Kathrine Koller-Diez

Interviewee: Koller-Diez, Kathrine
Interviewer: Bergeson, Helen
Duration: 38 minutes
Date: 1975-08-20


Biographical note: Dr. Kathrine Koller (1903-1993), an authority on 17th century English literature, was the first woman head of a major department at the University of Rochester. She was chairman of the Department of English from 1946 to 1958, when she resigned her administrative duties to devote full time to teaching, research, and writing. Prior to coming to the University in 1942 as an assistant professor, she was assistant professor of English at Bryn Mawr College. In 1944 she was promoted to associate professor, and in 1946 was named Joseph H. Gilmore Professor of English. A graduate of Wittenberg College, she received her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1952-53. According to her New York Times obituary, “Beyond her expertise in 17th-century English literature, she was known for her belief in the need of a firm footing in the humanities for young people to help them learn self-discipline and integrity.”

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This is a tape recording for the Oral History Project of the University of Rochester Friends of the Library. I'm interviewing Kathrine Koller Diez, who is now retired from the University, but who in 1948 was, until her retirement, was the Joseph H. Gilmore Professor of English and a former chairman of the English Department of the University. This is Helen Ancona Bergeson and I am visiting in the home of Kathrine Koller Diez on Wednesday, August the 20th, 1975.

HAB:  Kay, you've had a broad span of service at the University of Rochester in many capacities -- on educational policy committees, planning committees, and in various faculty capacities. You knew the late Janet Howell Clark as a scholar, as an administrator, and as a very good personal friend. Would you be willing to share your reminiscences of her with us?

KKD: I certainly would. She was a delightful person and when I first came to Rochester, it seemed to me she was the one person I could talk to immediately, and that we both spoke the same language. We understood a good many things. I came here in '43, '42-'43 really. I came here from Bryn Mawr and from Johns Hopkins and these were two places from which Janet Howell had come - Janet Clark had come, and so I think we had a background that enabled us to talk freely and to understand each other. And she was a tower of strength to me under many situations. I remember when I was trying to decide whether to take the Chairmanship of the English Department in 1946 and Janet listed all the possible problems and then said quietly: "It's up to you." And so I decided to take on the responsibility and I must say, she was very helpful in all moments of crisis in trying to bring new and additional women members to the faculty. She was an unusual woman and I would think that the best way that I could summarize all that could be said about her would be to read some of the reports that the students wrote in the yearbooks. How would you like that?

HAB:  That would be great. I wish you’d sit back and be comfortable 'cause I’m picking it up just beautifully and I don’t want you to tire.

KKD: All right. This is from the 1942 yearbook: “Dean Clark entered the University at the same time we did, and we grew to knew each other and the college together. Her quiet scholarly presence gives us a feeling of free security and the knowledge that she is on our side of a liberal education. Her insight into our foibles and weaknesses helps us indirectly wh- and in directing what would otherwise not be well-ordered lives. In the informality of the Biology Laboratory, as well as in her other capacities and activities, she keeps her finger on the pulse of all of us at Rochester.”

In 1943 the girls wrote: “Gracious charm and cordiality are combined with all that is fine intellectually to win our genuine respect and consideration.”

And in the yearbook for 1948: “Her direct and wise judgment transcends the austere dignity of a Dean by a friendly charm which endears her to all faculty members and students who know her.”

And I think that, in a good many ways, sums up all I can say about Janet Clark as a human being. She was amazingly charming and reserved, and yet people could approach her without any difficulty. I remember she got on very well with parents. I remember the story of a father who was so determined that his daughter should be a doctor, and the daughter was just making Cs in her science courses, and Janet talked to him and pointed out various careers that this girl could pursue, careers that were related to the field of medicine, and the man came away happy and resolved, and it sort of solved the problem that existed between that girl and her father. I remember another story. She got along very well with the boys on the River Campus. A group of them came to her one time with great concern and said, talking about another student, a girl, "You should stop her from going with this boy because he'll just make a fool of her.” [laughs] These are the ways in which she reached out to so many of the students and I think their summary of what she meant to them gives some indication of the influence she exerted in the lives of all of those who graduated between 1940 and 1952.

