The Story of the Century

by Amy Halloran

A hundred years is a solid mile marker for any person, place or thing, worthy of observing with a speech or two, or maybe a million written words. In its Centennial year, The Sage Colleges’ history comes to life in Artist in Residence Leigh Strimbeck’s play, Yours; Emerita Professor of Chemistry Kathleen Donnelly’s collection of essays, Woman of Influence: Honorary Alumnae of Russell Sage College; and Paul Grondahl’s narrative account, The Sage Colleges: Russell Sage College Succeeds and Transforms Over 100 Years. All three writers found compelling stories to tell, and rich portraits of The Sage Colleges emerge.

Playwright Pens a Centennial Her-Story

The cast of Yours, including President Scrimshaw, who played herself in selected performances.

Yours is a one-act play that covers the origins of and student life at Russell Sage College, largely through the words of students as published in The Quill campus newspaper. It opened the 2016-2017 season at the Theatre Institute at Sage.

“Former students steered me,” said playwright Leigh Strimbeck. “They wrote so much about wanting to wear pants!” she added, referring to the dress codes of decades ago.

“These women always cared about their community and sought to use The Quill as a means of voicing their thoughts on how their world at Sage could be improved,” said dramaturgical assistant KD McTeigue RSC ’18.

For Strimbeck, researching, writing and revising the play expanded her sense of the campus and its history. Now, certain locations immediately remind her of President James Meader, President Helen McKinstry, or Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage’s secretary Lillian Todd. “I enjoy the research. That’s my favorite part,” said Strimbeck. “The hard part is throwing things out, taking a scalpel and removing what doesn’t serve the play.”

The original script, nearly 140 pages long, was pared down to a final 66. Losing vivid tales is critical to making drama work, but Strimbeck regretted not being able to fully present some of the personalities who influenced the college.

President Meader’s sarcastic editorial, “20 Reasons Not to Go to College,” even staged well, but ultimately, didn’t make the final cut; Strimbeck and Director David Baecker, MFA, associate professor of theatre, had to pull the audience through 100 years. Given the constraints of time and attention, the two decided to focus on the voice of the students, and highlight a few people who were instrumental to the college’s beginnings.

One of these was Eliza Kellas, founding dean. Kellas assembled the first class in less than six months, and was also the head of Emma Willard School while she was president of Russell Sage for the college’s first 12 years.

“She was a force of nature,” said Strimbeck, noting that her sister, Katherine Kellas, was also instrumental to the institution’s functioning and the two of them were known by one name, The Kellae.

Eliza Kellas is a presence for much of the play, setting the tone for the students and helping illustrate the strict expectations she and society had for women of the era. Lillian Todd, aviatrix and secretary to Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, offered a potent metaphor to carry the defining arc of the play. Staging lively scenes of Todd working on her plane allows Sage, as observer, to voice to curious reporters her interest in helping women fly.

Student Voices, 2016

At Sage College of Albany, Vernacular is the student publication that creates community across disciplines, according to Leah Rico, MFA, assistant professor, Graphic + Media Design. “The students really see the value of how literary works and visual works complement and strengthen meaning when they are together on a page, in a spread, and across a publication,” said Rico, noting that this kind of experience is hard to create in the classroom.

The Quill continues as a forum for Russell Sage College students, today. David Salomon, Ph.D., professor of English and Quill advisor, said the paper has embraced the Centennial by including a “Then and Now” photo series in each issue during 2016. For one image, staff recreated a group photo outside of Sage Hall, and had to arrange themselves by height and hair color to mirror the original.

More than the fun of these activities, and the curiosity of looking back and comparing thens to nows, though, The Sage College’s anniversary is prompting good writing and reporting.

Professor Promotes Women’s Achievements by Highlighting Honorary Alumnae

Professor Emerita Kathleen Donnelly

The Sage Colleges’ Centennial didn’t initiate Woman of Influence: Honorary Alumnae of Russell Sage College (Troy Bookmakers, 2016) but the approach of the year certainly gave author Kathleen Donnelly, Ph.D., a finish line. The idea for the book came from an acquaintance of Donnelly’s, who wanted to become better informed of women’s achievements.

