses she gave after coming to Vassar—on the French Revolution and contemporary Europe—were so exciting. The same sense of imminent crisis that had caused her to change fields became palpable in her classes. To understand what was at stake in the clash of rival powers and ideologies was of the utmost importance to her and she conveyed her intense concern in all her dealings with her students.

She was a living refutation of Yeats’ often cited passage that “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The idea that “the best lack all conviction” would not occur to anyone who saw Evalyn Clark in action. When I took her contemporary history course in the 1940s she never concealed her loathing for both the fascist and communist regimes of the day. Nor did she shy away from sharply criticizing those writers who argued that one or the other of these regimes represented the wave of the future. She was also intent on refuting the notion popular among many students in the 60s as in the 40s that resort to the barricades was preferable to using the ballot box. Even after her retirement, she retained her strong convictions. Those of us who visited her from time to time over the ensuing decades, found her even in her old age to be as keenly concerned with the course of current events as ever before.

As for passionate intensity, the very phrase evokes memories of her presence in the classroom asking those probing questions that forced us to think longer and harder than ever before about whatever was the topic of the day. It has been said that being condemned to death concentrates the mind powerfully. The same effect was obtained by anxiously waiting to see whether Miss Clark was going to single you out to answer her questions on the day’s assignment. Whatever answer you gave was sure to provoke another question and they would continue one after another until the depths of one’s ignorance beecame clear. Being sleepy or inattentive or failing to complete an assignment was frowned on and Miss Clark had a formidable frown. But the cardinal sin was mindlessly to repeat someone else’s views or to put forth a half-baked idea. The difference between being opinionated and arriving at an informed opinion was made crystal clear.

She was especially pleased that so many of her students were able to use what they’d learned from their undergraduate courses in their later lives, whether or not they pursued further study of history, or else went on to careers as homemakers and volunteeers or became professional journalists, diplomats, lawyers and the like. (One of my classmates managed to combine majoring in history with pre-med studies and became a distinguished doctor much to Miss Clark’s delight) Indeed she gloried in the sheer variety of occupations that engaged her former students and made this the basis for a commemorative conference on the Uses of History held here at Vassar in December 1993. This conference, designed to honor Miss Clark on the occasion of her 90th birthday, testified to the lasting impression made by a great teacher on successive generations of students.

But there was a subtext that requires mention on this particular occasion. The gathering in ’93 also testified to the fondness Evalyn Clark inspired as a private person. William James categories “tough-minded and tender-hearted” come to mind. In the classroom Miss Clark was known to be tough-minded; outside she was known to have a tender heart. She served as confidant and counsellor to numerous students. She was a warm and generous friend to most of us gathered here. As I traveled to Poughkeepsie it occurred to me that this is the first time that a trip to Vassar will not include a walk over to 162 College Avenue for a brief visit. I miss that vibrant presence and will do so for the rest of my life.

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.

October 1, 2001

I am privileged to speak in this chapel, where Evalyn attended her first Convocation in the fall of 1920. Nevertheless, there are two reasons why I wish that I were not standing before you.

The first is that Barbara Rous Harris, Vassar Class of 1963, Professor of History and Director of Women Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, was scheduled to deliver a eulogy of her beloved mentor. But Barbara, for reasons that we all understand, could not be here today.1

Secondly, I profoundly regret that Evalyn, with her superb health, her undiminished energy and vigor, who as late as 1995 could send me a brilliant note in her elegant handwriting, analyzing Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier, appeasement and related topics, could not have been with us for at least two more years. Her legion of admirers would have thrown a tremendous 100th birthday party, surpassing even the marvelous occasion of her 90th, which many of you will recall.

Well into her 90s Evalyn would graciously accept invitations to come to Swift for departmental dinners, and she would charm and awe us all, putting new colleagues, a third her age, at their ease. She was indomitable. I never saw her walk slowly; she would cover at a brisk pace the distance to campus from her beautiful home on College Avenue, a Mecca for generations of her former students.

My files contain numerous notes from Evalyn in her fine hand; one, which I especially cherish, reflects her profound and personal understanding of the so often tragic and sometimes glorious history of France. She writes of her memories of the great historian and Resistance martyr Marc Bloch, who after writing Strange Defeat “burst upon or intellectual horizon and became a kind of ‘culture hero’ to both Frenchmen and foreigners disillusioned by Vichyite complicity and defeatism—and treason?” She put a question mark after the word “treason,” because she was too careful a historian to state point-blank that the Vichy Regime actually was treasonous—a question that is still hotly debated.

