Dean Irene Nye was brought into Blackstone on the cold afternoon of September 25, 1915 by President Frederick Sykes, who led her through mud and debris to her sleeping place: a bed in the first dorm on campus, and barely finished. The dorm and adjacent New London Hall were the only buildings between campus and the Thames River. The wind whipped at them fearlessly. Nye greeted the first students with a candle; the dorm still had no hot water or electricity, and so this instrument was used to navigate and read. 12
Nye was a thin woman who wore a low, untamed bun and carried a PhD in Classics from Yale. She was the first in a stream of female professors at Connecticut College who chose career over marriage; highly educated in a male-based curriculum, she committed wholly to an infant in this, a woman’s college with new ideals. Until her retirement in 1940, Nye was a Housemother, a professor of Classics, and Dean of the Faculty. “There is no need to elaborate on those first days, nor to enumerate the many things we did without,” she wrote. “The spirit of youth filled the air; the college was young, the students were young, some of us were young and we all thought we were.”3
“Because there was no grass, wooden planks made paths over the rough, muddy grounds of the Quad,” remembered Julie Warner Comstock, a student of the first class of 1919. The first refectory was Thames Hall, and Comstock wrote that “the first meals were eaten to the rhythm of the carpenter’s hammer. Faculty and students dined together on the terra firma area while Dr. Sykes moved buoyantly among them, pouring cocoa from a silver pot. The smell of paint and fresh plaster was everywhere.”4
As the story goes, a group of women in the Hartford College Club came together in 1910 to gauge statewide interest in creating a four-year college for women in Connecticut. They were led by Elizabeth Wright, a Wesleyan alumna distressed by the University’s recent decision to stop accepting women. Barely over ten thousand of the nation’s women had college degrees, but more women were seeking higher education than ever without enough institutions to house them.
The idea was practically and economically sound, the interest was high, and roughly two-dozen Connecticut towns showed interest. A high school principal named Colin Buell spearheaded a commitment from New London, and donation offers flooded in. They had land, eighty acres from Frank Loomis Palmer; they had buildings, funded almost completely by millionaire They had a Board of Trustees, which Wright joined. And that Board had Frederick H. Sykes, a Canadian-born English professor then at Teachers College of Columbia University. Nye called Sykes “an idealist and a dreamer, but at the same time a man of substantial flesh and blood, vigor and humor.”5 She called him an illuminating lecturer, a charming conversationalist and host, with an inspiring vision of the college’s future, a faith in women, and “devotion, rarely equaled, to the cause of their education.”6 If the job of a first president is to set stable and dream-worthy foundations, physically and politically, then Frederick Sykes did his job ardently.
Most importantly, Frederick Sykes did not overemphasize the definition of woman widely held at the time, one simply of wife and homemaker. Sykes believed that with the growth of cities and technologies, the idea of “home” was expanding. To take care of a home was to improve tenements, clean up cities, and improve worker conditions. Through “our public schools, libraries, hospitals, parks, streets and municipal utilities, our semi-public institutions like churches, we have slowly developed a second or larger home shared with the whole community,” he said in a speech about the changing nature of home.7 “Man will come into his fullest life when both homes are all that they should be.” He believed that all students needed vocational training: a child who liked to draw, for example, could find a career in architecture; one who loved to put things together could find a job in mechanics.
“If you want to reach the brain of children, you must do it through the hand,” he said. “If you disregard the use of the eyes and hands in education, you are placing a brake upon the mental development of the child. We want a school system that will deliver trained, intelligent, interesting boys and girls into avenues of employment in our complex civilization, capable of high efficiency as workers, of high wages, of earlier marriages, of better homes. This means vocational training for girls as well as boys. They must learn more to earn more.” And to solidify his belief in the abilities of women, he continued, “Some men think their economic life is threatened by the competition of women – their political life by votes of women – their domestic life by the independence and personality of the new life, like the mole who first saw a subway and did not like it because it was not ‘the kind mother used to make.’”
