Acceptance Remarks by Kathleen Holman Langan '46, Recipient of the Award for Outstanding Service to Vassar College
Volunteer Leadership Conference, October 8, 2004
\By Kathleen Holman Langan ’46
Thank you, Meg, for those very kind words. They remind me, as most Vassar biographies do, of a conversation I had early in my Vassar career with an alumna who told me that her daughter had been accepted to Vassar.
“Oh,” said I, “you must be thrilled.”
“Yes, I am,” was the reply, “but I have told her she better realize that if she goes to Vassar, she will never sit down again.”
My own sit-less days began when I moved to Greenwich in 1953. At the first Fairfield County Vassar Club meeting I attended, the club president, Liz Ritchie ‘28, reported that a co-chairman for ticket sales for the upcoming benefit was desperately needed and she hoped someone would volunteer. Quite drunk on Liz’s elegance, I raised my hand and said hesitantly, “Is that something I could do?”
Liz’s response was immediate and definite. “You,” said she, never having laid eyes on me until that moment, “would be absolutely perfect!”
Now it is 51 years later and I am standing here awed, delighted and excited by this spectacular award you are bestowing on me. In those 51 years, for the honor and glory of Vassar, I have made lists, licked stamps, put miles upon miles on my car and occupied more than a few airplane seats. I have organized, cooked for and cleaned up after luncheons, teas, dinners, and receptions on the theory that breaking bread together would keep our extended Vassar family strong and just maybe entice some of the guests into signing up to donate to the cause one or more of those famous three w’s, wisdom, work and wealth.
I have exhorted club mates, classmates and a whole range of other folk in person or by phone, letter, fax or Email. I have cajoled newspaper and magazine editors and radio and TV station managers. I have balanced check books and written articles, reports, agendas, minutes, invitations and thank you notes. I have chaired many meetings and warmed chairs at many others. I have rewritten by-laws, given speeches and spent a lot of time trying to lead the disgruntled one by one through their pique and out into the sunshine. I have conferred, advised, consented and dis-sented, too, because I am, after all, a Vassar girl. But most of all, I have had a wonderful time, doing exactly what I wanted to be doing.
I know there are some future presidents of AAVC in this audience and I want to tell you to shout YES when the invitation comes. I have been in a great many other leadership positions for other organizations, but nothing has ever challenged me more or given me more pleasure than the AAVC presidency, even though it was a far from quiet time.
I spent a large part of my term, which was from 1978-1982, leading the fight to block a movement initiated by a California alumna to force the AAVC Board to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment. Our position was not that we were against the ERA, but rather that we had no mandate to speak for our then 25,000 members.
There is a large difference between being taught how to think and being taught what to think and we all know which way it goes up here on Raymond Avenue. I have often joked that one would be lucky if one could get two Vassar graduates to agree that today is Friday. It’s a ridiculous exaggeration, of course, but it makes the point that there is a certain fierce independence of thought that goes along with a Vassar diploma. Yet at the same time, there is an equally fierce respect for the other person’s right to her or his opinion.
That wonderful combination is hardly exclusive to Vassar, but it does make a strong statement about this place. At a late night gathering many years ago in the Pub, after a meeting much like this one, I heard one alumna say to another, “I don’t agree with you, but I can’t thank you enough for sharing your opinion with me.” I first met that kind of sentiment in the classroom discussions and dorm bull sessions of my student days and have witnessed it so many times since that I have given it a name. I call it “Vassar grace,” and I have treasured it over all these years. And so have a whole lot of other Vassar alums, which explains why the Board’s position re the ERA was so handily validated.
Although I have been using the word “I” quite a lot so far, the reality is that there is very little I have mentioned that I did alone. I wish I had time to tell you about all the wonderful women and men with whom I have worked, from the class of 1912, who never seemed old to me even when I was young, to recent graduates whose graciousness often fools me into thinking I am their peer. All these people march through my memories in a joyous parade that includes five Vassar College presidents, six AAVC executive directors and a very long line of deans, faculty members and administrators. But most of the people in my parade are volunteers: trustees of the college; AAVC officers, board and committee members; and an entire army of other alumnae and alumni who have gone into the trenches at so many times in so many ways and places for the sake of Vassar College. Happily for me, some of these incredibly wonderful people, to whom I owe such a large debt of gratitude, are here tonight.
The question that has always fascinated me in connection with all this volunteering for Vassar by so many people is why - why all this effort and concern for a place where we spent such a short period of our lives?