Unlike the other speakers today, and to my great regret, I was not, and could not have been, given the date of coeducation at Vassar, a student of Evalyn’s. And I never had the pleasure of working with Evalyn as a direct colleague, since she retired the year I arrived in Poughkeepsie. But we did collaborate on several occasions, especially in organizing the symposium for Dean C. Mildred Thomson in the fall of 1975. Evalyn was a mere 72; I recall that she was superbly efficient, immensely tactful, guiding the young department chair that I was at the time. We didn’t need an Alumnae Directory; she had a photographic memory and simply gave me a list of alumnae to invite and that was that!...

If one goes back and looks at Vassar Course Catalogues from the years Evalyn taught, one quickly perceives the richness and diversity of her course offerings, and her heavy teaching load, which continued despite her administrative responsibilities. There were, among others, the famous History 230 on the French Revolution and Napoleon, History 345 on Contemporary Europe, and a full-year course, 377a/b on Modern European Thought and Culture. Each of these courses was taken over by a different colleague after Evalyn’s retirement. Professor Emerita Rhoda Rappaport taught History 230, Professor Emeritus His-Huey Liang offered History 345, and I attempted at least to teach nineteenth and twentieth-century European thought, in a course re-baptized European Intellectual History. Evalyn could effortlessly teach them all!

It is fascinating that Evalyn added a substantial ingredient of cultural history to her course on European thought, at a time when the vogue was “pure” intellectual history, the realm of ideas. Only in the 1990s was there an extensive renewal of interest in cultural history.2 So Evalyn really was ahead of her time.

When I think of Evalyn I think most of all of her unstinting devotion and loyalty to Vassar. Think of how diminished we would all be if she had not accepted that full scholarship, if she had been lured away by Smith or Mount Holyoke! Our community has immensely benefited from her wisdom and generosity. It is difficult to imagine the college without her. We cherish and honor her memory.

1. I realized immediately after the service that I had been unclear here. Barbara and her family are fine. The problem was, I learned later, that so many flights were cancelled that she would have missed a couple of days of classes had she made the trip. Evalyn would have agreed with Barbara’s decision!

2. See Jean-Pierre Rioux and Jean-François Sirinelli, eds., Pour une histoire culturelle. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1997.

The following Memorial Minute was read to the Vassar faculty at the faculty meeting on Wednesday, October 24, 2001

With the death of Evalyn Anna Clark an era in our college’s history has come to an end. Together with Lucy Maynard Salmon, Eloise Ellery, and Mildred Campbell, she was part of the Vassar tradition of pioneering women historians who were at the forefront of their profession.

Born in 1903 in Canandaigua, New York, Evalyn came to Vassar on a scholarship given by Mary Thompson, who donated the Thompson Memorial Library.1 A Classics major and Junior Phi Beta Kappa, Evalyn was a brilliant Vassar undergrad. In one afternoon she mastered the dialect of Theocritus: “a task on which many students”, her admiring Greek professor dryly commented, “spend a whole semester.”2

Graduating with honors in 1924, Evalyn continued her Classical studies at Johns Hopkins, receiving her Ph.D. in 1927. Her doctoral dissertation, “The Roman Army as a Factor in the Romanization of Gaul”, she noted, “led me to the discovery of the impact of French and German nationalism on the writing of ancient history” and “later . . . to my midcareer change from ancient to modern European history.”3 Experiences garnered every summer in Europe between 1927 and 1937 also fostered that change. Increasingly she was driven to examine what lay behind the rise of fascism. “Was it”, she asked, “resurgent nationalism or something far more primitive and threatening than political or economic forces and theories?”4 These concerns caused her to “retool”: studies between 1937 and 1939 at Harvard and Columbia completed her transition to modern European history.5

In 1939, after a decade teaching at Douglass College and a year at Sarah Lawrence, and with war breaking out in Europe, Evalyn began her distinguished teaching career at Vassar as an assistant professor, starting salary $2,600. The Chair wrote that he wished “this were a handsomer offer, but the salary budget is . . . feeling severely the results of the reinvestment of college funds at the lower rates of interest now prevailing. . . .”6 (Plus ca change!) She became a full Professor in 1947 and in 1962 was named to the Eloise Ellery Chair of History—this must have had a special resonance for her, as she had been appointed to succeed Professor Ellery.

