“Together these three taught over 125 years, shaping not only the lives of their students but also the core values of this fine institution.” – Betty Webb
In honor of Meredith College’s 125th anniversary, the Department of English hosted a talk by Professor Emerita Betty Webb, ’67, who shared her personal reflections on Mary Lynch Johnson, Ione Knight, and Norma Rose, three legendary professors of English. This feature includes excerpts from the speech that Webb presented on February 22, 2016, in Jones Chapel.
As a very fresh freshman in 1963, I approached the English registration desk in the old gym and said, “I want Dr. Johnson, Dr. Rose, or Dr. Knight for English 101.” When Dr. Johnson said she was putting me in Mrs. Greenwood’s class, I inquired, “Is there no room in a class taught by you or Rose or Knight?” Dr. Johnson looked up, surprised, and said, “Oh. You said you wanted one of those professors. I misunderstood. I have been sitting here all day listening to students say that they wanted anyone but Drs. Johnson, Rose and Knight.” She put me in her own noon Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday (yes, Saturday) class.
The Big Three were really, really tough but excellent, according to my Meredith Big Sis. I was too naïve to be daunted. Since I entered junior high, I had hidden novels behind my textbooks, reading them during my other classes. The chance to be an English major, to read novels for four years – I could think of nothing more delicious. Little did I know then about the Meredith Department of English curriculum. The fact that the study of Old English was required of majors should have clued me in.
What I am going to talk about today is my Big Three, speaking of them not just in terms of what they meant to the College – their contributions to Meredith are widely known – but what they meant to me. I hope most of all that my recollections will do honor to these three women – Meredith alums themselves – women I came not only to admire more than I can say but also to love.
Mary Lynch Johnson
In my six hours of required freshman English with Dr. Johnson, I read only one novel. Essays were the thing – Carlyle, Ruskin, Bacon, Dequincy, Hazlitt – and, of course, we read Homer’s Odyssey. Although I was grateful some years later, I confess that for being required to read Carlyle at 18, when I wanted to read Austen and Bronte, my gratitude was grudging. In addition to reading essays, we, of course, had to write them – seven essays a week – if we studied on Sunday. MLJ, as we called her behind her back, sometimes selected one of my daily essays to read as an example to the class. I could, in fact, write. I could not, however, spell, and I had a lot to learn about punctuation. In the midst of reading aloud my essay to the class, she would suddenly frown, cluck, pull her pencil from behind her ear, and circle a previously undiscovered error.
Dr. Johnson loved words and used them exquisitely. Her dissertation had been a dictionary of Modern English words and their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. She was fascinated by etymology, and captivated us with the sad story of the word hussy, which was derived from the noble Anglo Saxon word huswif, or housewife, connoting thrift and industry, a word that had, alas, fallen on hard times over the centuries. It was quite clear to all of us that the subtext of this word study was that reputations lost could not be regained and that we were not under any circumstances to lose ours.
Dr. Johnson was also delightfully witty. She said the reason she preferred cats was that dogs were always on the wrong side of the door. Teaching the first day after a holiday, she declared, was like pushing a baby carriage uphill in a down draft with the brake on. She also used her wizardry with words to teach moral lessons. She told us somberly and regularly that if we cheated while at Meredith, even if we were not found out, written on our diploma “in letters invisible to the world, but visible always to us, would be the word fraud.” When the student in front of me in Dr. Knight’s 221 lifted up her test paper to stack her pages and I saw an ID answer that I had not yet gotten to, I decided to leave mine blank, certain that otherwise the word “fraud” would pulsate on my diploma in perpetuity, like Poe’s tell-tale heart – because Dr. Johnson had said it would.
After she retired, she continued to teach enrichment courses to a loyal following in continuing ed. On more than one occasion I got to hear her referred to, in her presence, as “sweet.” I always looked at her immediately to see her reaction and was surprised to find none. “Sweet” was exactly the kind of word she would hate. Could she be mellowing?, I allowed myself to wonder. Perhaps she was indeed becoming sweet, she who had terrified and inspired in equal measure generations of Meredith women. I think she was.
Ione Kemp Knight
During my sophomore year I took my next six required hours of English with Dr. Knight, Dr. Johnson’s former student and her devotee. Kempsie, as we liked to call her when we were sure she could not hear us, was not sweet at all and did not aspire to be. She was, in fact, ferocious. Tall, with bright blue eyes that never blinked, she galloped across the campus. If you were helping her with an errand, you galloped too. She had, after all, been the president of the Meredith Athletic Association when she was a student here, something we learned from combing the annual from her senior year. She had double-majored in math and been in both Kappa Nu Sigma and Silver Shield – impressive. Far more interesting to us, however, was that in one photo she is clearly wearing nail polish. Could it be that she was a real person in those days, we wondered – maybe even a bit vain and frivolous, like us? It was hard – no, impossible – to believe it – but there was the evidence.
