Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Stephens: A Look Back - 1949

Dr. Homer Rainey surrounded by his Stephens "daughters."

It’s 1949 and Stephens College this year had an “unscheduled lecturer” show up on campus.

As in Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Stephensophia yearbook doesn’t go into many details of that important visit, but thankfully, through the My Day Project, Mrs. Roosevelt’s memories of her visit are recorded online. You can read them in their entirety here.

Here’s an excerpt:

Dr. Homer P. Rainey, who is now president of Stephens College and with whom I did some work in the old days in Washington, met us as we arrived at the school. He and Mrs. Rainey had asked us to stay with them and so we spent a comfortable night and are now ready for the many activities that have been scheduled for today.
One of the girls told me last night with bated breath that she is taking a course with Maude Adams. I gasped, for my memories of Maude Adams go back many years. She was not a teacher in those days but a perfectly charming and delightful actress. No one who ever saw her in "Little Minister" or any other of the various plays that she appeared in will ever forget her charm and great ability. Evidently she is exerting this same charm over her students here.
The young girl talking to me said, It is extraordinary what depth and volume there is in her voice when she herself is such a little thing. She makes us appreciate the beauty of poetry and the value of diction.

Last year (as in 2013), Nancy O’Brien--who was Nancy Johnson and President of the Civic Association in 1949--told us more about this visit. As president of the student body, Johnson got to accompany Rainey to pick Roosevelt up at the airport in Kansas City.

On the ride back, Mrs. Roosevelt mentioned something about Adams, and Johnson said she could not resist telling the First Lady how much she loved taking Maude Adams’ theatrical speech class. Mrs. Roosevelt asked her to give Ms. Adams her regards.

The respect apparently was not mutual. When Johnson – thinking she was delivering the most important message ever – gave Adams the Mrs. Roosevelts regards, Adams wrapped her long brown coat around her, twirled around and said “Weeee are not of the same political persuasion.”

Johnson was mortified.

I went from being about 52 to about two inches tall, she recalled.

Then, of course, Roosevelt’s column appeared the next day, and Adams realized her response might not have been what Johnson was looking for. Johnson got a note from Adams apologizing for her reaction—Nancy tells us she still has the letter today.

The 1949 Stephensophia is dedicated to song, and we're told Dr. Rainey encourages music across campus. Rainey, who is in his second year as president, is a man with many hobbies. This year, we learn he was also quite the baseball pitcher.  At one time, he was even offered a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, the yearbook tells us. This year, he’s busy securing new buildings on campus including the Playhouse where drama students play opposite professional male actors.

Other guests on campus this year include Dorothy Thompson, one of the first big-name female journalists who also visited campus in 1945, and Padraic Colum, an Irish poet, novelist and children’s author.

Field trips and off-campus experiences remain a key part of the curriculum in sciences and social studies. We’re told science classes involve taking airplane rides to get a bird’s eye view of geology. Dr. John A. Decker, head of the Division of Social Studies, was one of three faculty members sent to the Far East to “study world problems.” The goal of his division now is to teach “Stephens women how to study the problems of our social order intelligently and calmly, how to use the media of communication in order to separate propaganda from fact.”

There’s a fun section in this year’s Stephensophia called “We Go to Dances” and it follows Mary Lee Tong and her date, Jim Svehla, to one of many dances. We’re told Stephens women participate in numerous dances, including annual formals, a Christmas dance and Saturday night “date dances” in Lela Raney Wood Hall. Through a series of wonderful pictures, we see Mary Lee on her date. (What an amazing dress!)

We learn that Jim proposed to Mary Lee in January of that year.

Tong, by the way, majored in drama, design and fine arts. In the 1950s, she was a runway model and later served as a fashion director and promotional executive of designer furs. And, yes, she became Mary Svehla. She and Jim were married for 58 years.

There are many notable women in the 1949 Stephensophia. A few we want to highlight:

Alana Smith became Alana Shepherd. She and her husband founded the Shepherd Center after their son was in an accident that left him paralyzed. They were frustrated with the lack of rehabilitation options in the Southeast, so they created the foundation. Today, the Shepherd Center is a private not-for-profit hospital ranked among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. There’s a great profile of Shepherd here.  

She wasn’t necessarily seeking a career in healthcare, we learn, but ironically in 1949 she represented the Ideal of Health.

Joanne Cline, president of the Campus Service Board this year, also worked in healthcare. She became Joanne Carr, a longtime volunteer and was instrumental in establishing the Child Research Center League, the predecessor of the Children’s Research Center of Michigan at Children’s Hospital.

Martha Garner, the Four Fold Girl this year, went on to Denison then earned a Master of Arts in Theology from Vanderbilt University Divinity School. As Martha Albers, she and a group of women started the Haven House for battered women in Poplar Bluff, Mo.

And Elizabeth “Becky” Beckett became Becky Dorsett. She earned a Master of Science in Education in Student Personnel in Higher Education from Loyola University. Her 2013 obituary tells us she played an active role in the successful desegregation efforts at the University of Missouri and volunteered for Chicago’s West Side Organization and various civil rights groups. 

Fittingly, this year she represents the Ideal of Service.

Know of any wonderful Stephens women we should watch out for as we browse through the pages of the 1950s Stephensophia yearbooks? Let us know! Email Janese at 

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