Speaking for myself, I have given Vassar my very blood first because I believe passionately in education, but then who in this room does not? Education is a simple enough word, not hard to spell or pronounce, but what a big job it does! It provides the way up from the cellars of poverty, the way down from the unsafe heights of egocentricity, the way out of the prison of prejudice and the way into a life of meaning and fulfillment. Even now it can tumble tyrants and zap zealots, and isn’t it possible that someday, if we care enough and work hard enough to make it become all it can be for all the peoples of this earth, that the understanding it brings can finally put an end to the incessant urge of human beings to wage war on each other? If there is another way to arrive at that point, I personally do not know what it is, which helps to explain why education is the cause to which I have given my life, both professionally and as a volunteer, and, indeed, as a citizen and parent.
I want to go a step further and say that I believe not just in education, but in a liberal arts education. Saying that to this audience is, of course, the quintessential example of preaching to the choir. However, that opinion has never been universally accepted, and now, as the cost of acquiring the B.A. degree goes up, questions about its value get more and more shrill.
While I cannot begin to tackle this controversy this evening, I can tell you how I have always settled the debate in my own mind. Does one want to learn how to do or how to be? To do, it can be enough to follow directions, but you have to think in order to be. And if you have been taught to think by your liberal arts education, you are prepared for a life, rather than just a job or even a career. That happens to be a very important point now that lives are lasting so much longer than jobs or careers. I can tell you that I would not think much of this growing old business without my liberal arts education, period, end of argument as far as I am concerned.
And now for the third step, which will not surprise you. I not only believe in a liberal arts education, but I believe in the kind of liberal arts education that Vassar College provides. I remember clearly an episode with my mentor, Evalyn Clark. One day in her class, she asked for my opinion of a certain assigned book, which, alas, I had not read. Flustered, but hoping to cover myself, I blurted out that I thought it was divine which was the nineteen forties equivalent of cool, boss or tight, depending on your age group.
Miss Clark’s reply was, “Miss Holman, are you trying to tell the class that there was something celestial about this book, and if so, would you please cite some examples?”
It is a small story, but one you will recognize as part of the Vassar picture, the same picture that goes with the very old joke about the professor who says good morning to a class. At College A, which I won’t name, the students take out their copy books and write, “Good morning,” but at Vassar they say, “Prove it!”
This joke works, as many jokes do, because it takes a well known circumstance and pushes it to a laughable, but still recognizable, extreme. We all know that the majority of Vassar persons actually have no trouble accepting “good morning” as a simple pleasantry and moving on, but they just might. Given Vassar’s reputation for intellectual rigor, they just might ask what makes this professor, whom we shall designate as a woman to simplify our syntax, qualified to state so baldly that the morning is “good?” She did not say, ‘I think it is a good morning,” and so a lot of questions need to be asked. Where did she study, what is her experience, what are her biases, and how does she define “good?” Is she the original source for her statement or is she taking it on some one else’s authority - a TV weatherman, perhaps, and if so, should she not acknowledge the source so that the students can evaluate its validity and she can avoid the charge of plagiarism? And because absolutely everything correlates, as you know, how well did she sleep and what did she have for breakfast?
I am talking about the persistent insistence on the sorting of fact from opinion and reality from fiction that no one could claim is owned by Vassar. But I would be willing to posit that it owns Vassar, which would explain why it is so improbable that one could graduate from Vassar without having acquired that skill.
It is a way of learning and thinking that has stood me in good stead all these years, and I am more grateful for it each day as I, along with you, have to face editorials disguised as news articles, campaign rhetoric posing as gravitas, just plain gossip dressed up as veritas and all the other assaults on reason that come our way before we have even finished breakfast.
Like so many of us, I was the valedictorian of my high school class, but I learned the required material because, like Mount Everest, it was there. It was at Vassar that I learned to love to learn, as well as how to learn, how to go on learning and how to use what I learned to form my opinions and guide my actions. And it was at Vassar that I learned what living in a democracy means, that those precious inalienable rights are not a kind of goodie bag that you are given just for showing up at the party.
I began these remarks with a reference to the biographies of Vassar graduates. Taken singly or collectively, they bear witness to a college that has made generations of students understand that they have an obligation to give back, to provide leadership to their communities, to do that thing that may sound hackneyed, but has never been more needed, to work as hard as they can to make the world a better place.
My personal way of going about that has been to work for Vassar itself, to make certain that it will be here for future generations of students and to express my thanks for the full and happy life it has made possible for me.
For now, I want to thank my beloved AAVC for this very great honor and to express my deep gratitude to my husband and children for understanding so well why Vassar work was always something I had to do that they have come from all over the country to enjoy this honor with me. I am very grateful to them and, indeed, to every one of you, my old and new friends, for letting me into your lives this evening.