Nye identified with Sykes’ desire to create new rules for women’s higher education as “something more than an imitation of the type of men’s colleges that prevailed 25 years ago.” Sykes envisioned a relevant college that prepared women to join the world’s causes immediately upon graduating. He saw, as she wrote, “a college that looked forward not backward; a college of breadth in its ideas and sympathies; truly religious but not sectarian, scientific, dynamic, democratic; a college for women for women, not a college for children merely old enough to be women; a college that from the first, by reason of its ideals and aims, by reason of its faculty even if small, should be individual.”8
And the task was adventurous: wrote Nancy Barr Mavity, the college’s first English and Philosophy professor, “Things were not finished—they were beginning; they were not always smooth and comfortable—but their mere incompletion gave them zest. Here we were, blessedly, preciously without traditions—ours was a new world, an opportunity to make education a part of modern life.”9 The first 125 women of Connecticut College were self-defined pioneers. Students launched Student Government and a almost immediately. United States soldiers were months away from entering the Great War, and United States women were still years away from earning the right to vote. Wrote an alumna, “There was never any question that we would govern ourselves. We just assumed that. It was not a question of ‘rights,’ but a feeling of its being up to us – our responsibility.”10
A Connecticut College News editorial from April 12, 1918 called “When petticoats vote” urged students to vote in the coming Student Government elections. “Our fourth term has come, and on Friday elections begin,” it read. “It is the privilege and duty of EVERY student to vote – carefully and conscientiously…our mothers have fought for our political equality. Some of us have already reaped the fruits of their labors: most of us still await them. But one and all, we should be ready to use them when they come. Let us summon all our powers of discussion, discretion and judgment, in the coming elections, and give the world a sample of what we shall do in our State, when petticoats vote.”11
To avoid complacency, Connecticut College established an honor system that articulated the ideals that were to be considered honorable to the new community, including academic excellence, trust, and mutual respect. As today, however, not every system worked perfectly: one student wrote a Letter to the Editor in the News in March of 1916 called “Spirit and Initiative are conspicuously lacking at the meetings of college organizations” that read, “Let us speak up at a meeting if we have a good objection to a motion under discussion. The objection may be of value. Let us not sit still and let something pass over our heads just to get the meeting over with, and then when we get outside begin to object for all we’re worth.”12 Another letter, written in December of 1919 reads, “Why have an honor system if we do not observe it? The honor system is the most important element in the spirit of Connecticut College, and, therefore, should be guarded and adhered to carefully. Let us not hark back to high school days of the teachers’ rule. Let us show ourselves that we have outgrown that stage and are ready to judge ourselves.”
Although Sykes called them women, the all-female classes of Connecticut College called themselves girls. They lived in textured granite, Collegiate Gothic dorms traditional of New England colleges, with slanted roofs, stone chimneys, balconies and heavy oak doors. These dorms were cozy, safe, and looked like home. 13 The girls had a staff of four black maids and butlers who changed their sheets and prepared weekly teas in their common rooms. Remembers Comstock, “Inconveniences were temporary, and ‘luxuries’ permanent. Each campus student found her Plant or Blackstone dormitory room completely furnished not only with bed, dresser, desk and chair, but with rugs, cretonne drapes with matching couch cover, linens and bedding, and desk lamp. There was running water in every room, and all but two or three were single rooms.”14
Early classes of wore “long dark skirts, middy blouses, high laced shoes, inevitable black headbands to control long locks, and the full and all-concealing bathing suits complete with black stockings and canvas footware.”15 They delivered mail to each other’s rooms, twice a day and once on Sunday. In those days and for fifty more years, they lived in rooms with no door locks, in dorms with house monitors. Their meals were brought tableside to square tables of eight students each, cooked by a woman named 16 The library was one room on the second floor of New London Hall. Students walked into town for laundry and shopping, and they laughed loudly, perhaps too loudly, on trolley cars, which cost 5 cents to ride: “Attention has been called not alone by the presence of numbers of girls on the cars, but, unfortunately, too often, by the shrill and rather boisterous manner in which students call out to one another from separated parts of the cars,” reads a Letter to the Editor in the News in March of 1916.17 They initiated the tradition of the “Stone Wall Sing,” singing together in the stone wall at the center of the green at first sight of each full moon. Such was the pattern that each girl made careful record in her of the day’s activities.
In the first few years of the College’s history, the trustees held just as much authority as today, but touted that power much more explicitly. Roles were not delineated; Elizabeth Wright worked on campus as Registrar and Bursar, and two others were owners of companies that did business with the College.18 When that business went awry – when the price of coal increased to a rate Sykes found unfair, when bills were paid late – trustees took grave offense, the relationship strained, and the scuffles were often in the New London Day.19 These first trustees grew to dislike Sykes.
