Re: Living History: Elizabeth Adams Daniels '41

By Gaylen Moore '66

On a bleak gray day in early February, snow high on the ground, Betty Daniels and I are driving to Bard College where she is making a video presentation about astronomer Maria Mitchell, the first professor hired by Matthew Vassar for his new women's college. (I had hoped to go on one of Betty's tours of Vassar, but she doesn't do them in the winter.) Betty points out the historical sights as we pass them—the Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park. She's wearing make-up today which is unusual. In a black sweater, a red jumper with matching red shoes, a bold turquoise and silver necklace around her neck, its difficult to believe that Vassar College Historian, Elizabeth Adams Daniels '41 is 83 years old.

When she prepared the videotape with colleague Jim Steerman and producer Nancy Alden in 1987, Betty thought she had collected and catalogued every artifact, photograph, and document of Maria Mitchell that existed at the college. Then about three years ago, “the Dean's assistant called me over to the observatory one day. They were clearing out closets and found shelves full of crystal photographic plates, all clearly labeled in Maria Mitchell's handwriting.” They were records of sunspot activity which Mitchell and her students had photographed daily in the 1860s. Betty took charge of the treasure trove and installed it in the Vassar College Special Collections.

Today, the audience for the Maria Mitchell show is the Bard Institute for Seniors. When the videotape is over, and the lights turned on, Betty waits a moment to get her audience's full attention. I can feel her anticipation, her excitement. “Were you not absolutely amazed,” she asks, raising her eyebrows and the volume and pitch of her voice at the same time “to see that Maria Mitchell took seven Vassar students to Burlington, Iowa in 1869 to observe a total eclipse of the sun, and took another group to Denver, Colorado in 1878. Don't you wonder how they got there?”

Betty's wonder and amazement about the institution of Vassar College and Matthew Vassar's vision to found a secular college dedicated to a classless democratic community of women engaged in rigorous intellectual exploration and discovery has never ceased. It began the first day she passed through Taylor Gate in 1937 as an undergraduate and has continued undiminished to the present day. There have been very few years since then that Betty Daniels has not been connected with Vassar College. She graduated from Vassar in 1941, became a faculty member in 1948, was Dean of Freshmen from 1955 to 1958, Dean of Studies from 1966 to 1973, Chairman of the English department twice, from 1974 to 1976 and in the 1980s, and acting Dean of Faculty from 1976 to 1978. She retired in 1985 for the weekend. The following Monday, President Virginia Smith appointed her as the Vassar College Historian, the position she currently occupies. Why has Betty Daniels stayed so long at Vassar College? Why did she choose to ally herself and her life with this institution?

In the kitchen, Betty is making coffee. This is a first. No one in the Daniels family drinks coffee, they don't even own a coffeemaker, so I usually bring my own coffee and Melitta filters when I visit so that Betty, always the perfect hostess, doesn't go out at the crack of dawn to a 7-Eleven to get take-out coffee. Betty announces she has unearthed a percolator from among the possessions she packed up from her house at 129 College Avenue when she moved into a succession of two condominiums she has lived in since her husband John was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He died this past September, four years after going to live in an attended care center in Shelburne, Vermont near their daughter Sherry. Betty visited him twice a month there. “He would have been 87 years old today,” says Betty, giving me a picture of John Daniels the way I remembered him, smiling fit, a handsome man.

I've been visiting the Daniels family since 1963 when Betty's daughter, Eleanor and I became friends at Vassar. I had known Ellie for several months before I found out that although she lived in Noyes, her family lived down the street, and her mother was the very strict English professor who specialized in Victorian Literature. Whenever Ellie and I went by the house to do laundry, or to pick up a car for a weekend road trip, I hoped her mother wouldn't be there because she intimidated me. It seemed to me, even then, that Elizabeth Daniels was an institution at Vassar College.