Evalyn’s service to the College was remarkable. She was twice Chair of the History department, Associate Dean of the College for a decade, and for one year Acting Dean of the College.7 For her last two years before retirement, she was Director of the Five College Project, “designed to bring about the better preparation of high school teachers of social sciences.”8 This project resulted in the establishment of Vassar’s Education department and teacher training and certification programme—an addition to the curriculum very dear to her heart.9

Beyond the gates of Vassar, Evalyn was active in the American Association of University Women and the American Historical Association.10 Most notably, she was an early member and President (1965 to 1967) of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. “The Berks”, as it is fondly called, was formed in 1936 after a group of male historians categorically excluded women from a conference. In 1981, when it was held at Vassar, Evalyn was honoured (with Mildred Campbell) with a standing ovation.11 An unassuming, yet determined feminist, Evalyn was far more interested in leading by example than in feminist theory.12

However widespread her committee and administrative service to the College and to her profession, it was as a teacher that Evalyn excelled. Against the dark background of the Second World War she developed innovative pedagogical techniques. She later wrote that in her course, Contemporary European History, 1870 to the Present, “I jettisoned any orthodox chronological approach . . . and began with 1939 and the New York Times, constantly working backward to trace the roots of the conflict. It was a contentious subject”, she continued, “since most students at the beginning were strongly pacifist and even isolationist. Therefore heated class discussion was inevitable and continual.” Throughout her long career, Evalyn never eschewed controversy, compromised her principles, or bowed to prevailing intellectual or political orthodoxies—consequently, her courses, including her immensely popular course on the French Revolution, continued to generate animated, prolonged, discussion!13

Although she would have scoffed at the high-flown expression, Evalyn took teaching as a solemn mission, an ethical trust to inform and energize the next generation of society’s leaders. She had been profoundly influenced, during those pre-war summers in Europe, by having witnessed propaganda and rigid ideology drive out free inquiry. In her teaching she emphasized, to use her own words, “the development of critical, informed thinking and independent judgment”, close attention to the sources, respect for the evidence, and avoidance of glib judgments and unsupported generalizations.14 Her teaching embraced cautionary tales against idealists and ideologues. “Good intentions and idealism”, she insisted, “are not enough, and they can be dangerous.” The “realist with vision” was her ideal.15

“One of the greatest contributions we [at Vassar] can make”, she once stated, “is training for citizenship” and “a lifetime [of] civic activity.”16 This training, with its emphasis on the development of informed, internationally aware citizens lay at the heart of her educational philosophy and practice. During the war she had set up “town meetings” on campus and World Affairs study groups in Poughkeepsie and she served as a shrewd analyst of Nazi leadership for the Military Intelligence Division of the War Department.17 In 1952 she addressed UNESCO on the place of international relations in the college curriculum.

Evalyn was a woman of strong convictions strongly expressed. She abhorred “pretentious ignorance, vanity, puffery, and faddism.”18 She encouraged her students to detect and avoid these human failings, and, by example, taught them the value of modesty, integrity, common sense, and cool analysis.19

To challenge her firmly held interpretations her students had to read, read, read! They recalled with gratitude, perhaps mixed with just a little self-pity, the high standards she set for them and the long hours they spent in the library poring over original sources and preparing the weekly annotated bibliographies she demanded. “. . . we were aware”, recalled one former student (who went on to become a distinguished historian), “that she was working as hard [as] or harder than we.” “Only a truly gifted and dedicated teacher . . . could have inspired us to such efforts.”20

Evalyn’s stature as a teacher was recognized and honored in four major ways in her own lifetime. In 1968 a fund was established to create, at her death, the Evalyn A. Clark Chair of History.21 In 1984 the Evalyn A. Clark Fund, to encourage “excellence in teaching”, inaugurated a series of annual symposia on the “current problems, issues, or techniques” of teaching in a liberal arts college.22 Also created in 1984, the Evalyn Clark Scholarship enabled British undergraduates to study at Vassar.23 This was most appropriate, for Evalyn had always taken a special interest in foreign students as part of her continuing commitment to better international relations. Finally, in 1990 she won the coveted American Historical Association’s Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award.24

