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Alumna changed my life

It is a rare an precious occasion when one can say, “that person changed my life.” This I can say about Barbara Auchincloss Thacher ’40, of whose death I read in the Bulletin this evening.

I had the great good fortune to work with Mrs. Thacher in the mid-1980s when she served as Chair of Bryn Mawr’s Trustees. When faced with issues global (divesting from South Africa) or local (consuming alcohol on campus), she put the issue to the students:  “How do you propose we act?” She served as an elegant and erudite Jiminy Crickett on such issues in 1986 and 1987, as the College withdrew its investments that touched Apartheid while it urged its students to self-determine their social alcohol policy. In the spring of 1987, when she learned that my mother was on the losing end of a battle cancer, Mrs. Thacher fixed her reassuring gaze on me, and offered to help in any way she could.

The help came when I most needed it: In the spring of 1989, Mrs. Thacher called me with an offer I couldn’t refuse: “Why don’t you come teach tennis on North Haven Island and help me care for my grandchildren?” While my law school classmates toiled at a summer of legal research, I had the absolute joy of assisting Mrs. Thacher as she and Mr. Thacher hosted Sarah, Elizabeth, Chessie, and Thomas (and, late in the Summer, Ben and Amanda), their remarkable grandchildren. I also had the support of Mrs. Thacher, Mr. Thacher, and the kids’ parents (Barbara Thacher Plimpton ‘64, David Plimpton, Elizabeth Thacher Hawn ‘68, Van Hawn, and Thomas D. Thacher II).

Though I was the “hired help,” I was never made to feel as such, and I cherished the same aspects that the many guests to Deacon Brown’s Point held dear: expansive Maine water views, privacy, and an almost child like sense of discovery of the island. I never adequately expressed my gratitude to the Thacher family for the gift of that summer—the Thachers’ guidance, the childrens’ unconditional adoration, the luxury of the Island. Among Mrs. Thacher’s many achievements—New York Times reporter, scholar, philanthropist—her role in my life may have been the most challenging: She bestowed light, and the love of her family, when both were needed.   

—Claudia Calloway ’88

Blended coat of arms

I have completed a 10-year research project on my ancestors, African American slaves. It strikes me that, in the Bryn Mawr tradition, my research has resulted in a distinction only a woman has, so I would like to share my story.

I discovered ancestors not only in early Colonial America, in the Caribbean and in the Virginia Colony, but also in Ghana in the 1600s and in medieval Scotland. DNA comparisons confirmed my family’s Ghanaian ancestry. I used our family’s nicknames and early British American Caribbean Maroon slave history to identify my ancestors’ surname and villages. I also used the history that survived in my family, slave journals and historical reports.

The Scots reviewed my family’s and ancestors’ birth, marriage and baptism records and granted me a coat of arms in 2005. It turns out the Scottish merchant on our family tree was from nobility on both his mother’s and father’s sides.

I did the research to satisfy my own curiosity and had initially viewed the grant of a Scottish medieval coat of arms, authorized by Queen Elizabeth II, as a novelty. It was not until someone in Scotland sent me a link to a Duncan Armorial Roll website —shields represent the male coat of arms; the oval represents the female) that I realized its weight and historical significance. After reviewing the list of similar grants, I found that mine was the only one granted to a female, the only American, and an African American at that. (Several historians and sociologists have quoted my research in scholarly books and journals.)

The Scots graciously acknowledged my blended ancestry, as I requested.  In my coat of arms, the chevron represents the Scottish nobles who were builders of churches and other buildings; the royal lion, rampant, standing on its hind legs represents these nobles’ royal ancestry; the green represents my medieval African ancestors who were farmers and village chiefs in the hills of Akuapem in Ghana; and the Tree of Life Lignum Vitae flower is the national flower of Jamaica where these ancestors settled together. The inkwell represents my career as a writer and researcher.

—Pearl Duncan ’69


We welcome letters expressing a range of opinions on issues addressed in the magazine and of interest to the extended community. Letters must be signed in order to be considered for publication. We may edit letters for accuracy, length and civility.


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