She had a great deal of influence in the quality of education. She knew how to create situations. She knew how to gather people about her. For instance, she had a triumvirate according to President Valentine, or she was one member of it, in Isabel Wallace and Ruth Merrill, which was able to do practically anything. And they did more for the college than, I think, one can actually put into any specific words. "Only those familiar," and I am quoting President Valentine (clock bell rings in background within the interview room) “with the complications of her duties can fully appreciate with what skill and humor she dispatched them."

There were also others in the Administrative Staff at the Women's College - the Women's Campus - such as Martha Cobb and Miss Taylor, in Employment, and Constance Wood in the Registrar's Office. She created - Janet Clark created a real sense of team and these people worked together and worked, I think, always with the idea of what could be of help and benefit to the students. She succeeded in bringing that same quality of teamwork and cooperation to the women on the faculty. And during the war years, the women… number of women increased and the women that came were all excellent scholars. Perhaps one of the most outstanding ones was Lucy Clausen, who was in Biology. She had a medical degree from Trinity. She had studied in Dublin. She had studied in, in Hop…at Hopkins, but Dean Whipple and… was not willing to have her teach in the medical faculty where her husband was a professor. But – so she taught on the Women’s Campus and was one of the really very effective teachers of Biology. You also had such able and devoted women as Ethel French in Chemistry. There’s a wonderful story about her. When she came to retire, there was no man on the River Campus who would teach freshman Chemistry. Ethel had been teaching it for several years. They could find no man to do it, and time went on and time went on, and the fall was at hand. And so they had to reappoint Ethel, and this time she held them up for a salary which was equivalent to what she should have been getting all over the years.

HAB:  Oh, that’s lovely. She was ahead of her time as far as wage discrimination.

KKD: In the French Department, of course, there was Alfreda Hill, who was one of the best of all the class advisers. And I can remember when I first came here, Ruth Stauffer in English, Virginia Moscrip, Merle Spurrier and Hazel Wilbraham, and then Margaret Denny in English, and Ethel May Harvey who taught in both Prince Street and at the Eastman School of Music. Frances Horler in Education and Rosie Hoyt in Physics, and that’s an interesting account there of a matter of discrimination.

Rosalie Hoyt was a very excellent physicist and a good scholar, but when the two campuses were merged, you could not get her to get – you could not get her advanced in salary and in promotion into tenure. The men on the River Campus simply, in the Physics Department, simply wouldn’t do it.

You had Babette Coleman. In the Library, we had Margaret Withington and Marian Allen. As I was reading not long ago a scrapbook of a student, I was interested to see how much these activity . . . involved these women in the students’ lives. They were part and parcel of everything that was going on.

In Mathematics, there was Dorothy Bernstein who eventually left to become head of the department at Goucher College, and I think I mentioned Ruth Adams in English who is now - left here for Douglas College and went to be President of Wellesley and is now Vice President of… at Dartmouth College, in charge of the Co-Educational Program there. All of these women had excellent doctorates from Harvard, Columbia, Radcliffe, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and they brought a quality, I think, to the faculty and to the education of the students, of the girls, that was a very high caliber. Janet used to try to keep us active, and there was a club for the faculty women. We met, gave papers, talked over our research, and had a genuine feeling of working together, trying to improve the quality of education, trying to improve also our own intellectual lives.

Janet was very much concerned with the development of the college for women and every aspect of it. I was interested in looking over the Chapel Talks that came up on the Prince Street Campus. They were by all the members of the faculty – young men, old men. They ranged from senior professors to just new instructors, or visiting people. And they talked about the problems of women. They talked about the search for wisdom. They talked about careers. They talked about such things as the problems of an in… that an intelligent woman faced in today's society. So Chapel became not only a place for religious worship, but a place for approaching, listen… stimulating ideas and concerns.