In the classroom she was beyond awesome. When I was department head, I found a student sitting in the hall listening to her class through the door. I assumed that the student was tardy and feared entering the class late, so offered to run interference for her, opening the door and negotiating with IKK to let her in. The student explained she was not a current student but one from the previous year. She just wanted to hear Dr. Knight teach again her favorite lesson but did not want to disturb her. Having been Dr. Knight’s student, I was not surprised. We were sure she had memorized more literature than we would ever manage to read. Often in a lit class she would get so excited about the passage under examination that she would leave the podium but continue to recite the lines. When she would eventually come to the end of what she knew by heart, she would blink herself awake and dash back to the podium. By sharing with us openly her love for language, for literature, she taught us what would otherwise be unteachable – to feel it, as Wordsworth says, in the blood and along the heart.
At that time, however, we were convinced that she did not care two figs about what we “felt,” for she regularly gave us to know that we felt too much and thought too little. Determined to train our minds and discipline our characters, she piled tons and tons of work on us. And she was cunning. When we were reading The Canterbury Tales my junior year, she told us that she was not going to assign The Miller’s Tale since it was shockingly bawdy. Of course we read it immediately plus the assigned tales, none of us complaining. She knew exactly what she was doing.
I visited Dr. Knight to read what I was planning to say about her [in this talk]. Though she can no longer see and her hearing is impaired, her mind is as sharp as always. She assured me that she still believed in the therapeutic value of fresh air and wanted me to tell you that she wished she could be here today to see her former students among you. If you will not tell her I said so, I must say that at 93, while she is as punctilious as always, she is also quite sweet.
It was not until my junior year that I took a class with Dr. Norma Rose, or Nhaw-Ma or Rose Bud or Rose Red or just Red, as she was called in the dorms. She was always sweet – not to her Meredith students, of course, but to the children she taught in the Beginner Sunday School class at First Baptist Church. To her Meredith students she was formidable, always demanding excellence, always shocked when it did not appear. She demanded of it of herself as well as of us. Her perfect Palmer penmanship said it all. Anything worth doing, she thought, was worth doing well.
Laughing was something Dr. Rose loved to do, sometimes surprising those who had previously seen only her serious side. Though she possessed a keen wit, she loved broad comedy most, as all of her Shakespeare students soon came to know. Dr. Rose was the most consistently splendid classroom teacher of the Big Three. While both Dr. Johnson and Dr. Knight could occasionally get distracted, forgetting to make an assignment or collect a paper, return papers late, or get off the subject, Dr. Rose could not. Though she taught 18th century, Milton, and occasionally Browning, Shakespeare was her man. None who studied Henry, IV, Part I with her could forget her swaggering, belly-slapping depiction of Falstaff. Equally memorable was her one-woman rendition of The Comedy of Errors, as she managed to seem, without moving more than a yard, to disappear off one side of the stage—only to reappear at once as another character on the other side, delighting herself and us in this comedy of disguise and mistaken identity. Though she was one of the most erudite people I have ever known, her intellect delighted in the fully human, not in the arid or abstract.
If teaching Meredith students was Dr. Rose’s vocation, teaching Sunday School to children at First Baptist was her recreation. Once she delivered a delightful chapel talk to Meredith students about her experiences with the 5-year-olds, exposing all to a gentler side than was normally on view on campus. As one of her freshmen exited, she passed me without so much as a sidelong glance, and said, “I’ll be in your office this afternoon to see if I can transfer out of my English 111 class with Dr. Rose and into that Sunday School class. I think I could do a lot better there.” I replied to her that any student that quick on her feet could, with effort, excel in 111. I thought to myself, pridefully, I confess, that there was a bit of Dr. Rose in my response.
And perhaps that is why we are all here today, is it not? There is just a bit of one of these women, or if we were lucky, all three, in each of us – whether we were fortunate enough to have been taught by them or only heard stories about them.
Together these three taught over 125 years, shaping not only the lives of their students but also the core values of this fine institution.
I think that what we might best do, in conclusion, is to pause to claim and celebrate that important role the Big Three played in our lives as well as that of Meredith and to take away renewed inspiration from them. In an age of getting and spending, they stand out as examples of dedication to excellence and principled living. In an age of compromise, they show us that it is possible to live with unbending spines. In an age of feeling, they stand out as firm exemplars for the therapeutic value of clear thinking. In an age of political correctness and pussyfooting, they remind us it is possible to take our cues from St. Paul and speak the truth with love. And last but certainly not least, in an era of Facebooking and tweeting and Instagramming, we can be sure that they are still standing fast for the value of logical thesis statements, strong topic sentences, compelling examples, and impeccable editing.
Watch the full speech at youtube.com/meredithcollege.