Celebrating the career of undergraduate adviser and Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies Beverly Atkinson, who retired in May, 2010
On the afternoon of May 4, 2010, in the Upson Room of Walter Library, the Department of English celebrated Beverly Atkinson (MA 1971), upon her retirement after 37 years of service as an undergraduate adviser and later Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies. Steve Atkinson (MA 1972), her husband and a retired CLA Senior Accountant, gave a stirring speech that described meeting Atkinson in an English graduate seminar in the early 1970s. Undergraduate peer adviser Moira Pirsch performed a poem she'd written; curriculum coordinator Michael Walsh (MFA 2005) read "Ode to the Book #2" by Pablo Neruda.
Advising peers gathered around the woman who was a primary organizer of the University-wide Advising Network and the more informal web of CLA department advisers. Former English advisees greeted her with hugs. Department faculty and staff milled around, torn between wishing the honoree an excellent retirement and wondering at the loss of Atkinson's institutional knowledge and gracious presence. [Former English associate academic adviser Rebecca Aylesworth has risen to the challenge as the new Coordinator of Advising and Undergraduate Studies.] Professor Julie Schumacher noted that, in an informal survey, the words most commonly cited to describe Atkinson were "kind" and "generous."
But perhaps the most striking moment of the afternoon came when a pale man using a walker entered the room, asked with impeccable timing, "What's the protocol here?" and took the stage, as it were. Retired in 2003 from the English department as a Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus after 39 years of service, Archibald I. Leyasmeyer had undergone, just the week before, hip replacement surgery. Below are his remarks.
Two weeks ago I wrote to Bev, indicating that while I very much wanted to be at her farewell event, my current health situation would not make it possible. Well, I've been out of the hospital for a few days, feel mobile enough to be here, and so I am.In an interview a week after the celebration, Atkinson smiles at the memory of Dr. Leyasmeyer's speech. "I did not expect that at all," she says, shaking her head. "That's the first thing I have to do: write a lot of thank you notes."
Yeats, that great Irish magician of language, wrote:
An aged man is but a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.
I might be leaning on a walker, but my soul is clapping and singing, celebrating the wonderful accomplishments and experiences we all have shared with Bev Atkinson.
My last day of teaching I finished by working with The Tempest and Long Day's Journey Into Night, two great plays I had taught for decades. As I was reviewing them, it suddenly struck me how important Ariel's question is at the end of the play: "Was't well done?"
During my first term as Director of Undergraduate Studies and of Honors in English, back in the early 1970s, I hired Beverly, and that's probably the most important thing I did for our undergraduate program. Over the decades she has been a valuable and increasingly indispensable member of the Undergraduate Studies leadership, as has been widely recognized.
Students love and admire her, for they recognize her commitment to them, her respect for them as individuals, her desire to see them succeed. On this campus we have quite a number of individuals who are great teachers, and we have some who truly enable the students to learn. Bev is one of the latter, and the students know it.
According to legend, the Great Sphinx, when asked the secret of the ages, eventually replied, "Don't expect too much." This might be the insight of the shifting desert sands across the centuries, but it certainly does not reflect Bev's attitudes. She expects a great deal of herself, the students, her colleagues, her profession. With luminous common sense, a wonderful awareness of a wide range of relevant issues, and a powerful sense of standards, she has been a major force in shaping our undergraduate program and sustaining its excellence.
She is, very simply, resourceful, competent, dependable, determined, honest, and damn good. She has been a major asset to the University, and it is a better place because of her sustained contributions.
"Was't well done?" Indeed, and we thank you, Bev.
Pressed to make general statements about the changes in University undergraduate education since 1973, Atkinson instead gently points to specific curriculum and policy decisions. She mourns the switch from quarter to semester system, which, she notes, "means you have two fewer teachers, two fewer classroom experiences, two fewer courses you could take. I think ten courses are not enough to prepare someone for moving on." And while she appreciates the increasingly accomplished students the U is attracting, she wonders who has been excluded, now that General College is shuttered and average high school grade point scores of freshmen are climbing.
She is optimistic about the current crop of Milleniums. "I would say that clearly in the last five years or so students are much more engaged and civically minded, interested in social justice, both local and international," she claims, "which I think is really exciting. And they're striving to see the connection to their education. Maybe that's been true of students before, but now the opportunities are there."
Other gains Atkinson has witnessed include vastly improved student services, especially for students with physical and mental health issues and for veterans. Her own activism within the University has often been around issues of educational access: the English scholarship that bears her name is directed to "non-traditional" students who, she says, "in the broadest sense seem to have more barriers that make it difficult to have the time to develop their skills, their talents."
Atkinson enjoys the new technology that is allowing more integrated advising between CLA and department advisers and even the Learning Abroad Center. "I like how technology can help us do what we do," she observes. "But it doesn't replace personal conversation. Many students will want to take care of something over email, and I'll say, 'You know, let's get together. It's so much more fun, believe me.'
"I will miss the conversations with students," she says, a little wistful. "Even the most challenging are worthwhile."
But the woman who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro two years ago is looking forward to a commencement of adventures new (travel and time with her preschool grandson) and familiar (gardening and books). Because it's Beverly Atkinson, we know it will be done well.