UPDATED: Jill Ker Conway, first female president of Smith College, dies at 83

  • COURTESY SMITH COLLEGE COURTESY SMITH COLLEGE

  • Former Smith College president Jill Ker Conway, center, sits with former president Carol Christ, left, during the inauguration of Smith College President Kathleen McCartney, right, in October 2013. Conway died Friday at home in Boston at the age of 83. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 6/2/2018 9:46:47 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Jill Ker Conway, an accomplished historian and the first woman to serve as Smith College president, died on Friday at the age of 83.

A native of Australia, Conway was named as the seventh president of Smith in 1975 and served in that capacity for a decade. During her tenure, she was credited with nearly tripling the college’s endowment, overseeing the construction of Ainsworth Gymnasium and helping in the development of initiatives like the Ada Comstock Scholars Program for students of non-traditional age.

“She was so important to the Smith community,” current President Kathleen McCartney told the Gazette. “She was a larger-than-life figure on the Smith campus still.”

Conway arrived in the United States in 1960 as a graduate student at Harvard, where she specialized in the history of U.S. women reformers. She was only 39 when she was named president of Smith — a feat that earned her Time magazine’s “woman of the year” title during the first year of her tenure.

Then-President Barack Obama awarded Conway the National Humanities Medal in 2013. She was also a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until 2011.

“When she arrived on the Smith College campus in 1975, it was just an electrifying event,” said former Provost Susan Bourque, who at that time was a faculty member. “She came in with a wonderful mission and an absolutely fabulous sense of energy.”

Bourque said Conway managed to leave a deep legacy during her decade-long tenure, but Bourque actually met Conway in 1969 during a speech at Cornell where Bourque was a graduate student. The two spoke for 30 minutes after the event.

“I was just overjoyed when they selected Jill,” she said of Conway later becoming Smith president.

Bourque said she will remember Conway’s “wonderful sense of humor… a kind of perception into the folly of human experience that led her to great perspective and laughter.”

McCartney said that even today only 20 percent of college presidents are women, speaking to what a trailblazer Conway was in her time. McCartney read all three of Conway’s memoirs when she herself became Smith president, though she read them out of order so that she could read the second — about Conway’s tenure at Smith — before the rest.

McCartney said she has received numerous letters from alumnae and others expressing the significance of Conway’s legacy in their lives.

McCartney said there was one alum who said Conway was “dignified yet accessible.” Incoming Harvard President Lawrence Bacow wrote to McCartney to say that Conway was a terrific adviser to him.

“She just touched lives professionally and personally,” McCartney said.

Notes from alumnae also came into the college’s website over the weekend. One note, from Pamela Eustis Miller, noted Conway’s commitment to sports.

Miller said that around 1978 she was playing rugby for the school’s club team. Because the team was not an official school team, she wrote, they would have to put up their own end posts, which cut into practice time and caused the team a big headache. So Miller wrote to Conway, who invited the student to her fancy home.

“We talked about growing up in Australia, shearing sheep, the weather in Massachusetts, but not much about rugby (though she had played Aussie Rules with male relatives when she was young),” the note reads. “Didn’t say much about uprights. When I turned up for the next practice, there they were. Regulation size, and permanently affixed in a field now dedicated to our team. She paid for them herself.”

A funeral service will be held at St. Mark’s Church in Conway at 11 a.m., Saturday, June 9. A memorial will be held on campus later this year.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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