“After spending 30 years reading commencement programs I thought, ‘There’s a place to start,’” said Donnelly. Throughout her career at Sage, she’d seen women receive honorary degrees. The stories behind those awards deserved telling. This project was very different from her work as a biochemist.

“A book is a real collaboration,” she said, and hers reflects the work of friends who helped her decide who to include and find the right non-scientific tone for her topic. Archivists on campus, at Emma Willard School, and elsewhere were of great assistance, helping her flesh out the names of recipients into the portraits that became the book.

Given the challenges of space, she knew she couldn’t write biographies or attempt an encyclopedia. Donnelly developed a few standards to shape her list.

“I wanted people from across the spectrum of careers,” she said, so that readers could find people to identify with in their own lives and work. “When I needed to choose between two people, I tried to select the one who was less well known.”

She wanted to make people aware of women who had been forgotten by history, so in the instance of whether to include Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker or Dorothy Brown, M.D. – who grew up in an orphanage in Troy and went on to become the first African American female to be a surgeon in the southeast, and to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly – the latter made the cut. However, Donnelly couldn’t leave out Eleanor Roosevelt just because she was famous; her involvement is too significant.

“Eleanor Roosevelt remained active with the college for 27 years after she got her [honorary] degree,” said Donnelly. This demonstrates the goals President James Meader had in establishing the honorary degree program.

Meader is the only man featured in the book. While many colleges awarded honorary degrees with ideas of attracting funding or prestige, Meader sought people who would invest their energies into the college. Initially, Meader selected recipients. Later the faculty got involved, and eventually a board guided the process.

“Eleanor Roosevelt’s fingerprints are on a number of honorary degree recipients into the 40s,” said Donnelly. “Recipients stayed involved. Some of them were on the board of trustees, some of them mentored students, or were otherwise available to students. Faculty could contact them. The connections were informal but definitely in place.” These allegiances helped create an atmosphere to foster more success for women, and the book is continuing that legacy.

Incoming students were assigned to read Women of Influence and write a response at the beginning of the fall 2016 semester. “It has been very interesting to me to read the papers and see which of the stories have the most impact on students,” said Donnelly. Students tend to choose people from careers in their field, and write that reading about the women validates their choice of major or school.

Another positive impact of the book is that the Shea Learning Center library has increased its holdings of titles by and about the honorary degree recipients. Special bookmarks in the books and identification in the catalog draw attention to these women of influence.

One of the best stories Donnelly found was the Pan-American celebration that dovetailed with Russell Sage College’s 25th anniversary. Initially, the theme was going to be the role of women in higher ed in the 20th century, but when President Meader went to a meeting in Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt and the State Department convinced him that the occasion could become a celebration of the Pan American Union.

Several of the 10 honorary degree recipients in 1941 were chosen from Central and South American countries, and the City of Troy was enlisted to help salute the union, too. Businesses had signs like “Do you speak Portuguese?” in their window, and students at Troy High made dolls that represented the honorees’ countries.

“By all accounts it was wildly successful and they were going to replicate something like this around the country to try to increase positive interaction between North and South American countries in the union,” said Donnelly. Unfortunately, Pearl Harbor changed the international conversation completely, and scrapped plans to replicate the celebration elsewhere in the United States.

“Think about how different things might have been,” said Donnelly, reflecting on the current state of cultural affairs in our country.

Sage Contributes Sense of Place to Troy Resident’s Fiction and Memoir

Author Coleen Paratore

Author Coleen Murtagh Paratore grew up in Troy. She has vivid memories of her Nana ironing work dresses for her job on the custodial staff at Russell Sage.

“I never actually saw the college until many years later but it loomed large in my childhood imaginings,” said Paratore, who later worked in the Public Relations Office at Sage.