It wasn't until Ellie was diagnosed with cancer that I began to get to know Betty, and it was the long struggle that led to Ellie's death twelve years ago that has made Betty my friend. But when I took this assignment to write her profile, I realized I knew very little about Elizabeth Daniels.

When the coffee is finished perking—it looks menacingly dark—Betty pours it into cups, we both add generous amounts of milk, and then go into the living room to talk. The room is bright with sunlight; on the wall, Ellie's paintings sparkle with color. As Betty and I talk, I catch glimpses of the view of Florence seen from the courtyard of a Renaissance villa in Fiesole where Ellie and I sat one afternoon chatting, while she made her first sketches for this painting.

Elizabeth Daniels was born Dorothy Elizabeth Adams in Westport, Connecticut on May 8, 1920 at home. “My brother carved the date on the eaves in the attic,” says Betty. “It's still there. I visited the house recently.” Her mother, Minnie May Sherwood Adams, was a school teacher at Adams Academy which her great grandfather, Ebenezer Adams, started before the civil war as a prep school for Yale. Betty's father, Thomas Davies Adams, was a mechanical engineer who commuted everyday to New York City to the Borden Company. Her brother and sister were 12 years and 9 years older than she was. “I was brought up as an only child.”

When Betty was 15, her mother died of cancer. Her siblings had already graduated from college and were out on their own. There was no one at home to look after her during the day, so she and her father moved to an apartment on East 44 Street in New York City and Betty enrolled at St. Agatha Episcopal Day School. At St. Agatha, Betty says, she rapidly became a “Teacher's Pet kind of person.” She had ambitions to be a teacher like her mother and her Aunt Dorothy who was principal of an elementary school “and a revered educator in Connecticut.”


Betty Daniels walks towards the library, Main Building and the famous Vassar Tree behind her
Betty Daniels walks towards the library, Main Building and the famous Vassar Tree behind her

Life with her father in New York City was very different than the life she'd been living in Westport. “My mother was a puritan—no movies on Sundays, things like that. My father was a more cosmopolitan person, and I became liberated under his influence.” When it came time to pick a college, there was no question. Vassar had a reputation as a liberal college and St. Agatha had close connections with Vassar.

Betty Daniels' experience at Vassar as an undergraduate was shaped by two people. One was Helen Lockwood, her freshman English teacher, who helped Betty focus her ambitions. “I knew by my sophomore year that I wanted to be a teacher at Vassar College.” The other person was her father who told her in the car as he was driving her to Vassar to begin her sophomore year that he had colon cancer. “That's when it was set in my mind,” says Betty. “That was the important reason for me to succeed as a student at Vassar.”

Betty's father died several months later. His death, coming so soon after her mother's was devastating. “It took me quite a while to get used to the idea that I was on my own.“ Her sister officially became her guardian, but Helen Lockwood who taught Victorian literature and Anna Kitchel who taught poetry from Blake to Keats became Betty's surrogate parents. Eight years later, they were instrumental in getting her a position on the Vassar faculty.

In 1942, Betty got her Masters Degree in American Literature at the University of Michigan, and married John Lothrop Daniels, a graduate of Harvard '38. They had met for the first time in 1940 at a New Year's Party in New York City, through a friend of her sister's. Betty didn't see him again until four months later. “I was bowling in Kenyon on a Sunday afternoon when this very handsome man came walking down the aisle. He'd been on a date at Smith and it hadn't worked out. He took me to the Dutch for dinner.” They were married two years later.

They lived in Long Island while John worked for Grumman Aircraft. When John joined the Marines and went overseas, Betty went to live with his family in Forest Hills, New York. Her son John was born in 1943, before he left for the Pacific; her daughter Eleanor was born in 1944. When the war was over, the family settled in Poughkeepsie where John started a self-service laundry business, and then joined Merrill Lynch. A second daughter child, Sherry, was born in 1946.

