Memories of Curry and Prof. Jeannette Brown

Not Just Another Color

by Suzanne C. Harkness (M.Ed. ’70, Ed.D. ’73 Couns Ed)

Suzanne HarknessThe year was 1970. I had graduated from college in 1967 with a degree in fine arts education ready to pursue what I thought would be a long career in the teaching of art. However, after one year of teaching art to children in five elementary schools out of the trunk of my car and a second year teaching art at the middle school level, I had to make a choice.

I was tired of sending my favorite Villager matching sweaters and skirts to the dry cleaners covered with paint, chalk and glue. The final straw came when student number 37 was placed in my middle school art classroom. I had desks for 24 and an already overcrowded table at the back of the room. Reluctantly, I made it to the end of the school year and happily said my goodbyes. While I did feel bad leaving the first year music teacher in the room next door who the week before had been barricaded in his book closet by some students with a piano, sometimes you have to think of yourself first.

My high school friend, Carol, who was teaching first grade at the time, also was not having a great year. We decided to send away for graduate school catalogs hoping to find other opportunities beyond the classroom. After a brief deliberation, we choose the University of Virginia, one of the most charming schools in the south. U.Va. had a growing education school and, besides, we both liked history—it was a perfect fit. We received our acceptance letters, packed our twin Firebirds (she had a convertible) and in the late summer of 1970 left Pennsylvania and headed to Charlottesville.

Carol decided on pursuing a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction while I selected counselor education. After unpacking and getting settled into Mary Munford Hall, a women’s dorm, we were off to the Curry School to meet with our advisors. I surmised because of my art background, I was given a color: Dr. Brown.

If you knew Dr. Brown, you will understand my first impression. As I walked into her small office (much smaller than a present day McMansion clothes closet) in the back of the basement of the Curry School, there sat this very attractive, tall (I’m only 5’4”), thin, upswept blond woman dressed to the nines in one of her famous three-quarter-length sleeve, straight dresses. (Her mink coat always was added for winter weather.)

I was greeted with, “Good morning, darling, have a seat.” OK. As I glanced around, I noticed it was not your typical office. Yes, there was a large bookcase, but next to it in the corner was an antique toilet filled with plants. A beautiful antique clock graced the wall next to her desk as she sat in a very substantial but attractive upholstered antique swivel chair which on occasion brushed her vintage wooden file cabinet.

She shared that she was originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, but had worked in New York City for many years and did her graduate work at Columbia. Thus, it was easy to distinguish a slight southern accent peppered with both southern and New York phrases. She was warm, inquisitive, concerned, and she had a sense of humor. She also appeared to have high expectations. This was to be our first encounter of a long relationship.

I survived my master’s degree program, attended my share of graduate school mixers on the lawn including asking a nice tall young man wearing a turban, “Oh, where are you from?” and witnessed from behind the bushes at the top of the hill in front of Mary Munford Hall the police carting away war protesting students in a Mayflower van.

On another occasion that year during was my first encounter with a med student. I took him back to Mary Munford after dinner at the Gaslight, serenaded him, on the piano and proceeded to outscore him on the famous Mary Munford ping pong table. My housemates shared with the equivalent of, “That went well!” Never saw him, again. The 1970-71 school year was maturing and enlightening in many ways.

Prior to graduation exercises and our celebration with our parents at the Boars Head Inn, Carol and I decided we loved U.Va. and would stay on for our doctoral degrees. Dr. Brown had offered me a graduate assistantship that would help with costs. We packed our bags and moved into a cozy garden apartment on Jefferson Park Avenue.

I didn’t exactly know what a graduate assistant did. Dr. Beard had one, Dr. Walter had one—they mostly helped teach and worked with students. Dr. Jeannette A. Brown, however, had a different agenda. She had recently received a grant to work with the public schools in Portsmouth, Virginia. My duties changed daily, sometimes hourly. In addition to driving us back and forth numerous times, I became proficient at hiding behind bushes taking videotapes of students getting off buses, splicing video tapes, writing and illustrating brochures, interviewing teachers and children, tabulating and analyzing data (by hand in those days), procuring meals when we worked late, not to mention babysitting her beloved brown Pontiac convertible (with a faculty sticker) when she went on summer safari trips.

One Saturday, she decided we needed a break and wanted to attend a local Charlottesville estate auction. Carol and I were up for it since we both grew up with antiques and our mothers were Questers. Jeannette ended up buying an old harpsichord, which she eventually gutted and turned into a desk for her den. One of the items up for auction was an old heavy wooden rifle. Jeannette decided it must be from the Civil War and at only $7, I should bid on it. Well, I got it for $8. Turns out, Jeannette wasn’t an expert on everything. It was a Japanese rifle from World War II. Nevertheless, it hangs over my fireplace along with a real baby carbine Civil War rifle I purchased years later.

You name it, I did it! I learned more from Jeannette Brown during my graduate assistantship than I could have ever experienced in classrooms alone. She taught me to be flexible, independent, and quick to solve problems. I learned patience and how to be at ease, as well as how to accept and work with all types of people. She made me take and succeed at advanced statistics courses. One of my proudest achievements was getting an A in Edith Mosher’s Philosophy of Research course, which everybody dreaded.

Over our many months together, I watched her work a crowd. When things didn’t go as well as anticipated, she could turn it around and end up being congratulated. I perfected this skill myself, which came in handy many times over the years when I was presenting various reports to my school boards.

Not to give all of the credit to Jeannette, there were others who impacted my thinking: Annette Gibbs, Pete Hackett, Mary Ann MacDougall, Harold Strang, Bob Pate, Ken LaFleur, and Virgil Ward. The Curry School of Education faculty cared about and challenged their students in the 1970s, as I am sure the present faculty does today.

Jeannette and I kept in contact for many years through my work in Washington, Prince William County Schools, and eventually during my 30 years as a central office public school administrator in New Jersey. We visited each other occasionally, chatted on the phone and exchanged letters. She was always there when I needed another opinion or just an objective ear. When she retired from U.Va. and moved to China, I got the toilet, the clock and the wooden file cabinet, which I proudly display in my den.

She also left me a few of her classic sayings that always ring true:

“You can attract more bees with honey than vinegar,”

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” and

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” which she meant in a positive way.

I’m retired now myself from education and have moved on to a second career as, what else, an antique dealer. I still enjoy meeting people, teaching them what I know about antiques and, in turn, learning from my customers. The many skills that I honed from U.Va. experiences continue to assist me in my latest endeavor.

Dr. Jeannette A. Brown passed away on April 29, 2011, in Richmond, Virginia, at the age of 87. She traveled the world, lived a full life, and positively impacted the lives of those she touched. Brown to me will always be a very special color.