Beyond Vassar

AAVC Spirit of Vassar Award

By Amy Boggs, ’07

From the moment she walked on to campus in 1937, Elizabeth Adams Daniels ’41 and Vassar College have been inseparable. “It’s hard to say what has been most interesting,” she said. “I’ve had an extra interesting life at Vassar, and I’m going to keep on.”

For a majority of her life Daniels has given all of herself to making the college better. Because of her efforts, at this year’s reunion the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College (AAVC) will give Daniels a well-deserved honor: the Spirit of Vassar Award. This award recognizes outstanding commitment and service to Vassar or another community, and there are few who have been more committed to serving Vassar than Daniels. As AAVC Alumnae/i Awards Committee Chair Meg Venecek Johnson ’84 put it, Daniels was chosen for the honor not only because of her contributions to her class and the Poughkeepsie Area Vassar Club, but also because of her “extraordinary service to Vassar as a student, professor, and college historian.” Daniels is thrilled to receive this award; but for her the greater reward has been watching Vassar change for the better over the years.

After graduation Daniels left to earn her master’s and start a family but was drawn back to Vassar when the English department needed a replacement professor part way through the school year in 1948. While she was the only woman on the faculty with a husband and three children to take care of, as well as a Ph.D. underway, Daniels threw herself wholeheartedly into the Vassar community. In 1955 she became dean of freshmen, and in 1965 she was appointed dean of studies. Daniels also chaired the English department twice and acted as dean of faculty for two years in the 1970s, saying, “It was a real pleasure, though an exhausting process, to be asked to be three kinds of dean.” When Vassar was determining whether to merge with Yale or seek other alternatives, Daniels was asked to chair a committee to explore what the best alternative would be. “The answer,” Daniels and the committee decided, “was to develop coeducation ourselves, but from our own point of view, with great female input.”

In 1985 Daniels finally retired—for the weekend. She returned the following Monday to accept the new position of Vassar historian. Daniels had suggested the creation of the position when, as dean of studies, she discovered the records of every student who had ever applied to Vassar College sitting in boxes and puddles of water in the basement of Main. When it came to hiring someone, who better to handle Vassar’s history than someone who had been so involved in it? Sorting and creating an inventory of those records was one of her first projects as historian. Since then, Daniels has been committed to researching and restoring Vassar’s past, either by request or simply for the sake of discovery. “She literally found our history,” said President Frances Fergusson. “We wouldn’t have undertaken this work, or even seen the need for it, if it weren’t for Betty.”

Her contributions to Vassar have been so great that when her class of 1941 funded a room for the library’s Special Collections at their 60th reunion, it was named the Elizabeth Adams Daniels Seminar Room. Daniels is quick to point out that the relationship has been beneficial to her as well. “I’m satisfied to spend my whole career at Vassar until I die,” she said. “How could I go anyplace else?”

Visit Daniels' online Vassar encyclopedia at