AAVC Alumnae/i Recognition Awards

By Jessica Winum

AAVC is pleased to announce the first recipients of its Alumnae/i Recognition Awards. The award for Outstanding Service to Vassar College goes to Frances Prindle Taft ’42; the AAVC Spirit of Vassar Award goes to the Vassar Philadelphia Show House scholarship fundraising project. These designees have served Vassar with extraordinary effectiveness for 60 and 35 years, respectively. The awards will be presented this October at the annual Volunteer Leadership Conference. Later in the year, AAVC will announce a third award, for Distinguished Achievement, to be presented to an alumna or alumnus who has achieved sucess at the highest level of her or his field of endeavor. These award winners, selected by an AAVC committee chaired by director Yolanda Sabio ’73, have contributed much to the vitality and success of Vassar College and AAVC over many years. They have also inspired generations of Vassar volunteers who have followed and worked with them. With these awards AAVC recognizes the outstanding contributions of Franny Taft and those who have sustained the Philadelphia Show House effort and says Thank You for years of work well done.

—Susan McCallum Bledsoe ’64, President, AAVC

And the Winners Are....

always there, everywhere

Frances Prindle Taft ’42. Surely there must be two of her. The resume is too long and varied to be that of just a single person. On the other hand, all who work with Taft agree, she’s one of a kind. "No matter how controversial an issue was, Franny Taft would always take her position based on what was best for Vassar in the long term, and we could always count on her —she is like a rock," says Billie Davis Gaines ’58, former president of the AAVC, who has worked with Taft in many capacities, including on the AAVC board of directors and on the college board of trustees.

AAVC has chosen Taft — the one and only — as the first recipient of its Award for Outstanding Service to Vassar College. "Franny is a delightful person all around," says Yolanda Sabio ’73, chair of AAVC’s awards committee. "She is a true representative of what we mean when we talk about distinguished service."

Frannie Taft
Frannie Taft
Taft’s record of service to the college extends back more than 60 years — to her days as a student, when she served as president of the Vassar College Athletic Association, among other distinctions. She served as president of the AAVC Board of Directors from 1965 to 1971, tumultuous years in which many alumnae were in revolt over college discussions with Yale University about a possible merger, then its decision to become coeducational on its own. From 1972 to 1985 Taft served on the college board of trustees. She has served on the boards and various committees of the Vassar Clubs of New Haven and Cleveland; she has worked as president, secretary, and 25th reunion chair for her class; she has been active with the college’s Development Leadership Council; and she is a member of the board of the Friends of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. Taft also has been generous with her financial support to the college over the years, and with moral support, advice, and a sense of history for generations of AAVC and college leaders. "She is always there for Vassar," says President Frances Fergusson.

Taft has been there for her country, family, and community as well. After graduating in 1942, Taft joined the first officer class of the U.S. Naval Reserve’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). When the war ended, she went on to earn a master’s in art history from Yale in 1948. She and her husband Seth then moved to Cleveland, where she joined the faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Art and has served as chair of the department of art history and liberal arts.

In Cleveland, Taft began the volunteer effort for Cleveland’s Karamu House, an interracial arts center established in 1915, and served on its board of directors for 16 years. She has been on the boards of Cleveland’s Association of Phi Beta Kappa, the Cleveland Archeological Society, and the League of Women Voters of Shaker Heights, to list only a few of her involvements. In addition, she has raised four children and worked side by side with her husband as he campaigned for Cleveland’s mayoral office in 1967 and for the 1982 Republican nomination for Ohio governor. She also competes as a nationally ranked amateur tennis player.

Taft has been honored often and by many. In designating Frances Prindle Taft the first recipient of the Award for Outstanding Service to Vassar College, her fellow alumnae and alumni add their voices to those recognizing and thanking her for many invaluable contributions. "Franny is one of the women by which I have tried to model my service to Vassar for the past 30 years," says Gaines. "I feel a great deal of pride that she is the first recipient of this award, as well as affection and love for her as a person, and for what she has done for AAVC on behalf of Vassar College." —J.W.

knock knock: may we borrow your house?

When AAVC decided to initiate a Spirit of Vassar award to honor outstanding volunteer efforts on behalf of the college, the Vassar Philadelphia Show House effort — one of the longest-running, most complex, and most successful scholarship fundraising projects for Vassar — was the obvious first recipient. They have demonstrated "true volunteerism in the spirit of Vassar," says Yolanda Sabio ’73, chair of AAVC’s awards committee. Enterprising, smart, dedicated, tenacious, effective: What combination better represents the spirit of Vassar?

Philadelphia showhouse
Philadelphia showhouse
In 1966, tired of spending valuable time and energy on high-stress, low-yielding fundraising events like art exhibitions and theater parties, then Philadelphia Vassar Club president Jane Dubbs McPherson ’36 and her board decided to try something new — a Show House. The concept was borrowed from one developed on the West Coast that takes advantage of people’s interest in other people’s homes: Persuade interior designers and landscapers to work their magic on a large home or mansion for free, then open up the house for public viewing and charge admission.

In 1967 the club opened the doors to its first Vassar Show House; they netted about $9,500, which they donated to the college. Since then, the event has gotten bigger and more profitable. "We didn’t realize at the time that we’d got a tiger by the tail," says Polly Talbott Toland ’50, who co-chaired the first Show House with Joanne Balmer Balbirnie ’48. The event has become an annual spring fixture on the Philadelphia social calendar. It attracts thousands of visitors, and has netted nearly $3 million in scholarship money that has helped 350 students from the area attend Vassar over the past 45 years.

The logistics involved in orchestrating the event are enormous. The work begins in the fall with the search for an area house that can be transformed, room by room, inside and out, by interior designers and landscape architects. The designers themselves are chosen from a long list of eager and talented professionals. Members of a steering committee assign rooms, begin work on publicity efforts, research the history of the chosen home, work with a caterer to establish an on-site café, plan a grand preview party, organize hoards of volunteers who’ll help oversee the house once it’s opened, prepare the official program, and arrange the business end of the event, from insurance to electrical and water service, to road signs, parking, and groundskeeping.

Philadelphia showhouse
Philadelphia showhouse
Hundreds of volunteers, community members, and friends have created this ongoing success story. But all agree that primary credit for sustaining the effort over more than three decades goes to a stalwart steering committee of 10 women who each year spend enormous amounts of energy, know-how, and charm to make the Vassar Show House the success it has become: Anne Morris Macdonald ’42, Shirley Cruze Baird ’42, Sally Oldt Herd ’58, Claiborne Bridge Hughes ’53, Ann Philbrick Knight ’45, Barbara Quick Lorndale ’50, Barbara Alderman Stein ’58, Polly Talbott Toland ’50, Elizabeth Driscoll Austin ’50, and Ann Carrington Wood ’45-4, and ex officios Margaret Venecek Johnson ’84, Gertrude Hastings Whitmoyer ’53, and Susan Newkirk Wright ’67.

"The ladies of the Philadelphia Show House have been fantastic," says Vassar President Frances Fergusson. "They do an amazing job, taking houses that are quite decrepit and even ruined, seeing their potential and turning them into beautiful show houses that garner attention throughout the Northeast. They do this year after year, spending thousands of hours of time, with unflagging spirits, all to support Vassar and our fine students. I admire them all greatly."