Mrs. Elizabeth Storrs Mead

Louise F. Cowles


Portrait of Elizabeth Storrs Mead

[75] Before seeing this article most of the readers of the QUARTERLY will have learned that Mrs. Mead has passed from earth.

For several months she had been enjoying the delights of her daughter's winter home in Florida, reading with all her accustomed interest, riding, and finding constant joy in the lovely water views. Though growing perceptibly weaker to the watchful eyes of those who knew her best, it was only a week before her death that special fears were felt that she might not recover, and by a singular coincidence, on the same evening of March 25, Mrs. Mead and Miss Bowers entered the heavenly life. Who of us can realize what it meant for them! Mrs. Mead was brought for burial beside her husband and twin sister in Andover, Mass.

Born in Conway, Mass., May 21, 1832, so near the early home of Mary Lyon, some of her earliest memories were associated with Miss Lyon's "wonderful school for girls." As she grew into young womanhood she became a student in the excellent Seminary of Mr. and Mrs. Cowles at Ipswich, Mass. Mrs. Cowles was a life-long friend of Miss Lyon, and through her Mrs. Mead's interest in the Mount Holyoke Seminary was continued. For several years she taught in Northampton and Andover, then, in 1858, she married Rev. Hiram Mead, and came, as his bride, to his first pastorate in South Hadley. Miss Lyon had passed away nearly ten years before, but Mount Holyoke Seminary still represented her ideals and hopes for the education of woman. Mr. Mead was soon elected a member of the Board of Trustees, and both in him and in his wife the faculty and students found warm and deeply interested friends. Here their two children were born, both of whom survive her -- Mrs. Alice Swing, whose husband, Rev. Albert Swing, was for many years, until his recent resignation, Professor in Oberlin Theological Seminary, and Professor George Herbert Mead, Professor of Philosophy in Chicago University.

After a ten years' pastorate in South Hadley, Mr. Mead accepted a call to one in Nashua, N. H., and two years later was called to a professorship in Oberlin Theological Seminary. Concerning their work at Oberlin, President King has recently written: "Mrs. Mead came to Oberlin from experience as the wife of a college pastor, so that she, as well as her husband, was prepared to enter at once and effectively into the life of our College community. Professor Mead was in the service of Oberlin College as

[76] Professor of Sacred Rhetoric and Pastoral Theology for twelve years. At the same time he was for a considerable period, acting pastor of the Second Congregational Church. During much of the time of his service Mrs. Mead was doing more or less teaching in connection with the College, and was a definitely appointed Instructor for two years after his death. She was an inspiring and invigorating teacher, and brought the steadily refining influence of her culture most helpfully to hear upon her pupils. She kind a large place in the life both of the Church and of the College. I am sure it seemed fitting to her friends here that she should have had opened to her the still larger opportunity as President of Mount Holyoke, and they all rejoiced in her successful administration there."

From Oberlin she was called to Abbot Academy in Andover, Mass., as Associate Principal, where she remained for a few years, then made an extensive tour in Europe, during which she received the call to the presidency of Mount Holyoke Seminary and College. This she accepted after much deliberation, with the understanding that full college conditions should be allowed. So wise and zealous had been the work already done by those at the head of the institution, and, it should be said, so earnest was the student body, that in three years after Mrs. Mead became president the state granted a full college charter. Mrs. Mead worked most assiduously in those "transition" years for the healthful development of the institution. Always recognizing the broad foundations that had been laid before her coming, she courageously labored for a still higher standard which should be recognized as worthy a place among New England colleges.

One of her first efforts was towards the attainment of self-government in the College, and to that end she bent her energies. Stimulated by her high ideals, students loyally followed her lead, and the organization of the "Students' League" was the outgrowth of her endeavor.

Immediately after coming here she inaugurated "Founder's Day," at first very unpretentious, now developed into one of our most enjoyable and inspiring occasions. Very early in her administration she heartily acquiesced in the desire of the students, and the College Monthly was established.