Sage stayed with her when she went to work elsewhere, in relationships with former colleagues and in her books for middle grade readers. The college first took life in her fiction in the novel Dreamsleeves (Scholastic Press, 2012) and appears again in the memoir she co-authored with her mother, Peg Spain Murtagh, Writing it Right (Troy Bookmakers, 2014). Russell Sage has a starring role in her new novel, Roar Like a Girl (Little Pickle Press, 2016). The main character’s father accepts a position as a visiting professor of English, covering the position of Professor Craig. The name is a shoutout to former English Department Chair Gladys Craig, Ph.D. The novel is set real-time and President Scrimshaw, Associate Provost Donna Heald, Ph.D., and others make appearances, placing pieces of reality firmly into the fiction.

Award-Winning Journalist Chronicles a Century of Equity and Opportunity

For author Paul Grondahl, researching The Sage Colleges: Russell Sage College Succeeds and Transforms Over 100 Years (Mount Ida Press, 2017) made him aware of a piece of fiction about Russell Sage College’s origins. Like many, he believed the institution was born as a vindication of the namesake industrialist’s misogynism and his presumed disdain for education. However, in his research Grondahl said, “I didn’t see any evidence of Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage starting the school out of spite.”

Rather, the author learned that the college was an obvious place to create opportunities for women to extend their studies. Given the presence of Emma Willard School, the secondary school known as the Troy Female Seminary for much of the 19th century, the City of Troy was perfectly suited to site a next educational step for women.

Grondahl found that local support for the new enterprise was strong.

“Throughout the early history, Troy residents took a sense of ownership and connection to Sage I thought was unusual,” he said. “The city raised funds, and rather than the town/gown split, there was much closer collaborative feeling between the city and college.”

Given the era, some of that was couched as a duty to care for the weaker sex, but that attitude did not linger. The sense of the campus being a part of the community did.

Grondahl enjoyed discovering what the college meant beyond Troy. The research gave him a broader awareness of Russell Sage College as a pioneering voice in feminism, and leader of opportunity and access for women in higher education. “Sage always has taken its mission seriously,” he said.

Sage identifies itself as a community of scholars committed to empowering students, with a mission of To Be, To Know, To Do. While interviewing graduates from both campuses, he heard stories of that mission in action. The Sage Colleges opens doors for people who don’t have automatic access to building knowledge and skills.

At Russell Sage, that door meant creating a single-sex learning environment. Though this quality was essential for the college’s first students, Grondahl found it remains a significant benefit. Graduates such as Donna Esteves RSC ’70, a former teacher turned energy entrepreneur; Nancy Mueller RSC ’65 of Nancy’s Specialty Foods; and Ronnye Shamam RSC ’64 of Shamron Mills credited Russell Sage with helping them cultivate their voices and decision-making capacities independently of men. Working in classrooms free from the power dynamics associated with gender let them really find their footing. Yet the advantages alumnae spoke of with Grondahl were not just about the lack of men, but the presence of each other.

“I heard a lot of funny stories, and got a sense that women built a foundation at Sage that’s been important throughout their lives, more than any college I can think of,” he said. People told him about the lifelong friendships forged as first-year students paired with juniors, and over Rally days.

Like Russell Sage College, the evolution of the Albany campus was a pioneering enterprise in response to the need, following World War II, for evening classes for people who worked full time.

“The evening division filled a niche and kept growing and growing. There was a debate among faculty about this expansion, because traditionalists didn’t like the idea of an evening division,” said Grondahl.

However, the college’s mission won, and another place to empower students took root across the Hudson. Grondahl interviewed a lot of students and alumni from low income or minority families that didn’t have a history of higher ed. Thanks to the access Sage College of Albany provides, they thrived.

For a century, The Sage Colleges has been offering equity, voice and opportunity to its students. The writing generated at this time of reflection is making a good portrait of the accumulated efforts and achievements of the institution and its graduates.