Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2010


Countdown to the Centennial! Photo of Blaustein Humanities Center by Harold Shapiro.

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Countdown to the Centennial

Countdown to the Centennial

You're invited to the celebration of the century

By Lisa Brownell

Every great story needs a great beginning.

The founding of Connecticut College had it all: a wrong that needed to be righted, twists of fate, and a fortuitous combination of forward thinking, selflessness and a belief in the power of education.

It started on a hilltop where cows had grazed for centuries in fields that overlooked Long Island Sound and the Thames River. Here, thanks to the contributions from about 6,000 New Londoners, from message boys to a multimillionaire, Connecticut College was born.

“The Centennial is an opportunity to celebrate both the history of Connecticut College and the broad, globally oriented academic experience of today,” President Leo I. Higdon, Jr., says. “We are moving into our second century with tremendous momentum.”

What's past is prologue

The series of fortunate events that led to the founding of the College in 1911 actually began with a major setback: Wesleyan University announced in 1909 that it would no longer accept women as students. At a time when more women were demanding their rights, including the right to vote, the decision left the state without a four-year college for half of the population.

In response, a group of concerned citizens formed a committee, chaired by Elizabeth C. Wright, a Hartford teacher and Wesleyan alumna, to explore the establishment of a women's college. The committee found strong interest across the state and, before long, a promising site on a grassy hilltop above New London's harbor.

The quest was not over. In order to secure state funding for the new college, New London would have to compete with several other cities vying for the honor. The state required a $100,000 investment from the city to ensure that the proposal would succeed. And the city had to deliver in 10 days. New Londoners answered the challenge to “Get it by March 1st!” by digging into their own pockets, exceeding the goal by $35,000.

The College's new board of incorporators (later the board of trustees) petitioned the state for a charter, and by April 5 the ink was drying on that historic document. The chairman of the board was financier Morton F. Plant. At the second meeting of the trustees that spring, held at a time that conflicted with a game by his beloved baseball team, a restless Plant posed the famous question, “Would it help if I just gave you a million dollars?” It would — and he did.

Soon the founders were hiring faculty and designing a program for “the best education of women, meeting the demands of the times.” When classes began, in 1915, 14 majors were offered: English, Greek and Latin, modern languages, history, social sciences, psychology and philosophy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, hygiene and physical education, dietetics, design in fine and applied art, and music.

Planning to celebrate

How should the College celebrate a milestone of this significance? Planning for the centennial began last spring with brainstorming sessions on campus and a survey of alumni and campus constituents. In February, Higdon appointed a Centennial Committee made up of 29 faculty and staff members, students, alumni, and trustees. Patricia Carey, vice president for College Relations; Margaret Thomas, associate professor of music and chair of the music department; and Leah Lowe, associate professor of theater and chair of the theater department, are co-chairs of the committee.

The committee's initial work was to create a Founders Day celebration on April 5, 2010, the 99th anniversary of the signing of the College's charter. The event incorporated a theater performance of alumni stories, a tea honoring emeriti faculty and the kickoff of the College's updated visual identity. Later in April, the gender and women's studies department held a colloquium on “100 Years of Women's Education at Connecticut College,” framing some of the issues at the heart of the College's history.

The committee chose “Great Beginnings” as a theme for the Centennial, a phrase that pays tribute to the founding of the College but also to the many beginnings and turning points throughout its history, such as the transition to coeducation in 1969. In a larger sense, the theme also embraces the idea of the opportunities afforded by higher education and its life-changing effects on an individual.

Fall Weekend will be the largest celebration of the Centennial year, with special lectures, panel discussions and other programming to highlight the College's history, strengths and achievements. Other major observances of 2011 will include Founders Day, Commencement and Reunion. In between and in conjunction with these dates will be special lectures, exhibits, campus gatherings and off-campus alumni events. Highlights will include a March 1 “Honor New London Day”; a partnership with StoryCorps, a nonprofit that records and preserves the stories of individuals; an alumni speaker series planned by students; and a special Centennial edition of this magazine next fall. Students will enjoy a revived tradition from the past: a monthly tea in the common rooms.

A special Centennial season of onStage in 2011-12 will feature cabaret singer Mary Foster Conklin '79; the Mingus Big Band, which plays the music of the late jazz legend Charles Mingus; and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a world-renowned dance company that has a long history with the College, having first performed on the Palmer Auditorium stage in 1962.

Watch your mailbox and e-mail for more information in January or visit for updates and details.

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