A dear Maryland friend, Marylu McEwen, sent me a book a number of months ago, Angie Klink’s The Deans’ Bible (2014). I started it once, got distracted, and then returned recently to finish it. I anticipated reading about the wonderful legacy of the five Deans of Women and eventually women Deans of Students at Purdue University from 1933 to the 1995. These women, whose names we should never let slip into obscurity – Dorothy Stratton, Helen Schleman, Beverley Stone, Barbara Cook, and Betty Nelson – were not only unique because of the legacy they shared as student affairs work grew at Purdue but they are also important for the courageous leadership they offered in so many other ways. These are women of conviction who sacrificed much in their struggle to provide equality of educational opportunity for women, students of color, and students with disabilities.
Klink’s combined professional biography of these five women is liberally spiced with entertaining anecdotes about their lives. The anecdotes track all the way from the years when Amelia Earhart was brought to live in Purdue’s women’s residence halls to offer role modeling for career women to the turbulent 1970s when Deans were expected to keep campuses under control and make sure that students didn’t get into trouble. The foundation that allowed the five Deans to excel in their work and serve students to the greatest degree possible was their shared commitment to compassion for their students and advocacy for their welfare. A symbol of the origin of that compassion was a Bible, owned by the first Dean of Women, Carolyn Schoemaker, signed by Dorothy Stratton when she passed the Bible to her successor, Helen Schleman, and on down the line. Each successive Dean signed the Bible and noted her favorite scripture as she passed it on to the colleague who would follow in her footsteps.
The early role of Dean of Women was filled on a part-time basis by Carolyn Shoemaker who would serve from 1913-1933. Carolyn pursued the role with a passion for making Purdue, a male-dominated and challenging institution, a place that would also welcome women and would support them as they increasingly sought careers in conjunction with or instead of family. An early admonition to women was to never be caught in life without a back-up plan, an insurance policy when male support was unavailable. The commitment to making Purdue a place that nurtured women as well as men came with a commitment to holistic education. This vision of holistic education emerged from early and deep philosophical inquiry and it was also heavily influenced by Dorothy Stratton and Bev Stone’s attendance at Teacher’s College of Columbia University’s student personnel program. Bev’s lifelong connection with Esther Lloyd-Jones, her major professor at Columbia, would be particularly influential in Bev’s thinking and work. In a note from Bev to Esther, she wrote, “I suspect you have no notion of the extent of your influence you have had form the time I had the first course with you in 1937… Many students I may have reached may not be aware that a part of you has influenced my reaching out to them.”
The Deans’ Bible is about a very special legacy of women advocating for other women. It is also about educators who were able to transform an institution in ways that made it fundamentally better for both women and men. I saw these five Deans once at the 1986 meeting of the National Association of Women’s Deans and Counselors. It was in Denver, close to my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, so I attended the convention and took my mother to see one of the sessions I thought she would most enjoy. It was the five Purdue Deans and it was the first time I ever saw Esther Lloyd-Jones who attended the session to see her dear friends and protégés.