So much has been said and written of "The Fire," which in September, 1896, burned to the ground our historic home, that perhaps little needs to be said here. One who sat by her side while from across the street she watched the cruel flames creep from point to point of the building, and wall after wall go crashing down, and heard her say, "Well, perhaps this is the end of Mount Holyoke College," could but agree with her. Yet two hours after, when a faithful trustee who had come to our relief asked her " What will you do now?" Mrs. Mead bravely replied: "I think we can go on!" For meanwhile many kind friends in town and near by had come to her with assurances of help in the matter of furnishing temporary homes for the homeless.

And when, next morning, in the

[77] vestry of the village church, she read to us, assembled in safety, from Haggai II, "Be strong . . . and work: for I am with you, saith the Lord of Hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine. ... The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former" -- could any heart falter? Was it strange that we sang with one voice, " Praise God from whom all blessings flow?"

There is neither time nor place to more than refer here to the soul-trying work that followed. Gradually homes were built,-- also Mary Lyon Hall which for so long has served as the center of administrative and religious work. Her joy was complete when, a short time before she left, she was told that Mr. Dwight had promised the gift of money for Dwight Hall; and she saw with prophetic eye the new library and other needed buildings.

The following are a few among many testimonials that might be given from those who knew and appreciated her.

One who has been a trustee from the earliest years of Mrs. Mead's administration writes: "I am glad to add my testimony of sincere admiration and respect for a noble woman who filled what we must always re call as a very difficult position with unvarying wisdom and dignity. Her constant self-control and tact in every condition were most unusual. It has always seemed to me a divine direction which called her to be the president of Mount Holyoke College at a time when the one at the helm must understand the seas through which the good ship had passed, and guide it into the untried track before. Her previous life in South Hadley had admitted her to the very inner circle of the Seminary life, her life in Oberlin lead hold her in all sympathy with the past traditions of conservative Christianity, while it had also given her a clear and broad outlook on what the future would demand of a Christian college. She sympathized so intelligently with the old traditions of the Seminary, and so clearly saw the way to bring the old into harmony with the new that I think Mount Holyoke College owes her an everlasting debt of appreciation and gratitude."

All who knew Miss Prentiss here will be interested in what she writes: "How complete Mrs. Mead's life was in experience and in labor for others! In meeting her one thought more of the gracious woman than of the president, and of her genuine interest in those with whom she was conversing. She looked upon the students as women, capable of womanly feeling and conduct, while remembering that they were young and entering into their youthful desires and enthusiasms. She was both conservative and progressive in her management of the College, by no l means ignoring the past, while keeping in touch with the latest tendencies and achievements of others, and profiting by their views and experience at the same time that she exercised e an independent judgment. Courageous, full of faith in God and in His purposes for Mount Holyoke's future, she inaugurated a form of

[78] government whose ideal is the best of all ideals, self-government.''

Miss Hazen writes: "A charming personality made radiant by exquisite taste in dress was the outward expression of rare gifts of mind and heart. Love for the Word of God, and thorough acquaintance with its teachings as well as reliance on prayer, were plainly manifest in all her public ministrations. Her Christian courtesy, extended toward everyone, was most marked. This principle of conduct rendered her especially careful that every statement sent out from the College should be truly sympathetic and considerate."

Miss Searles, a member of the present faculty says: "My first acquaintance with Mrs. Mead was in the spring of 1899. In our first talk I was impressed with her comprehension of educational matters in general and of the special problems of Mount Holyoke in particular. She was extremely desirous to keep all that was of proved value in the past and yet she was very progressive in her ambition for the College. Indeed she seemed to me open to new ideas in a rather unusual way for one who had been trained in the stricter tenets of the older generation. She had a clear and logical way of thinking to an issue which, granting her premises, made her conclusion irresistible. Afterward when her resignation was announced it was plain from what she had said in our earlier conversations that she was even then planning to hand on the work to another with the anxious hope that it should be at an advance from where she had received it. Then and throughout the time that I worked with her I felt that she cared much more for good work and for the permanent welfare of the College than for her own personal advantage and comfort.

"Personally and socially I found her very charming. She had a gracious manner combined with dignity. Her experiences of life had been varied and she was an interesting talker. She never seemed to be talking for effect, but in the few times when I heard her speak frankly, she showed a humor and an all around appreciation of life which interested me greatly."