Evalyn loved teaching and loathed the idea of compulsory retirement.25 But, happily, after her retirement in 1968, she maintained her close involvement with Vassar. Although she continued to travel—including long motoring holidays well into her 90s, and two summers in England in search of her ancestry—the centre of her universe remained Vassar. Well into old age she was an active class president and attended many reunions. In the gracious house on College Avenue she occupied for so long with Mildred Campbell and recently with Margaret Wright, Professor Emerita of Biology, she entertained a steady stream of former students—among them lawyers, diplomats, journalists, and teachers of renown—who continued over the years to share their experiences with her and to seek her advice. Deep love, as much as respect, gratitude, or admiration, marked these relationships. And she continued to enthrall and fascinate younger students. It was wonderful to witness how, well into her nineties, Evalyn could quickly dispel the trepidation the young Evalyn Clark Scholars naturally felt on first meeting her (they had heard of her formidable reputation and steely intellect.) A few deft questions, some engaging reminiscences about what life was like for her generation of women scholars and all fears evaporated to be replaced by a sense of profound enchantment and delight. Her touch, her instinct for reaching out to young minds, and above all her engaging enthusiasm for and commitment to, serious ideas and ideals, were evident almost to the very end.

Evalyn Clark died on June 17, 2001, at the age of 98. Her life had spanned the turbulent twentieth century. It is with love as well as deep admiration that we remember this consummate teacher.

Respectfully submitted,
Hsi-Huey Liang
Clyde Griffen
Rhoda Rappaport
David Schalk
Anthony Wohl
Margaret Wright


1. April 20, 1903 in Canandaigua, in western New York. Evalyn Clark, “Biographical Notes”. At Canandaigua Academy Evalyn was fortunate enough to have among the young teachers there, who, she said, served as her role models, a recent Vassar graduate who inspired Evalyn to take up ancient history and who also introduced her to Mrs. Thompson’s chief local advisor. Ibid. Evalyn was one of several Canandaigua Academy girls Mrs. Thompson’s generosity enabled to come to Vassar. She entered Vassar In 1920 in an age when students arrived on campus, not by car or taxi, but by streetcar and when local residents knew Vassar’s vacations were about to begin by the extra streetcars lined up outside the College on Raymond Avenue. At Vassar Evalyn came under the influence of what she termed “the first generation of women academic pioneers of the late 19th century . . . and the second generation of their disciples who still had to overcome barriers even in the 20th century.” Ibid.

2. Letter of Cornelius Coulter, January 30, 1937, in AAVC files. Professor Coulter remarked that “I think I have never known a more active and powerful mind than Miss Clark’s, nor one with a better grasp of big problems and more capacity for independent thinking.”

3. Evalyn Clark, “Biographical Notes”, p. 1.

4. Ibid., p.2. Every summer, while abroad, she immersed herself in the current newspapers and periodicals and cultures of Europe in an attempt to comprehend “the social crisis of the 1930s and the mounting international tensions.” Ibid., p.3. Evalyn also studied in the university libraries in Europe.

5. Evalyn won a Social Science Research Council post-doctoral fellowship to Harvard, (1937–8) and studied at Columbia (1938–9). She also took graduate courses in modern European history at the New School for Social Research. Among her mentors were Arthur Lovejoy and Crane Brinton and Carlton Hayes. Ibid.

6. Douglass College was then the New Jersey College for Women, Rutgers University. Evalyn was an instructor there from 1927–30 and from 1930–37 an assistant professor. Letter of Charles Griffin, January 22, 1939.

7. Service as Chair, 1946–50 and 1964–6: Associate Dean, 1951–61 and Acting Dean in 1957.

8. Evalyn had served as Acting Director, 1965–6, of the Five College Project which was inspired by The Education of American Teachers (1963), written by the former Harvard President, James Bryant Conant. Previously, Evalyn had served for many years at Chair of the Vassar Committee on Teaching Education. In 1965, under her direction, the committee undertook a study of Vassar’s participation as a pilot college in New York state’s Education Department’s experimental approach to a new system of teacher certification. Other Colleges, besides VC, were: Brooklyn, Colgate, Cornell, and SUNY, Freedonia. Running the programme was an immense task and characteristically Evalyn had only one-third off her first semester and was full-time during the second while serving as Director.