When they asked for his resignation in January of 1917, they didn’t tell him exactly why, only that “no charges whatever were preferred” and “the vote was taken merely on account of a dissatisfaction which seems to exist.”20
Sykes said no. In his response, which he sent to each member of the Board, he offered six points of criticism, a note of the faculty’s unanimous vote that he withhold his resignation.21 The students and the faculty banded together against the Board, and the battle was messy. Helpless students expressed their worry publicly in letters to the editor, and privately in their bedrooms to their diaries.
In the warmth of her dormitory room on the night of March 15, Mildred Howard wrote in portly script, “There is quite a little trouble between Dr. Sykes and the Trustees and it has just publicly come out. The Trustees do not think President Sykes is a capable enough man for the position and have asked him to resign, but he refuses. Several of the faculty have already handed in their resignations. It will kill this college if something isn’t settled soon.”22
The News editorial board wrote on March 27, “The question still unanswered in the minds of many people is, ‘Why is President Sykes being removed?’ This question has not been satisfactorily answered either by the reports that have come out in the daily papers or by the Trustees in their statement to the Student Council several weeks ago.”
They continued, “We are proud to know that Dr. Sykes refused to accept the invitation of the Trustees ‘to slip away’ when he was asked to resign. Instead he chose to stand, as a man should, and face any charges that could be brought against him.”23 Students sent petitions to the Board demanding explanation. The trustees gave no details, so the students continued to show their support for Sykes in the only way they knew how. They went to class; they made up traditions; they stood outside Sykes’ house at quarter of seven the morning on Easter weekend to serenade him with Easter songs.
The battle of secret politics between the Board and its President ambled along. The Board refused to initially reveal their reasons for the forced resignation – instead, they had the Faculty Committee ask the President and returned at the next meeting with a statement, “In reply he requests us to inform you that such is his wish.” Next, they formed a committee to investigate why they had asked him to resign, one they called “Committee on Reasons for asking Dr. Sykes’ Resignation.”24 The meeting’s minutes show that when the Board met again a month later, on April 18, the Board took Sykes’s letter of criticism, listed each, and dismissed most.25 They found it unwarranted that he blame three unfinished buildings and an abandoned college road on their inefficiency. They acknowledged “unpleasant friction” between him and Wright and suggested that, in the future, a Board member should not be employed by the College. They defended not inviting Sykes to practically any of their meetings over the past year on “his want of practical judgment coupled with a somewhat insistent temperament.”26
Finally, to Sykes’ accusation that the Executive Committee made administrative college decisions without telling him, the committee said it was “true, but that for reasons hereinafter set forth the President had no just ground of complaint.”
The students, the faculty, and the President were given no choice. In the early 1900s, pride and public reputation ran strong; for a lowly new college community to embarrass New London’s high-powered elite and then win the fight was unthinkable. The investigation committee concluded that President Sykes “showed such business incompetency as to make it desirable that he resign…on account of his proved inability, after months of fruitless efforts on their part, to act in harmony with such committee of the Board.”