The girls had a very active life, particularly active club life. There were clubs in almost all of the disciplines - Languages, English, Biology - to which the girls gave a great deal of attention. This was a basic core of intellectual activity; it gives you some indication of it. It was going on, in which the girls were deeply involved. Often times, I think, you gather from superficial reports the idea that the girls had sororities, they ran “Kaleidoscope,” they put on shows, they were interested in dance. All of these things were true and part of their lives, but I think one of the things that made the College for Women the valuable thing that it was, was the fact that the existence was a balanced one. You had great intellectual stimulation, you were in contact with a variety of ideas and you had a good balanced, gay, social life. Also, the living conditions, I think, tended to emphasize both these qualities. You had rather formal after-dinner coffee and teas in Munro Hall. You had interesting groups in the cooperative dormitories. I think you could talk about that because I know you headed one of them one year. What would you say about it, Helen?

HAB:  Well, that was a group of girls who were extremely devoted and dedicated to being in college and getting the most mileage out of their dollar. I think they many times learned as much from their cooperative experience as they did from their academic work because they learned how to manage a home, buy food, keep books, take care of necessary housekeeping and still have a good time. I think – and to manage their time, because in order to get all that together they really had to manage their time. I had a great respect for those girls.

KKD: One of the things that strikes me as I review these past years - and dealing only with the Women’s College - was the close connection between the faculty and the students. The faculty wives, faculty, and the men were closely related to student activities. Students were being invited for tea constantly to faculty homes. There was a faculty-student baseball game one time, in which Professor Glyndon Van Deusen was the pitcher, and professors from all of the other departments took part, and then properly enough, they lost to the women’s team.

Faculty were concerned about students. One of the students was ill and I saw the correspondence with her professor and the dean and when she went back to class, the professor came up to her and said: “I’m so glad to have you back.” He made a particular point of coming to her and I know that she never forgot it.

You had a sense of quality and con… deep concern. You had faculty always available for students. The faculty advising system went through a number of ups and downs as it’s bound to, but by and large, it was a very well-organized program, so that every student had at least two advisors - one who’s a general advisor and had charge of her in her Freshman and Sophomore years and then she had a departmental advisor. And I think that these attentions, this availability of faculty made a student feel that she was never alone, and was never deserted. She also had the wise counseling from people like Ruth Merrill and Isabel Wallace and the Dean was always available. Even – I know when I had problems of one sort or another, I could go up and say, “Can you see me – When can you see me?” “Come in.” I was never turned away. Somehow there was always time. The students responded to Janet Clark and to the quality of her work. She had large classes – her class in Astronomy would number around twenty, her class in Biology around sixteen or eighteen. These are good classes in these particular fields. What…

HAB:  May I interrupt for a moment?

KKD: Yes, do.

HAB:  You mentioned the fact that there was this infusion of excitement in scholarship that Janet Clark brought to the faculty through these little meetings where you shared your research and read your papers. How did this work on down to the students and how did the students pick up from her spirit… this respect for better scholarship and this devotion to real good scholarship?

KKD: I would suppose it would be indirectly. They realized that she stood for it. I don’t know that the student was in any way conscious of…  the students were in any way conscious of the faculty involvement in this type of club, but I rather think that the impact came from having stimulated faculty doing the teaching.

HAB:  Was… was there any avenue for this through the counseling program? How many students did you counsel as a faculty member and how were those faculty members selected?

KKD: They were selected through the Dean's Office. That is the faculty advisors… they were called class officers - they came through the Dean's Office. Canfield was in charge of the Seniors one year. Miss Moscrip the Juniors, Geo… George Curtiss the Sophomores, and so was Ethel French. And at the same time, you had Wallace, and Coates, and Hill and, and Dean Clark, who were – so you had a scattering of men and women. Now they were advisors for a class. Then they asked particular people to help and it was broken down by the people they looked… wanted. And I think it was all checked and worked out through the Dean's Office. The departmental advisors were quite obviously picked by the department chairmen.           

