A Quality of Kindness
Nancy Bekavac '69
The day after my father died, Saturday, Feb. 27, 1965, I received a telegram from Swarthmore College. It began, "We are delighted. . . ." I can still see those words on the pale yellow paper because, at that time and in that place-my father's office-I could not imagine how those words could possibly apply.
The telegram was an invitation to Swarthmore College to be interviewed for a White Open Scholarship. The interviews would be held the next weekend, and I was invited to come on Friday. As I was reading the telegram, my mother came in and asked what it was. "It's Swarthmore," I said. "They want me to come and interview for a scholarship next weekend." She asked me what I wanted to do. "I think I'll go," I said. She agreed, and then we went to my father's wake.
My father was buried that Monday. My uncle Ken offered to drive me to Swarthmore on Thursday, an all-day drive from our home just outside Pittsburgh. On Friday morning, it started to rain, and I arrived at Swarthmore in a drizzle. I remember the way the wet gray stone glistened and how the rhododendrons around Worth looked. I was met by a friendly student guide named Elenor ("Call me Muffin") Reid '67, who grabbed my suitcase and started showing me around even before my uncle's car had pulled away. I was a slightly numbed version of the real me.
I remember meeting other Swarthmore students and then being ushered into Bond. I met some of the other candidates-Ken Roberts, Christine Grant, Marilyn Holifield-and then a very tall, thin man with dark hair and a large smile took center stage. He seemed to know each of us. He pronounced my name correctly (a rare occurrence), and I remember asking him if he was the basketball coach.
"I'm Fred Hargadon," he said. "I'm the dean of admissions." I knew I had committed a faux pas (not a phrase I could have pronounced at the time, although it was a concept with which I was intimately familiar), but he seemed unconcerned by my ignorance. He congratulated us on having been selected for the competition, and then he told us that we had all been admitted to Swarthmore College. A committee would interview each of us during the next day or so, and we would be free to leave on Sunday. Soon afterward, he assured us, we would be told what the committee had decided.
It was then, I think, that Dean Hargadon explained that the scholarship included room and board as well as full tuition. I know that he said the scholarship was not based on need, so there was no financial-aid form required. That jolted me a little. Only two weeks before, I had had my first and only discussion with my father about financing my college education-the Saturday before he died. We sat down, and he explained to me-for the first time-how much he made, what he had saved, and how we could afford college for me even while my brother was at Notre Dame. My father told me that he could afford tuition wherever I wanted to go, and he would not fill out a financial-aid form.
The discussion in Bond with Dean Hargadon had come uncomfortably close to what I was very busy trying not to think about. I was blinking back tears and fiddling with a teacup to cover up my discomfort. Luckily, we then all got up to go to dinner.
I have a series of pictures in my head from that weekend: a class on American intellectual history with Professor Robert Bannister; he was lecturing on Louis Sullivan's buildings in Chicago. I wanted never to leave-and I promptly decided to major in history. Someone walked me down to the Crum, and somehow, I met up with the only other Clairton High School student to go to Swarthmore, Joyce Milton '67. She was a junior, and her mother was our town librarian.
I remember being struck by a quality of kindness in the way I was treated by everyone-not by just the women but the male students and staff, too. I told some about my father's death, usually because I couldn't avoid it. Some asked me if I wanted to be alone; some were just silent and nodded. Both reactions helped me get through the weekend.
Of all the memories of that weekend, the clearest are of my interview. There was a committee of two faculty members and two students, as I recall, in the semidark of one of the lodges. One of the professors sat far back in a large wing chair, and the committee formed a little half circle around the candidate. The questions were wonderful-clearly, they had read my folder carefully. The wing-chair professor asked one of the first questions: "Who is your favorite poet?" I thought a minute and said, "Rudyard Kipling." He quickly blurted out, "What about him?"
"The rhyme schemes, the meter," I replied and started quoting something like Danny Deaver. He waved his hands to indicate "Enough," and we wandered on to other topics-writing, biochemistry, astronomy, and politics. Near the end, the same professor tried again. "Other than Mr. Kipling, is there any other poet you like?" There was more than a tinge of sarcasm.
"I could say Shakespeare," I said, "but that's like saying you like English poetry. I suppose you expect me to say T.S. Eliot, but there is someone I've just read who I think is better than Kipling and better than Eliot by far, but I don't know much about him. His name is W.B. Yeats." I pronounced it "Yeets."
"Oh, yes, Yeats," the professor said, using my mispronunciation. "What poems?" "Speech After Long Silence' is one, and The Choice' is another," I said, trying to sound as though I had some critical basis for these judgments.
"Oh, fine," he said, and settled back into his chair. That was how I first met Samuel Hynes.
The next day, my uncle picked me up on schedule, and we drove straight back across Pennsylvania. When we got home, Mom asked me about the weekend, and I told her how kind everyone had been. I also spoke with my favorite English teacher and told her about the interview. She grabbed my hand. "Oh, Nancy," she said in her soft voice. "It's pronounced 'Yates'." Then I told her how the professor had repeated my pronunciation, and I realized what he'd done for me. A correction, however kind, would have cracked the veneer of my self-confidence.
The following day, I received a letter from Swarthmore telling me I had been awarded the scholarship. But that was not what reduced me to tears. There was a warm note from Dean Hargadon, expressing his sympathy on my father's death. I realized from his letter that he had known all that weekend and had had the grace and judgment to say nothing, to let me feel my own way through my visit. He wrote that the committee had not been informed about my father's death until after they had made their recommendations. That meant that I was judged more or less on my own merits and that the scholarship was not a kind of consolation prize for losing my father.
In my junior year at Swarthmore, in the spring of 1968, in one of those magical educational moments that alumni remember all their lives, four of us in a seminar in moral philosophy found in Immanuel Kant's work a set of principles and a way of reasoning that grounded ethics in the radical notion that each intelligent being owed recognition to the interests of other intelligent beings. The philosophy of Swarthmore-the Quaker notion that recognizes in each human being the capacity to bring a singular "light" to bear in the world-parallels Kant's precepts, at least in requiring respect for others' interests.
Very often, the most intense intellectual life is characterized as being removed from common concerns, from "mere" human sympathy and small, sentimental gestures of interest, pity, or politeness. That has never seemed to me the way real intellectual depth is reflected in life. Here, I hold with Kant that disinterested reason requires respect for others, and the value we set on our own humanity is reflected in the way we treat others.
After Swarthmore, I paid great attention to the quality of the discussions and relationships I had with those at the law school I attended, with the judge I clerked for, and at the law firm I joined. I kept Swarthmore's philosophy in mind when I left the law firm to work for a foundation, then for a reforming president of Dartmouth College, and then to become president of Scripps College. Looking at these choices, I see that I have almost always chosen small institutions characterized by intellectual intensity and a sense of civic, communal obligation-institutions where the influence of one person can make a difference, where I believed that ethics played a critical role in decisions.
I will never forget my first weekend at Swarthmore and the kindness shown to a silently grieving, naive young woman. I cannot claim that I have lived out in my life the examples of the many kindnesses I received at Swarthmore, or that I have lived up to the principles of Kant as we discussed them in 1968 and after. But I have tried to bring to my work as a lawyer, a foundation executive, and a college administrator the principle of recognizing the humanity of others through my actions.
Nancy Bekavac is the president of Scripps College.