Evalyn’s interest in high school education went well beyond the Five College Project. She was deeply committed to building bridges between the senior year at school and freshman year at Vassar and hoped for an annual Fall conference which would bring together public and private high school teachers and Vassar professors. The History department had held such a conference, a remarkably fruitful one, in 1947. See Evalyn’s “Freshman Year at Vassar”, Vassar Alumnae Magazine, June 1948, p. 21. In 1961 Evalyn won a citation for distinguished service as a member of the Adult Education Board in the Poughkeepsie Public school system.

9. The supply of intelligent, properly trained teachers, and especially women, to the nation’s high schools was one of Evalyn’s deepest concerns.

10. She chaired the Committee on Fellowship Awards of the former and served on the Program Committee of the latter. In her 1955 annual report as Chairman of the Committee on Fellowship Awards, she stressed that in the year 1953-4 8,000 PhDs had been produced of whom only 815 were women. One of Evalyn’s quiet missions was to encourage young women to get their PhDs. “Certainly”, she predicted in her 1955 report, “there will be both more need and more opportunity for women.”

11. Mildred Campbell, Vassar’s distinguished Tudor-Stuart historian, was Evalyn’s house-mate for many years. There are actually two groups, the Berkshire Conference on Women’s History, and the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. The former organization, as its name suggests, deals with historical problems and issues of gender, and meets every few years, and is open to scholars of both sexes. The latter, which meets annually, is exclusively for women historians, regardless of field. Evalyn was primarily involved in the latter. Evalyn regularly attended “the Berks” and it was always a special experience for conference members to meet her. Thanks go to Miriam Cohen, History department, for clarifying this distinction.

12. One of her former students commented that Evalyn “conveyed to us [her students] some of the crusading zeal she felt as a woman in the historical profession. . . . She and her cohort were struggling to overcome the barriers which still existed in the profession and continued to bar women from the great university faculties . . . .” Nancy Barker, in her Asher Award testimonial, see below.

13. Evalyn in her “Biographical Notes”, pp. 3–4, describes this period in her career as “a kind of crucible for me to form new approaches to teaching some of the best women students in the country. . . .” From the beginning, Evalyn eschewed the orthodoxy or tyranny of rote memorization and strict chronology and she treated the past not only for its own sake and in its own terms, but as a vehicle for the study and understanding of the present. “These were momentous times to cut your teeth as a teacher at Vassar—I still look back at the 1940s with a sense of exhilaration as our ‘finest hour’ of intense effort, of a striving for intellectual integrity and comradeship.” Ibid., p.4.

Her courses continued to be innovative. Her 377a/b was entitled “European Thought and Culture since 1750.” It suggests that Evalyn added a substantial ingredient of cultural history, at a time when the vogue was “pure” intellectual history.

14. “It meant”, she added laconically, “long hours in the library (for all of us) . . . .” Ibid.

15. Vassarion, 1968, dedication page. “Vassar College: A Case Study of a Survey made in a Small Liberal Arts College.” (1 September, 1952), p.16. Evalyn wrote this for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,Universities and World Affairs, (Document 3)

16. Ibid., pp. 3, 4. The 1968 Vassarion, the Vassar College Year Book, was dedicated to Evalyn (and also to Carl Degler), “with gratitude and admiration” and the dedication page had a quotation (cited in the text of the Memorial Minute) from Evalyn from a comment she made in class (December 15, 1967): “Good intentions and idealism are not enough, and they can be dangerous . . . . You, as part of the academic community, have a responsibility to know the documents relating to the news and to apply your knowledge of history and your common sense before forming opinions.”

17. Of course, Evalyn responded with alacrity and by mid-April, she submitted a 21-page typescript document that was very gratefully received. The War Department was so impressed, it asked Evalyn if she would prepare a similar document on the French leaders! Evalyn indulged in few personal comments in her War Department report, which took the form of a string of objective, informative and wonderfully precise and focused biographical sketches, or profiles, of Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, Von Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, and others. Nonetheless, her personality comes through, and one can hear her voice: “one of the few Nazi leaders”, she wrote of Ernst Bohle, “who finished his education and got his degree, even though it was a business degree.” The document vibrated with her barely concealed hatred of all that Nazism represented. But, while Evalyn was wonderfully observant and astringent on the darker elements of Nazism and disgusted with its cruelty and contempt for law and human life, what also is revealed in the most illuminating manner, is her own philosophy, so to speak, her own integrity—and attitudes of mind that would stay with her throughout her long life. For example, the irrationalism of the Nazi credo offended as did the “pompousness, rudeness, and arrogance” of the Nazi leaders. See her report, “The Leaders of Nazi Germany”, comments on Von Ribbentrop. Again and again, Evalyn comments on their vanity.

