Extraordinary Kirkland Women and an Extraordinary College for Women
Photo Credit: Nancy Dafoe
What was Kirkland College like during its brief existence and what did it mean to the students? I came in as a transfer student, hoping to learn more about writing. What I expected was a great education with some freedom from ridiculous restraints. What I didn't expect was that the Kirkland College President Samuel Babbitt would teach my first course on the American novel. I fell in love with William Faulkner that first year at Kirkland in a course that changed how I thought about writing and style. I didn't expect William Rosenfeld, my creative writing professor, to be so rigorous about grammar and mechanics, but I am grateful to this day for his demanding stance and expectations. I also did not expect Bill Rosenfeld would become a life-long friend, one who recently telephoned me while I was on a bus leaving Milan, Italy, and we talked about everything. We still talk about everything.
I did not expect Kirkland College's January plan to push me to try something new each time out or call on me to be less afraid to jump into deep water. Yes, Kirkland College had one of the first creative writing undergraduate majors in the country, and it was located in a beautiful, rural setting in Upstate New York, but I had come from a beautiful, rural setting. What made Kirkland unique were the people.
When assessing the impact of a college or university on the life of the individual, it is often difficult to distinguish between the influence of the college and what the individual brought wholly developed upon arrival. Kirkland looked like many small, liberal arts colleges with these exceptions: its daring and innovations in curricula and its faculty. It was a new women's college at a time when women's colleges were fading. It was welcoming of not just individuals but individualists; it was proud and defiant like its students, and it had a tragic end. This is the story for someone else to write. (Sam Babbitt has done a remarkable job with that, as well.)
Here is where I change pronouns. I will refer to Kirkland College as she because it is not a stretch to personify the institution, the home away from home in which we women tested our wings, preened our feathers before flying.
I know that I continue to be amazed at the accomplishments of Kirkland women without even looking for these notes. Recently proofing a Pen Woman magazine feature, I came across an article on Annie Halvorsen, K '76. I discovered she won the National League of American Pen Women (NLAPW) grant competition for non-Pen Women artists. I am a Pen Woman, and I own a couple of Annie Halvorsen original pastels, so I was excited to see her in our pages. A couple of years earlier, my dear friend Gywnn O'Gara, K'73, won the NLAPW Shirley Holden Helberg grant competition for writers. Time and again, Kirkland women appear in the news, winning awards, being recognized for their work, doing remarkable things with their lives, even at our age now. Alice Hildebrand, K'73, just had her first book of poetry published--all the more remarkable due to life circumstances and the fact that she has always been a profound poet. Cassandra Harris was everywhere on campus during my Kirkland years, an activist with a conscience and seemingly without fear. We met again years later and strengthened our bond. Cassandra is fighting the good fights, braver than ever and even more articulate than in her glorious college years. Kirkland women and their amazing lives should not ever surprise me, yet they do.
There was something about that young woman who chose to go to the experimental college, who chose to take a risk. But there was also something about Kirkland, like a difficult, demanding, but beloved mother.
I would have become a writer with or without attending Kirkland College, but likely not nearly as good. Kirkland offered support with rigor, exploration without restraints. The list of remarkable Kirkland women and what they have achieved is amazing relative to the short span of time of the college's existence. If I started listing names of the "famous" women, I would not know where to stop. We have all achieved. What these Kirkland women have done, they did after graduation without the boost of distinguished alumni to help us when we left the Glen. There was, however, an incredible faculty willing to give of themselves in teaching, a generosity in their willingness to listen and embolden us.
We students became professionals and have encouraged one another, too. Jo Pitkin edited the first volume of Lost Orchard in which the Kirkland community shared and preserved their poetry and fiction. Isabel Weinger Nielsen edited the second volume of Lost Orchard II in which Kirkland women and former faculty shared their nonfiction works. We have continuously cheered one another on. Kirkland had more than a little to do with that. For all my remarkable Kirkland women friends and the experiences, I am forever grateful.
Nancy Avery Dafoe, K'74