Mrs. Elizabeth Slater Rogers, a teacher in the Department of Greek from 1892-1896, writes as follows: " For four years it was my happy privilege to be associated with Mrs. Mead at Mount Holyoke College The memory of those years I cherish as one cherishes the memory of gracious womanhood and gentle deeds.

"The period of Mrs. Mead's administration was one which presented the numerous and delicate problems always involved in the change from old to new. For this special task she was by nature admirably fitted. Sweet memories of her early married life spent in South Hadley made the town, its school and its people very dear to her, and her return to them after many years stirred all the tenderness and devotion of her heart. She was, furthermore, steeped in the traditions of New England, and in the history of its educational institutions. Sympathetic as she must be with the

[79] old-time standards of character and attainments, she yet manifested an eagerness of spirit and breadth of which were truly modern. Cautiously and tactfully she shaped the policy of the new Mount Holyoke. The limitations and inadequacies of the old equipment she accepted cheerfully, but with unfaltering courage and high ambition planned and labored for the new era."

Miss Vivian Small, class of 1896, now president of Lake Erie College, writes: "I went to call upon Mrs. Mead at Mrs. Swing's home in Oberlin early last October, and am happy in the realization of so recent a memory. I could see that age was doing its work. But there was no outward sign of feebleness; rather the old-time physical radiance, the same alert carriage and, above all, the same gracious, charming manner. I came away feeling as I always felt after seeing Mrs. Mead, the stirring of higher ideals within me. I think the reason why her influence was so strong with me even from my earliest freshman days was because I sensed the 'breadth and depth and height' of her experience as a woman. I felt in her the teacher, the pastor's wife, the professor's wife, the college president, the mother and the grandmother! And, to me, she glorified womanhood in all the 'walks of life.' Surely few women have touched life at more points, or lived it with larger understanding.

"There were several occasions when the assurance of her interest in me made all the difference. One was when I went to her to make application for a scholarship allowance. Mrs. Mead thought that it could be arranged and I asked her what the obligations would be. She replied, 'We expect of our scholarship girls excellent work in the class room, of course, but more especially, inexpensive personal habits, loyalty to all the College interests, both now and always, and an appreciation of the fact that the College is making a special investment in them on which it expects large returns in the work of the world. We do not expect repayment in money, except as it becomes easily convenient, but we do expect that the help will be passed on in some form to a whole succession of deserving girls struggling for an education.'

" In various ways after my graduation she showed that she remembered and was still interested in me. But best of all the dear lady honored my inauguration at Lake Erie by her presence. She did not speak at the public exercises, but she conducted the chapel service on the following morning, speaking from the words, 'I press on toward the mark of my high calling.' Any doubts that I may have had as to the nature of the 'goodly heritage' into which I had entered, or about the limits of the 'race set before me,' were forever dispelled. Once she turned and referred to me as 'this dear child' in a way that reminded me that if I were to lead I must first learn how to follow 'even as a little child.'

"Later in a private talk together, I realized something of the magnitude of her task as a transition administrator, and wondered whether in all the glory of the 'new' Mount Holyoke,

[80] and the wonder of the achievement that has in so short a time produced that glory, we are not in danger of forgetting whose vision and courage and faith largely helped to lay its foundations."

Miss Bertha Holbrook, who fills a high position in another western college, writes: "In many ways Mrs. Mead has been my ideal. Her exquisite sense of fitness, her poise and personal attractiveness meant a great deal to me from the first; and when I came to know her better, and felt free to go to her for counsel and help, I found her always loving and sympathetic. My college career might have been cut short at the end of the second year, but for her earnest advice to the contrary.

"I am sure my experience must have been one of hundreds, for Mrs. Mead always thought of girls as individuals, not 'en masse.' When I think of the women who have had most influence in shaping my life, she is among the first. I shall never think of her without strong love and gratitude."

Probably no one is better fitted to pay personal tribute than our Dean, Miss Florence Purington, who says: " It was my good fortune to be a member of the Mount Holyoke faculty during the ten years that Mrs. Mead was president and to live in the same residence hall with her nearly all of that time, so that I knew her well not only in an official capacity, but also as a personal friend.