Betty joined the English department at Vassar College as an instructor in 1948. She started mid-year as a replacement for another professor. When she hired her, President Sarah Blanding pointed out that no other women on the Vassar faculty had a husband and three children, “It will be hard to teach, get a Ph.D., and take care of your family,” said Blanding, ”but if anyone can do it, you can.” The college arranged Betty's teaching schedule to give her one day a week to commute to New York University. It took seven years to get her Ph.D., during which she took a leave of absence when her daughter Ann was born in 1952.

How did Betty manage? “I had housekeepers—good ones and bad ones, I had Vassar students to baby-sit.” As a stockbroker, her husband John kept early hours, so he was often home by late afternoon. What did he think about her teaching all week, and working on weekends to meet the demands of her Ph.D.? “I don't know if it bothered him or not,“ says Betty. “I just did it. He knew I was going to do it anyway.”

As a faculty member in the English department at Vassar, Betty taught a wide range of courses—Critical Writing, Expository Writing, English Novel, Contemporary Novel, Contemporary Press, History of the English Language. She taught seminars in Dickens and George Eliot and helped organize the Victorian Studies program.

In 1955, Betty became Dean of Freshmen, the first of many appointments as an administrator. It was followed by her appointment as Dean of Studies in 1966. In this job, Betty quickly developed a reputation as a “tough cookie” (her words). Her predecessor had been a very flexible dean. “I couldn't do that,” says Betty. “A rule is a rule. There was a kind of strait jacket on students, I was fighting the strait jacket myself, but it was the job I accepted, so I did the job as I saw it.” Years later, Betty reflects, “I learned to be less strait-jacketed as I went along.”

The sunlight in the room is fading. I can feel Betty's restlessness. All this talking about herself is making her nervous. She suggests we go over to the college while it's still light to visit the chapel. She wants to follow-up on a question that someone in the development office had e-mailed to her that morning.

The job of Vassar College Historian didn't exist until Betty Daniels invented it. When she was Dean of Studies, she learned that under her office, in the basement of Main Building, were the records of every student who had ever applied to Vassar College. One day she went down to the basement to take a look. “It was a loathsome place. The records were all filed carefully in folders and organized by year in boxes that were piled six high in puddles of standing water. My goal was to get those records out of there as soon as possible.” This was just one of things Betty planned to do as Vassar Historian when she proposed the job in a letter to President Virginia Smith in 1985.

Betty and two student assistants began inventorying the records in the basement in 1986. “One of us stood on a ladder to pull out the box, the other read off the names of the students in the files, and the third person wrote down the names.” Says Vassar Dean, Colton Johnson, “All the students who worked with Betty in the basement over the years became enamored of the process.” The final inventory was completed a year and a half later and put into the computer by the head of the computer department who had to invent his own system to do it.

After that, there was no stopping Betty. “I was in loco archivist. We saved a ton of papers.” Was it all worth saving? “We would never have known who our first students were. We would never have understood the need to establish a preparatory school for the students who didn't qualify for admission. There's great value in these records. I could spend the rest of my life writing the history of admissions to Vassar.“

“She literally found our history,” says Frances Fergusson. “We wouldn't have undertaken this work, or even seen the need for it if it weren't for Betty.” Other services Betty has performed as Vassar historian have included tracking down pieces of a mastodon skeleton known as “the Vassar Mastodon” that had been given away to a professor at New Paltz College many years ago, and personally overseeing the shredding of the infamous posture pictures which turned up at the Smithsonian a few years ago.


Betty sits at a desk in the library, researching Vassar's history
Betty sits at a desk in the library, researching Vassar's history

One of the forces that drives Betty in her job as historian is the thrill of the hunt. “It satisfies my soul to seek out an answer to a question,” says Betty. “I don't like not succeeding once I start on it.” “She's tenacious,” says Fran Fergusson. “If I have a question or I need something for a speech or a reunion, she'll research it, hunt it down until she finds the answer.”