18. “Pretentious ignorance” was a phrase directed at Rosenberg, “The Leaders of Nazi Germany.” Ibid.

19. In numerous reports & addresses, Evalyn stressed the responsibility of higher education to the well-being of the nation as a whole. A well-educated public will keep democracy strong and maintain what she termed the “democratic control of foreign policy” and foreign relations. Evalyn had of course lived through the dark years of Nazism and Communism and their assault of reason, their twisting of truth, their muzzling of free inquiry, their destruction of all liberal tendencies. She was, in her modest way, a cold war warrior, working hard for liberalism, freedom of thought, individual expression. See her hand-written notes for a Convocation of a Summer Institute, July 5, 1951, entitled, “Responsibility of Higher Education in the National Crisis.”

20. The late Nancy Nichols Barker, in her Asher nomination (Perspectives, February, 1991), p. 14. Rather than frightening students with her demanding and sophisticated syllabi, Evalyn attracted them in increasing numbers. As Mildred Campbell put it, to argue with Evalyn in the classroom became the unforgettable experience of one’s undergraduate years. Anecdote supplied by Rhoda Rappaport, Profesor Emerita of History.

21. See the Vassar College News Office release, for May 17, 1968, which announced “the creation by an anonymous donor of a trust fund of one million dollars that will ultimately revert to the College and be used to establish a professorship of history named for Miss Evalyn a Clark. . . .”

22. Established through the generosity of Joan Morgenthau Hirschhorn, MD., class of 1945 and Jane Plakias, class of 1942. The first symposium, organized by the History department, was held in 1985 and revolved around Lucy Maynard Salmon, in whose tradition Evalyn so firmly belonged. Other departments that held symposia are: Anthropology, Art, Athletics, Biology, English, Geography, and Mathematics.

23. The students came for one year, between the second and third years at their British university. The Evalyn Clark Scholarship has recently been modified to honor two Vassar students going to Britain for JYA. The Scholarship was sustained through the generosity of Mrs. Lionel (Zoe) Hersov and the Vassar Club of London.

24. The award is given jointly by the American Historical Association and the Society for Historical Education. Recipients of the AHA book award of the previous year are invited to submit nominations of teachers who by “inspirational impact and excellence . . . encouraged that individual to study history.” Encompassing school, undergraduate and graduate teachers, it is an extremely competitive award. Evalyn was successfully nominated by Nancy Nichols Barker (class of 1946), then Professor of History at the University of Texas, Austin. Professor Barker had won, the previous year, 1989, the Gershoy Book Prize from the AHA for her Brother to the Sun King: Phillipe, Duke of Orleans. Barker’s testimonial was read by Barbara Rous Harris (class of 1963). In her nomination, Barker stressed that Evalyn taught “us to perceive that the great issues of our day could be approached only by knowledge of their historical antecedents.” Barker went on to say that however exciting and stirring the discussion of issues and theories, “students were never permitted to stray far from a solid foundation of historical data. Woe betide the student who indulged in windy theorization devoid of factual framework.” Professor Barker continued: Evalyn “succeeded in inspiring a whole generation of women students in the post World War II period, women who went on to become lawyers, scientists, diplomats, journalists, teachers, and historians in their own right. As for myself, I am sure that anyone who could, as she did, wake up a boy-crazy teenager whose horizons were bounded by the next dance, to the intellectual challenge of the study of history was one of the great teachers of her generation and my youth.” Perspectives, (February, 1991), pp. 13-14.

25. “I don’t want to retire”, she said, “I would have stayed on longer if I had had the option” “Retirement seemed to me to be the end of the universe.” Vassar Quarterly, Vol. 74, No. 3.


Evalyn Clark, October ’52.
Evalyn Clark, October ’52. Photographed by R. Thorne McKenna
Evalyn Clark, June ’60.
Evalyn Clark, June ’60. Photographed by C. Gordon Post
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Evalyn Clark, Undated. Photographed by Joseph T. Murphy
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