"Mrs. Mead took up her work at Mount Holyoke at a difficult time. The College charter had but recently been secured; the public had still to be convinced that the old institution had been transformed into an up-to-date, efficient college. Many changes must be made to meet the new conditions, the faculty must be increased and strengthened and objectors and critics within and without silenced. With wonderful tact and skill Mrs. Mead met and settled difficult questions; with rare discrimination and good judgment she chose her faculty and through her influence secured harmony and cordial cooperation among them. Although she was not a Mount Holyoke graduate, she knew and loved the traditions of the place, and one of the early acts of her administration was the institution of Founder's Day. She knew how to conserve the important part of the old and she saw with equal clearness what had become useless and should be abandoned.

"In 1896 came our trial by fire, and no one who saw Mrs. Mead when Mount Holyoke was burning and heard her say, 'We shall go right on,' when such a course seemed impossible, or who listened to her strong, courageous words at the next morning's chapel service, can ever forget those moments or lose the inspiration of her calm, unswerving faith and purpose.

"To me Mrs. Mead stood and still stands for the true Christian gentlewoman. She was beautiful to look upon, always becomingly and suitably dressed, with the exquisite touches of color and bits of lace that set off her sparkling brown eyes, and her fresh, pink complexion. She had the wonderful gift that so few possess of

[81] putting everyone at ease in her presence. Poor or rich, unsophisticated or socially wise, untrained or educated, she knew what to say to each and how to make each feel at home and assured of her personal interest . I can see her distinctly as she stood in a receiving line, erect, alert, with her cheeks flushed and her eyes keen -- a gracious, sympathetic, charming presence. "

She was most hospitable, and those of us who lived in Brigham Hall with her wondered how she could be so generous of her time. She was a lover of books, and her intimate knowledge of them, her extensive travel and her broad and varied experiences, helped to make her the delightful conversationalist and companion that she was. Re fined, dignified, gentle, strong and true, she embodied the ideal of true Christian womanhood which she con stantly held before the minds of her students. "

Mount Holyoke has been for tunate in having leaders especially fitted for their time and their partic ular task. It could not have had a wiser or better president than Mrs. Mead for that difficult transition period. On the strong foundations laid so carefully by Miss Lyon and her followers she began the college structure quietly, without ostentation, but with thoroughness, prayerfulness, and devotion. I know that many Mount Holyoke daughters hold Mrs. Mead in loving and grateful memory and that they will realize more clearly as the years go by that the development and growth of these later times would not have been possible without her unselfish and efficient service."

We close with the following appreciation from our loved and honored President Woolley:

"To be seventy years young is sometimes far more cheerful and hopeful than to be forty years old' -- said Oliver Wendell Holmes of Julia Ward Howe on her seventieth birthday. When I first knew Mrs. Mead, she was almost seventy years young! Her physical alertness, her trim figure, quick step and animated face, seemed to belong to the young woman of forty rather than to the young woman of seventy.

"But this impression of youth which Mrs. Mead made went far deeper than the external. It would be difficult for us fully to realize the demand made upon her during the years of her presidency, a demand which would have taxed the physical and mental powers of a woman young in years as well as in spirit. The age of transition from Seminary to College was full of problems, problems of the teaching staff, of the curriculum, of the student life, problems of expansion, with all the financial difficulties involved, problems of change, with its attendant train of prejudices and conservatism. And then, as if that were not enough, came 'the fire,' destroying in a few hours the larger part of the material achievement of almost sixty years. A crushing blow, that would have seemed to most people. But not so to Mrs. Mead. While the fire burned, she was busy with thoughts of reconstruction, a

[82] reconstruction which laid the foundation for the 'new Mount Holyoke.' Again in an even more striking way, she showed her progressive spirit, her power of initiation, her indomitable courage in the face of difficulties.

" I have been thinking often of Mrs. Mead these days and have been analyzing my conception of her, thinking over the qualities which made up the personality that will always be vivid to me. Courage, perseverance, progressiveness, the power of initiative, vivacity, wit, consideration of others, poise, all dominated by the spirit of Christ, in other words, an able Christian gentlewoman, that is my memory of Mrs. Mead."


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