The chapel is open; a student is practicing on the organ. Betty motions for me to follow her to the stairwell where she explains the question she is researching: are the stairs original to the building or were they modified later on, because it seems odd that the stair landing comes right in the middle of the Tiffany stained glass window. In fact, to read the inscription at the bottom of the window, we have to go downstairs to the basement. Betty and I walk up and down the stairs several times to examine the evidence. Then we go outside to look at the windows from the outside. I think it's clear that the stairs were changed, but Betty reserves judgement until she can research it further with blueprints and other information in Special Collections.

Special Collections is in the basement of the library. The college's most valuable documents are now housed in this glassed in, climate-controlled room behind two locked doors under the vigilant eye of the archivist Ron Patkus and his assistant Dean Rogers. When students or faculty request items from Special Collections, they can examine them in the Elizabeth Daniels Room which was given as a gift to Vassar by the class of 1941 in honor of Betty at their 60th Reunion. There's a plaque with an inscription to this effect, and a black and white photo of Betty on the wall.

The other three things Betty proposed to do as Vassar College Historian in her letter to Virginia Smith were: write a book about Vassar's buildings, (she wrote two books, Main to Mudd, 1987, and Main to Mudd and More, 1996); write a chronology of Vassar history (see Vassar's website); and answer any question about Vassar College on demand—by phone, fax, e-mail, or mail. “By God, I'm doing that,” says Betty.

Another force that drives Betty is her love of history. The books she's written interweave the history of Vassar's buildings, its visionaries (Bridges to the World, the story of Henry McCracken's presidency of Vassar college from 1915 to 1946, published in 1994), the educational policies and decisions that have shaped the institution and women's education (“Full Steam Ahead in Poughkeepsie,” The Story of Coeducation At Vassar 1966-1974, with Clyde Griffen, published in 2001) and the personal experiences of decades of students, faculty, administrators, and trustees. (She's collected more than 120 oral histories.) Her next book, already taking shape, will be called Decisions Large and Small that Changed Vassar. “By finding and disseminating our history,” says Fran Fergusson, “Betty allows us to see the continuity of the institution. We don't realize how much of what we are doing is embedded in our history.”

Much of the Vassar history that Betty is dedicated to preserving and disseminating has been shaped by her. “Beginning as an enforcer and gritting my teeth to carry out the rules as Dean of Studies, I became instrumental in eliminating those rules to create a more flexible academic and community life for students.” Most of the college's major policy decisions coincided with Betty's eight-year tenure as Dean of Studies in the early '70s when traditional notions about women, education, and sexuality were being challenged. In 1966, articles in the Miscellany News talked about Vassar being “sick” and students demanded changes in residential and academic life.

This social turmoil in the Vassar community was a prelude to the major decision at the college in the last 50 years: whether to merge with Yale or to stay in Poughkeepsie and become a coeducational institution. The process began when Simpson convened a long-range planning committee in 1966 to explore the future development and direction for Vassar, including the possibility of coeducation. Betty was a member of that committee. “We examined everything—residential life, curriculum, faculty, the student population—there were 20 things on our agenda,” says Betty.

Later that same year, the story of a possible merger between Yale and Vassar was leaked to the press. In January 1967, President Alan Simpson convened a Vassar-Yale Study Committee to consider the merger. “It was a very difficult time for the college,“ says Betty. “People were fighting about it everyday.“ Some students and faculty passionately wanted the merger; others just as vehemently did not. Many of the alumnae were against it and threatened to withdraw their financial support.

President Simpson recognized the need to study alternatives to a merger and in September 1967 asked Betty to chair an Alternatives Committee to explore what Vassar would look like as a coeducational institution. In November 1967, the trustees considered the findings of both the Vassar-Yale Study and Committee on Alternatives, and made their decision. They voted to keep Vassar in Poughkeepsie, but to admit men, and another committee—the Committee on New Dimensions—was formed to develop a blueprint for the new Vassar.

