A Tribute to Charles Shain by Joyce Todd O'Connor '68
In President Shain’s welcoming speech to the class of 1968, on our first day as Connecticut College freshmen, President Shain said, “Our design is nothing less than to set your life on a new bias — to let you know and feel four years hence that you have gone through college and feel the difference, as a special kind of experience for the rest of your life. We want you to play out a drama of the intellect and of the spirit.” He would tell us time and time again, “This is a precious time of your life and I ask you to think how you are using it.”
President Shain passed on his wisdom and demonstrated his leadership skills during a period of tumultuous changes in our country and across college campuses — a time when student voices were indeed heard all over the land. It was also a time of violence as a nation mourned the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and the Kent State tragedy. During his Presidency, a lot of changes occurred on campus; increased minority enrollment, increased financial aid, new majors such as Chinese and Asian Studies and Dance, to name a few. New buildings arose such as the Cummings Art Center and the Lazrus House Cooperative Dormitory; seniors were appointed as Housefellows; parietal hours became a thing of the past, and yes, men on campus and the transition to coeducation — perhaps President Shain’s greatest legacy.
And that is exactly when, where, and how I got to personally work with President Shain. Because as a writer for the ConnCensus college newspaper in 1967, I was to write a lengthy feature story titled, “Will Co-Education Come to Connecticut College?” Amidst all kinds of rumors circulating around campus about joint programs with nearby male colleges, I got to cover the story. Every time President Shain left the campus to go to Wesleyan, Princeton, Yale, his visits fueled articles in national publications such as Newsweek magazine.
I camped outside his office door waiting to hear about his latest discussions. You have to understand that this was not a hardship assignment. President Shain was a warm, friendly, gracious, humorous and a very handsome man — did I mention charming as well? We were both fans of American literature and in our talks he always told me that the best education that you will get at Connecticut College is the one you give yourself. In that respect, President Shain was responsible for my favorite avocation — fundraising. He personally introduced me, during one of our meetings, to John Detmold, who was then chairman of the Development Department, and encouraged me to become one of the first members of what came to be the student development committee who were trained to visit and meet with alumnae when President Shain spoke to alumnae in different cities in the Northeast. For the last twenty years I have worked on many boards serving in this fund-raising capacity.
Although I was an English major, I loved my botany courses and the Arboretum, and often we walked through the campus in our meetings and interviews. I remember we both loved to watch the sunsets on campus at the end of the day enjoying the peacefulness and serenity. As you can see, we managed to talk about a lot of different subjects, but I knew right from the start that he was in favor of going coed. There was no doubt. On one Princeton trip, he told fellow alums “Coeducation is inevitable in American colleges and universities,” He went on to say that “Coeducation was God’s plan” — not much doubt there!
President Shain was a superb leader at this time for this issue because he truly listened to the 1400 undergraduate students who had chosen a women’s college and he responded to them. He was also mindful of the feelings of a faculty who had elected to teach at a women’s college and he was aware of the importance of the need to communicate with the alumnae. Somehow, as a master juggler, he managed to present this transition to coeducation in a way that was acceptable. The essence of his leadership was his willingness to create and manage change and accept the unremitting challenge to shoulder whatever responsibility that would entail.
We each bring a gift to this life, whether it’s a special smile, the ability to teach, to be a good parent, to be a community volunteer or — a college president. These gifts will be our legacy and they come from the part of us that wishes fervently to live life to the fullest.
Sometimes I feel that Charles would say “Whatever mark I leave behind me will be my sunset, and those who might observe it someday will hold me accountable for the feel and warmth of its light.”
On Alumnae Day, 40 years ago, President Shain welcomed the alumnae (back in 1962) by saying, “I hope your old college has never seemed to you more beautiful, stronger or more confident of its educational role.” Well Charles, we are here today, 40 years later in the warmth and light of your sunset, and things at Connecticut College truly are beautiful, academically strong, and the graduates of Connecticut College are going out all over the world to continue to learn and grow, to become today’s leaders and manage the change and growth which you demonstrated to us all so well.
Thank you for your leadership and presence in our lives.