Meryl Streep Accepts the AAVC Distinguished Achievement Award
Jubilant shouting and applause erupted the moment Meryl Streep ’71, P’08,’13 walked into the Vassar Chapel on the afternoon of October 13 to accept the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC) Distinguished Achievement Award. Her movie-star charisma was immediately evident, but when Streep addressed the 1,500 members of the Vassar community—including fellow members of the class of ’71—the three-time Academy Award winner didn’t talk much about the movies. She chose instead to tell her audience about how Vassar had shaped her life, setting her on a path of social awareness and activism.
“One value of a Vassar education is that it kind of dooms you to a life of awareness …” Streep said. “Once you know how to search out and credit the facts around certain problems, you are called on by your conscience to act on them. The Vassar conscience rings a bell in your head; it’s a call to action in your heart.”
Streep related how she and some of her neighbors in a small Connecticut town had become aware of the threat to children posed by Alar, a chemical used in the growing of apples. “Since my kids at the time were basically mainlining apple juice and applesauce, and I was fairly celebrated for my pies, this did alarm me,” Streep said. She helped launch a grassroots organization, Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet, that joined with scientists from the Natural Resources Defense Council to warn of the dangers of the chemical.
The publicity surrounding Alar posed an immediate threat to the apple industry, and some growers lost their farms, Streep said. “I read the accounts of lost livelihoods with real regret and sadness,” she said. “Someone broke into my house, ripped up the pictures of my children on my desk [and] I got it, the anger and despair.”
Ultimately, courts agreed that the claims about the dangers of Alar were justified, Streep said, “but at a terrible cost to many people. The willingness to stand up for the truth, knowing the cost to others, is something I struggled to maintain. Good people will and do get hurt when you do battle with, in this case, the giant chemical interests whose profit line depended on distorting, ignoring, or withholding the truth.”
One outcome of this controversy, Streep said, was the growth of the market for organic foods and farms. “Mothers and Others, in the 10 years that it operated, grew from 20 of my neighbors to a membership of 35,000 informed consumers,” she said. “The demand that grew during those years for pesticide-free and sustainably grown food gave farmers confidence there would be a market for organics, and they undertook the cost of transitioning their fields to sustainable practice.”
Streep said her battle with the chemical industry now seems almost insignificant in the face of the looming threat of global warming, but she urged her audience to meet the challenge head-on. “Cross the street,” she said. “Go to the [Vassar] Farm. Walk through the gate and into the 500 red, green, and golden acres of inspiration of the Ecological Preserve. Breathe in courage, exhale resolve. And know that every action you take—or don’t take—matters.”
In honor of its 50th Reunion, Streep’s class established a special fund-raising initiative: The Class of 1971 Gateway to The Old Vassar Farm, to support a project that will make visiting the Farm and Ecological Preserve easier and safer for pedestrians and drivers alike.
As she introduced Streep at the event, Vassar President Elizabeth H. Bradley said this world-famous actress had also made significant contributions to her alma mater. “Even as she was blazing a path to be one of the world’s brightest stars,” Bradley said, “Meryl gave 10 years of dedicated service to Vassar as a member of the Board of Trustees.”
During her tenure on the board, the president noted, Streep had joined a “rogue” group of trustees who led a movement to forge closer ties with the Arlington neighborhood. “What you see and may take for granted today is an upbeat Arlington Center—punctuated by the Vassar Bookstore, several restaurants, and a quaint rotary with seasonal plantings,” Bradley said. “None of these were there when that special group started its work, and now, in part because of their work, these improvements are central to the look and feel of the campus community.”
Bradley said Streep’s love for Vassar was fully evident when she supported the fund-raising campaign celebrating the College’s Sesquicentennial. “As Vassar was planning the celebration that would kick off the campaign, Meryl was asked if she would participate in the celebration,” Bradley noted. “She made the commitment and even had it written into her contract that she would take a day’s break from the filming of The Iron Lady in London to fly to New York for the event. When that date came around in 2011, the director was not happy at all with this clause, but Meryl kept her word. She made it to New York, just in time for the reading of the play Vassar Voices, and the next day she went back to portraying Margaret Thatcher on the other side of the Atlantic.
“Now that,” Bradley said, “is dedication. And for that dedication and for all that it represents, we are deeply grateful.”
The Vassar College Choir and Women’s Chorus began the ceremony with a rendition of “Afternoon on a Hill” by Eric Barnum with lyrics from the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, class of 1917. AAVC President Monica Vachher ’77 and Amy Pullman ’71, Chair of the AAVC Recognition Committee, presented the award, which is meant to honor an alum who has reached the highest level in their field. While demonstrating exceptional talent, application, creativity, and skill within a certain career, this individual must at the same time exemplify the ideals of a liberal arts education and have used their position of visibility, power, or leadership to better the human community and serve the wider goals of society. As Vachher noted, Streep is not only one of the most decorated actors of all time, but also an effective advocate for women, education, and the arts. During his administration, President Obama bestowed upon her the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“I had the privilege of serving on the Board of Trustees with Meryl, who approached her trustee service as she approaches everything—with enormous dedication, passion, and unflagging commitment,” Vachher said. She said Streep often drove to the campus the night before the trustee meetings and had dinner with students and other alums. Vachher recalled that at one of those dinners, everyone talked about their career paths. “When it was Meryl’s turn,” Vachher said, “she simply said something like, ‘Well, I majored in drama, and then I continued doing that, and I think it turned out pretty well.’ Pretty well, indeed!”
As part of the ceremony, Professor of Drama Emerita Gabrielle Cody read a letter addressed to Streep from one the actress’s Vassar drama professors, the late Evert Sprinchorn, who died in August at the age of 98. Sprinchorn wrote about the joy and awe he’d experienced watching Streep perform in two plays at Vassar: August Strindberg’s Miss Julie and George Lillo’s 18th- century tragedy The London Merchant. “You were technically perfect, but also an actress with such a depth of soul,” Sprinchorn wrote. “You were not a student. You were an artist.”
Streep was visibly moved by this tribute, choking back tears as she tried to respond. “I was so scared of Professor Sprinchorn,” she said, drawing some laughter from the audience. Then her face brightened. “But he liked me!” she said, drawing even more.
The event ended on a rousing note when Pullman told the crowd the best way to end the evening was to relive an experience from the year she and Streep had graduated. Suddenly, the student performers erupted into a flash mob and spread across the floor, singing a spirited rendition of Carole King’s 1971 hit “I Feel the Earth Move.” Many in attendance, including Meryl Streep, could not resist dancing.
View a gallery of additional images from the award ceremony.