Barbara Auchincloss Thacher '40
The news of Barbara Thacher’s death last month took me back to the very earliest days of my association with Bryn Mawr College. In the late 1970s, Barbara’s spirited support of the College gave shape to its fundraising efforts. She was a near daily presence in the Resources Office, either in person or by phone—despite the fact that she served on numerous other charitable and civic boards and “managed” a far flung family network of children and grandchildren. As a very young staff member, I was astonished—and somewhat charmed—by the level of interest that Barbara took in my work. Phone calls at home at 7 a.m. on Saturday were common practice. I can’t imagine what life would have been like had Barbara been armed with a cell phone or a Blackberry.
Barbara was a fount of new ideas, all grounded in her deep conviction that this College—her college—held a very special place in the landscape of higher education, and that the world needed to know more about that. I was deputized to work on a proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities, a planning grant for a film about the life of M. Carey Thomas that was to be narrated by Katharine Hepburn. The proposal was not granted—for reasons that had more to do with the politics of feminist history at the time than anything else—but the proposal development process was quintessential Bryn Mawr. An all-day meeting around Barbara’s big dining room table in Riverdale, with Pat McPherson, Mary Dunn, and other notables, was followed by a deputation to Miss Hepburn’s brownstone in the East 80s. I was thrilled, although my companions seemed to take absolutely for granted the fact that Kate was at the table with us plotting and planning with us on behalf of Bryn Mawr.
Barbara brought her love for Bryn Mawr and her high standards to her role as Chairman of the Board of Trustees, as well. Her deep respect for the academic quality of the institution, genuine interest in all members of the community, particularly its students, and stubborn insistence that the College aim for the very best in all things made a deep impression on me. At times, however, Barbara could be challenging.
When we disagreed, I could predict her lowered brow and level stare. I learned that it was best not to dig in my heels, but to give the disagreement a bit of air and come back several days later: “Barbara, I’ve been thinking about what you asked us to do. I think it’s a great idea, but here’s what we won’t be able to get done if we shift to this new project right now.” Two out of three times, at least, this strategy worked—not a bad ratio. I also learned that there are times when it’s best to be absolutely direct.
When we were planning the timetable of the Campaign for Bryn Mawr in the late 1980s, Barbara called me to say, “Donna, I think you’ve made a mistake. There’ll be a presidential election in the midst of this campaign and that will distract our donors. We need to think this through.” I did think, for at least a minute, and said, “Barbara, we’re planning a five-year campaign. I don’t know how not to have it coincide with a presidential campaign.” She laughed uproariously at this joke on herself and we moved on to other issues. That was Barbara: big heart, big mind, big aspirations for the College.
—Donna L. Wiley, Ph.D. ’97 (former Chief Advancement Officer and Secretary of the College)
Editor’s note: Barbara Auchincloss Thacher ’40, a former president of the Alumnae Association, chair of the board of trustees and recipient of the College’s highest honor, the M. Carey Thomas Award, died on February 1, 2007. More tributes will accompany the Class of 1940 column in the August 2007 issue.
BMC and Georgia Tech
My husband is a graduate of Georgia Tech (1956) and I of Bryn Mawr (M.A. 1960). We placed decals of these institutions on our car window, thinking
that, in light of the stereotypical views many people (not we!) hold about who attends these schools, we had created an amusing juxtaposition. Imagine our delight at reading, in the November 2006 Alumnae Bulletin, about the collaboration between Bryn Mawr
and Georgia Tech to attract more women and minorities to computer studies! Just don’t call the robots “ramblin’ wrecks.”
—Jean Beveridge Meyers, M.A. ’60
I agree with Jeanine Womble ’97, who writes from her no doubt dangerous mission in Afghanistan to question the College’s choice of honorees for its first Hepburn medal. In fact, I am even more critical than she about the current Bryn Mawr craze for Katharine Hepbern.
Hepburn was beautiful, no doubt about that. And her comedic talent brought laughter to millions. But she was a long way from exemplifying the qualities the College taught us to admire. As I undertood it, we were to develop our minds and use them for the betterment of mankind. Taking these teaching seriously, thousands of Bryn Mawr alumnae have done exactly that.
To judge by recent biographies, Katharine Hepburn was far from that ideal. She was equally far from the image of jaunty female independence touted by herself and her studio publicity people. She was a notable narcissist. To advance her career in Hollywood, she is said to have employed—horror of horrors—the age-old means typically available to women but never, of course, to be engaged in by us Bryn Mawrters. As for her private life, well, it, too, was a mess. What was there to emulate but fame?
Bryn Mawr is renowed for its luminous alumnae. They are pioneers in the sciences, the arts, teaching, medicine, religion and scholarship in many fields, and most have led their lives in a uniquely honorable way. Is not the current apotheosis of a Hollywood celebrity an affront to the many Bryn Mawters who have lived, and achieved, in accordance with the College ideal?
—Priscilla Johnson McMillan ‘’50
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