Betty brought her experience as Dean of Studies to the New Dimesions Committee and the development of a 100 page comprehensive plan for Vassar that included, among other things, a new curriculum that “freed students from the lockstep progression of courses and prerequisites that I had to enforce.” The result was a more flexible curriculum with multi-disciplinary courses, fewer mandated course requirements, and more opportunities for independent study and study outside the Vassar campus. “A new, modern Vassar College was created,” says Betty. “It was a decisive moment in Vassar's history, and I had something to do with it.”

It's Sunday morning and Betty has her regular 8:30 tennis game with three friends at the Poughkeepsie Tennis Club. Afterwards, Betty takes me to the Aurora Caf� in downtown Poughkeepsie for cappuccino and powdered-sugared pastries. Long after we graduated from Vassar, Ellie and I used to go there when we took time away from our lives to spend a weekend together. The shiny black marble tables are still there. You can see your face in them.

One of most satisfying outcomes of coeducation, Betty feels, was the flexibility it gave women who wanted to enter the college. “Women who were married, had children and went to a two-year college could now come to Vassar if they met the requirements,” says Betty. “It was an end-run around the admissions office. I admitted a lot of women that way. “ It was also a return to the golden age of Vassar's first years, revealed in those files in the basement, when women were given every chance to qualify and attend Vassar College.

The role of women in literature, in society, in the Vassar community have been a consistent theme throughout Betty's life. Her very first book, published in 1972 was the story of Jesse White Mario—a Victorian woman who became a revolutionary in the Italian Risorgimento. “I was ahead of my time. I wrote it before feminism started.” At the end of the 1960s, a student who went on to become the Dean of Faculty at Vassar proposed that Vassar design a women's studies program. “It was too early,” says Betty. “When Virginia Smith came to the college in 1977, a women's studies program was developed and I helped promote it.”

Empowering women is another force that drives Betty—the need to keep alive Matthew Vassar's vision of expanding women's learning and opportunities—a vision that Betty herself has fulfilled in her own life. In one of her favorite passages about Vassar, the college's first president, John Raymond wrote, It seems like a dream, the sudden transmutation of this great lumbering pile of brick and mortar, which hung on my spirit like a mountainous millstone, into a palace of light and life…On every side, it sparkled like a diamond…The blinds were generally open and everywhere fair young forms were moving around, and merry voices were heard in conversation and song. At the rear the pianos were going, and you would have thought the building had been inhabited for years instead of hours. We have a fine set of students, and they make themselves at home at once and behave beautifully. The work of reducing this beautiful chaos is, of course, great, and we are now at it…

Betty brushes powdered sugar from her fingers and looks at me intently across the black marble table in the cafe. “This is a world I've lived in. It's a real world. I know more about the community that Matthew Vassar lived in than anyone else. That's why when I give tours or presentations about Vassar, I don't have to search for words or dates or what went on. I understand the small and big ideas and the unfolding of events through the years. I've become part of Matthew Vassar's community. It's the way I've been fulfilled because I'm present in the past, as well as the present.”

We leave the cafe, and Betty drives me to the train station. She's worried I'll miss my train, but I'm reluctant to end our conversation. For 60 of the last 66 years, Vassar College has been Betty's family. She has suffered the pain of loss, as well as the joy of growth, learning, and discovery in this community. I ask her, “Why? You could have been a college president yourself somewhere else. Why did you stay?”

“I'm satisfied to spend my whole career at Vassar College until I die. I can't think of anything I'd rather do than spend my time thinking about Vassar, its history, the alumni, and the students I've met.” I lean over to kiss her goodbye and get out of the car. She waits for a few minutes to see that I still have time to catch my train, and then drives off.

Gaylen Moore '66 is the author of several books, including Particular passions, Talks with Women Who Have Shaped Our Times. She is currently an education consultant in New York City.