Sykes left in June, and published a goodbye letter in the News. “The soul of the College lives still, free, noble, intrepid in you,” he wrote. “It is in your keeping,—serve it faithfully…With deep affection, abiding loyalty, and grateful appreciation, your first president and class-mate bids you good-bye.”27
This marked the first split within college ranks, the first test of student obligation to the young ideals of the College. Anxious about losing the leader that poured them hot drinks and assuaged their homesickness, some thought to transfer. Some worried the College would lose momentum and go dead. But most took his spirit, however idealistic, and used it as grounds to stay. Sykes personified the College: he made it a She, her own entity with her own purpose that was bigger than the people who created her. Wrote Constantine Oudin in a letter that May, “Now that our President is going, instead of inquiring of the Trustees what the standard of our college is going to be, is it not our place to help make that standard high, by coming back to the college next year, and proving our loyalty to the college ideals that President Sykes has labored so faithfully to uphold?”28 And one student replied, “Let no one imagine that such a decision could disprove their loyalty. Those girls who cheerfully clambered over building debris in New London Hall last year; ate their first meals by candle light, and laughing said, ‘We are pioneers!’ could not be lacking in loyalty to C.C., in the time of trouble and need of support.”29
Sykes died suddenly and quietly, of a heart attack, that coming October 14. “Dr. Sykes is dead,” Mildred Howard wrote in her journal the next day. And two days after that, “I couldn’t write anything more last Monday. We were all so terribly shocked…There wasn’t a girl in chapel who wasn’t weeping a little and some were sobbing outright by the time we left.”30
- Irene Nye, Chapters in the History of Connecticut College in its First Three Administrations, 1911 –1942, 1-15. ↩
- Gertrude Noyes, A History of Connecticut College, 26-30. ↩
- Irene Nye, Chapters in the History of Connecticut College in its First Three Administrations, 1911 –1942, 9. ↩
- Julie Warner Comstock, “Half a Century: Being a Chrionicle commemorating the Golden Anniversary of the Connecticut College Alumnae Association from 1919-1969,” Connecticut College Alumnae News, August 1969, 3. ↩
- Nye, Chapters in the History of Connecticut College in its First Three Administrations, 1911 –1942, 26. ↩
- Irene Nye, “Address by Irene Nye in behalf of the Frederick H, Sykes Memorial Association, presenting to the college a portrait of Dr. Sykes” (Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives, Connecticut College (hereafter cited as College Archives), Presidents of the College Box 1, Frederick H. Sykes File, June 13, 1921). ↩
- “Dr. F. H. Sykes Discusses the Changing Home ; Only Woman Can Make the New Civilization Humane, He Says” (College Archives, Frederick H. Sykes File, newspaper clipping undated). ↩
- Irene Nye, “Some Personal Reminiscences of Dr. Sykes,” Connecticut College News, October 12 and 26, 1917. ↩
- Nancy Barr Mavity, “Dr. Barr Writes of First Days at C. C.; Recalls Pioneer Ideals,” Connecticut College News, June 8, 1923. ↩
- “Early Years: A High Adventure,” Connecticut College Alumni Magazine, August 1969. ↩
- “When Petticoats Vote,” Editorial, Connecticut College News, April 19, 1918. ↩
- “Spirit and Initiative are conspicuously lacking at the meetings of college organizations,” Letter, Connecticut College News, March 31, 1916. ↩
- McDonald, Thomas Blake. The Architecture of Connecticut College, p. 316. ↩
- Comstock, Alumnae News, August 1969. Page 7. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Draft of article for the New London Day (College Archives, Campus & Buildings: North Complex File, “Naming” folder, January 12 1962), 4-5. ↩
- Untitled Letter to the Editor, The College News, March 4, 1916. ↩
- “Meeting of the Board of Trustees, January 22, 1917” (Connecticut College Archives, Secretary’s Record, Connecticut College for Women, Vol.1), 219-220. ↩
- “F. V. Chappell Says Dr. Sykes’ Charge Is Unqualified Falsehood,” New London Day (New London, CT), March 17, 1917. ↩
- “Meeting of the Board of Trustees, January 22, 1917” (Connecticut College Archives, Secretary’s Record, Connecticut College for Women, Vol.1), 219-220. ↩
- Meeting of the Board of Trustees, April 18, 1917” (Connecticut College Archives, Secretary’s Record, Connecticut College for Women, Vol.1), 252-259. ↩
- Diary of Mildred Howard ’20 (Connecticut College Archives, Alumni Diaries box, March 27, 1917). ↩
- Untitled Editorial, Connecticut College News, March 27, 1917. ↩
- “Meeting of the Board of Trustees, February 9, 1917” (Connecticut College Archives, Secretary’s Record, Connecticut College for Women, Vol.1), 221. ↩
- “Meeting of the Board of Trustees, April 18, 1917” (Connecticut College Archives, Secretary’s Record, Connecticut College for Women, Vol.1), 252-259. ↩
- Ibid. 256. ↩
- Frederick Sykes, untitled letter, Connecticut College News, June 20, 1917. ↩
- S. Constantine Oudin, Letter to the Editor, Connecticut College News, May 11, 1917. ↩
- Mary K. Strange ’19, Letter to the Editor, Connecticut College News, June 20, 1917. ↩
- Diary of Mildred Howard ’20 (Connecticut College Archives, Alumni Diaries box, October 14 and 16, 1917). ↩