During these years there was a great increase in the number of group activities… in fact, it almost got out of hand. There was a group - did you ever hear of it? - called University Square, which was made up of liberal-minded students. Those were in – during the war this was there was the Peace Action Group, the International Relations, and the Liberal Centers and they all combined and called themselves the University Square.

HAB:  You mentioned the war years. What… what things were evident as far as change was concerned? Were there any men students?

KKD: Yes this was very definitely the case. Men were coming over to the Prince Street Campus and there were… to take most of the liberal arts colle…-uh, courses. Those – a good many of them were not being offered on the River and the Honors work brought over a number of men. Uh, Robert Koch, who is now head of the University College was one of them, one of the first ones that I remember meeting. They liked to come over to the Cutler Union because it got them away from the military aspects of the River Campus. So that you got much closer to coordinate and work during those years - by the student… the students who were Freshmen students and Sophomores, and then in the Juniors and Seniors – those who were not involved in military service.

And the physical education was always a very important part but I think, don't think dominated the activities on the Prince Street Campus. There was basketball and dancing and skiing. And the Y.W.C.A. was a very active group at that time so that I can-I think one of my earliest impressions, and it seemed so different from Bryn Mawr, was the way the girls were interested and active in things that involved… not social life… but groups working together for something that had an outside goal, an external goal. To me, this was one of the very valuable things because girls learn to be administrators, they learn to deal with a group of people they learn to be organizers, and I think they had a real sense of their own powers and capacities.

HAB:  You were referring to the fact that the girls participate in groups and they had experiences that gave them opportunities to be administrators and managers, and involved in something that had some community directive concept.

KKD: And there were a number of smaller groups doing things during the war, but I frankly don't remember what they were. Things that were related to war activities and I know that people were very conscious about the war. They talked about it. I saw a brief clipping of a speech by Dexter Perkins in which he was saying that war had a great deal to contribute to the life of a country, and this then he expanded, on what the way of cooperation and unification developed during a period of war which was dissipated in times of peace. The . . . if you looked at the story of the Women’s Campus, and I am trying to look at it now with an all-over recollection of – somewhat an all over view – I was struck by the gradual increase in the intellectual activity. By the middle fift… well by the '50s, the number of girls that went… that were Phi Beta Kappa had practically tripled from those… the number achieving Phi Beta Kappa in the early years. Uh, the girls there was a coordinated group, club, the Marsiens, and girls were members of the Marsiens, as well as the boys.

HAB: During the war years?   

KKD: Mmhmm. Yes.

HAB:  This was an honorary society?

KKD: Yes.

HAB:  They opened their membership to the men during the war years?

KKD: Mmhmm. The Honors Program, I think, got off to a very good start. It began I think it first began in ’39, but steadily increased and was in my way of thinking, one of the most attractive aspects of the educational program for a great many years. It was finally scuttled, frankly by the History Department, over in the River Campus in the late '50s early '60s, and I think really died out, I would guess, about '65. They… they offered a minimum of six seminars and brought some extremely interesting people to the campus as outside examiners. So that students had… Honor students had contact with excellent scholars from other universities and institutions. And I think was helpful in their application for graduate work, because they had met these men and women when they had been here as speakers and as members of the outside examining group of the Honors Program. The real difficulty seemed to be, by and large, in the field of Science. If you looked over the reports for the years… in the year '46-'47 there were 656 students, and that was a very definite attempt right then to keep up the quality of the academic standard. There was a great increase in placement of students, infinite variety, and much more activity. There was an increase in the number of alumnae who were keeping in touch with the Placement Office.

Now the girls on Prince Street had to go to the River Campus for their Science, and Janet Clark reports that “the quality of work falls off,” but she couldn't understand why. Now this was in the Senior year. You could get your first two years of Science on the Prince Street Campus, but for advanced courses, you had to go to the River and why the quality fell off, no one knows. There were a great many student activities and as University School increased, the University School students almost crowded out the Prince Street students at Cutler Union. Sometimes extra-curricular activities seemed to get out of hand so that it hard to… it was important to keep up the academic balance and standard and this is the kind of thing Janet was always working about.

