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Editorial: Women of distinction

  • (Photos by Rob Mattson/Amherst College, Office of Public Affairs) Amherst College faculty, staff and students, from both past and present, join in the celebration to honor Professor Emerita Rose Olver at Johnson Chapel, on the Amherst College campus, in Amherst, Mass., Tuesday evening, January 22, 2013. Olver, the L. Stanton Williams '41 Professor of Psychology and Women's and Gender Studies, Emerita, became the first woman to hold an Amherst College tenure-track faculty position, in 1962. She is now the first woman to have her portrait hang in Johnson Chapel. Painted by artist Sarah Belchetz-Swenson, the piece resides in a stage-side, prominent position, and shows Olver in a red academic gown, holding the faculty mace, a symbol of her longtime role as faculty marshal. The evening included a reception, as well as speeches from Olver, Amherst College President Biddy Martin, Cullen Murphy '74, chairman of the college's board of trustees, Dean of Faculty Gregory Call, and a tribute in verse from Rick Griffiths, Professor and Associate Dean of Faculty.

    (Photos by Rob Mattson/Amherst College, Office of Public Affairs) Amherst College faculty, staff and students, from both past and present, join in the celebration to honor Professor Emerita Rose Olver at Johnson Chapel, on the Amherst College campus, in Amherst, Mass., Tuesday evening, January 22, 2013. Olver, the L. Stanton Williams '41 Professor of Psychology and Women's and Gender Studies, Emerita, became the first woman to hold an Amherst College tenure-track faculty position, in 1962. She is now the first woman to have her portrait hang in Johnson Chapel. Painted by artist Sarah Belchetz-Swenson, the piece resides in a stage-side, prominent position, and shows Olver in a red academic gown, holding the faculty mace, a symbol of her longtime role as faculty marshal. The evening included a reception, as well as speeches from Olver, Amherst College President Biddy Martin, Cullen Murphy '74, chairman of the college's board of trustees, Dean of Faculty Gregory Call, and a tribute in verse from Rick Griffiths, Professor and Associate Dean of Faculty. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.

    Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mary Bailey

    Mary Bailey Purchase photo reprints »

  • (Photos by Rob Mattson/Amherst College, Office of Public Affairs) Amherst College faculty, staff and students, from both past and present, join in the celebration to honor Professor Emerita Rose Olver at Johnson Chapel, on the Amherst College campus, in Amherst, Mass., Tuesday evening, January 22, 2013. Olver, the L. Stanton Williams '41 Professor of Psychology and Women's and Gender Studies, Emerita, became the first woman to hold an Amherst College tenure-track faculty position, in 1962. She is now the first woman to have her portrait hang in Johnson Chapel. Painted by artist Sarah Belchetz-Swenson, the piece resides in a stage-side, prominent position, and shows Olver in a red academic gown, holding the faculty mace, a symbol of her longtime role as faculty marshal. The evening included a reception, as well as speeches from Olver, Amherst College President Biddy Martin, Cullen Murphy '74, chairman of the college's board of trustees, Dean of Faculty Gregory Call, and a tribute in verse from Rick Griffiths, Professor and Associate Dean of Faculty.
  • Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.
  • Mary Bailey

Talk about role models. A trio of women with local ties made Gazette headlines in January for their extraordinary generosity, accomplishments and, in our view, significant contributions to the betterment of society.

A lifetime volunteer, a long-serving college educator and an under-the-radar benefactor deserve special attention for what they’ve done and how they’ve done it, and for the exemplary personal qualities they embody.

Volunteer extraordinaire

Beginning in 1951, and continuing for 62 consecutive years, Ruth Wheeler of Northampton has devoted her time and energy to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds. Last month, she was feted by her colleagues and recognized as the longest-serving VA volunteer in the United States.

Most of her time is spent on nitty-gritty administrative and clerical tasks in the business office, where she sends out health benefit renewals, patient pre-registrations and information catalogs. One colleague estimates she stuffs and seals 200 to 300 envelopes a day.

Wheeler spent her first 40-plus years volunteering at the VA while holding down paying jobs. Now 82, she continues to volunteer full-time at the VA, adding to the more than 21,000 record-setting hours she has already logged in service to ailing veterans. As Mike Walsh, the VA’s quality manager recently put it, “It’s the consistency of her presence and work that defines Ruthy. All the other volunteers look up to her.” Wheeler’s contribution has not been lost on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Voluntary Service office in Washington, D.C., which has tracked and noted her service. She inspires her colleauges daily. They recently recogznized Wheeler’s years of service by throwing her a surprise birthday bash. And it’s no wonder that the local VA director, Roger Johnson, proclaimed Jan. 24 Ruth Wheeler Day.

Pioneering educator

Rose Olver became Amherst College’s first female tenure-track faculty member after arriving on campus more than a decade before the school became a coeducational institution.

But Olver, now an emeritus professor of psychology and women’s and gender studies, did more than that.

For more than a half-century, she helped hire more female faculty members, created the women’s and gender studies department, fought for coeducation, and served in many leadership roles. She chaired two presidential search committees. She helped shape the psychology department, was one of the founders of the neuroscience program and was a faculty marshal for nearly 15 years. The list goes on.

According to Gregory Call, dean of faculty and professor of mathematics, Olver’s colleagues hold her in “tremendous esteem.” They, along with the college’s board of trustees, helped recognize Olver’s distinguished career and contributions with the college’s highest honor: the unveiling of her portrait at Johnson Chapel.

The portrait of Olver, who is married to retired U.S. Congressman John Olver, joins distinguished company in the chapel, where it hangs alongside portraits of past Amherst presidents and those of famous alumni, including Calvin Coolidge. Amherst College President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin said it is important for the portraits to reflect the foundation of the college, namely the faculty. Fittingly, in January’s ceremony, Olver became the first woman and the first faculty member honored with a portrait in the chapel, where it is prominently placed.

Manhattan benefactor

Until her death in 2011, Mary McConnell Bailey lived a modest and private life in a two-bedroom apartment on New York City’s Upper East Side. A childless widow and native of Northampton, Bailey, who died at 88, was polite, self-reliant and often enjoyed going for walks in Central Park.

Bailey’s mother had lived at 17 Woodlawn Ave., Northampton, and her stepfather, James Rennie, was a Broadway star who lived in Northampton from 1918 to 1924 and acted in plays at the Academy of Music.

Bailey was known to take in a New York Mets game on occasion and to ride the subway to get around Manhattan. Most of all, she loved the arts, and was an active donor to the New York Public Library and the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy, which oversees Central Park. After Bailey’s death, the New York Post quoted a friend and neighbor of hers as saying that Bailey didn’t care about spending money on herself and didn’t want a funeral, obituary or “any other fuss” when she died.

What few knew was that Bailey was the heiress to a fortune from the Roaring Spring Blank Book Co., best known for the marble-covered composition books used in schools.

Bailey left a simple gift in her will: $10 million each to the New York Public Library and the Central Park Conservancy.

As two of her nieces recently put it in a letter to the Gazette, Bailey saw her wealth as a responsibility and an opportunity to give to others. Her remarkable donations will surely help maintain two important civic and cultural institutions in New York City. They are gifts from a woman who by all accounts lived modestly, but gave much.

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