In the years '48 and ’49, you had a slight decrease in the enrollment…but… and there were fewer women in the cafeteria because things the cost had gone up. The library was overcrowded and they were anxious to work for some kind of expansion on the library. They began working on career coffee hours. They began being concerned about what kinds of careers could be opened up if you were a major in English or if you were in a major in History, and there was an attempt to relate education to the outside world into which people were going to step.

I remember my own interest in what would happen to English majors, and I wanted to see the English major… the number increase. So I took a poll of all the English majors for a period of five years and I found that there were twenty different careers pursued by the people who had majored in English. A great many of them went into teaching, but that was only one—and  you think of nineteen other different careers, careers other than teaching, that were attracting English majors. And this is the kind of thing that people were – that is chairmen, were considering: What was the relationship between your discipline and the world of making a living?

One of the things that Janet Clark wrote in a report, which I found thoroughly delightful and I found in a letter that she wrote to President Valentine: “My present complaint is against Dr. Noyes, who takes absolutely no interest whatever in having women students taught chemistry. Some day when I am ready to retire, I am going to tell him what I think of him as the head of the Department of Chemistry in a College for Women. I don’t know anyone who could do a worse job than he has done in that capacity. At present he expects the women in organic chemistry to go to the River for their laboratory next year. This affects pre-meds as well as chemistry majors, and when I see what the enrollment is, I’m going to demand one laboratory section on Prince Street. We have the laboratory space here and there no reason in the world why the girls should have to go four miles away for their labra…laboratory work. It is simply outrageous.” And I think that gives you an idea of how firmly she felt and how she perceived some of the problems of the education at this particular time. The number of students by the '50s who were, as I said, going into Phi Beta Kappa and to graduate school was really very impressive. Um, almost all of the class are working in, or in one graduate school that year. There were twelve girls in Phi Beta Kappa in 1950-51.

The advisory system was still under some criticism but it was steadily improving. It was being watched. Students were seeking, and faculty alike, seeking ways to improve it. Physical Education was coming along, because you had tennis courts and you had a swimming pool in the back of old Strong, as I remember. Isn’t that…don't you remember that?

HAB:  No, there wasn't any swimming pool.

KKD: Wasn’t there? I…

HAB:  The women had to go down to the Y.W.C.A. on the Prince Street Campus.

KKD: I thought that there was a pool.

HAB:  No, there was about eight or ten tennis courts, I believe, in the back of Cutler, but the girls had to walk down to the Y.

KKD: They still went down to the Y?

HAB:  Yes. No, the pool never did get built until the campuses were merged.

KKD: Yes, I think you're right. I know you are. The honors… the number of girls taking honors increased steadily as time went on, so that I think if I were to try to summarize this, and it would be very difficult, I would say that Janet Clark left an impact on the college of increasing the intellectual activity, of making the students understand what you meant by quality, of giving a kind of special quality to the intellectual and to the social life, and helping the women both in the faculty and in… in the students to realize their potentials.

When the two campuses merged, I think a good many of us felt that the women were so well established, that they could carry this over into another environment, but we reckoned without realizing the difference that new personnel would make on supporting the quality that existed in what I would like to think of as those “Golden Years” between 1940 and 1952.

HAB: Fascinating summary, Kay, and I appreciate your sharing this with us. I think the examples you give have given a very good insight into the kind of leadership and administration Janet Clark provided, and the product spoke for itself, with so…so many students reaching the kind of excellence that they did in their work.

KKD: Yes, they did.

HAB:  Very, very interesting and we certainly are grateful. Thank you on behalf of the Friends for such an interesting insight.

KKD: It was my pleasure. I could talk for hours.

Kathrine Koller-Diez