Support When It Counts: Graduate Fellowships

Profiles of three fellowships and the donors who made them possible.

From funds began in the 1940s to those created in the last decade, graduate fellowships transform our students' lives. While our graduate students profit immeasurably from the teaching experience they earn in their time at the University, they also benefit from the occasional year or semester dedicated to scholarship alone. Fellowships in the first year not only attract the most accomplished students to our Literature and Creative Writing Programs, they also encourage the sort of academic immersion that pays off later in deeper exploration. Dissertation writing fellowships allow advanced students to focus on the project which ultimately may secure them academic positions and publication.

The below fellowship profiles illustrate how three of our funds came into being--and how significant their support has been to our students. We welcome donations to any of our graduate funds, so that we can help more students do their best work.

Mary Sue ComfortMary Sue Comfort Fellowship in English

When Mary Sue Comfort (BA '53, MA '80) entered the University as a freshman in 1949, English was hitting its stride as one of the foremost departments in the country. Professor and Chair Joseph Beach had attracted a diverse and accomplished faculty, including Robert Penn Warren, who in 1945 won the Pulitzer for his bestselling novel All the King's Men. Mainstream critics such as Samuel Holt Monk nodded in the hallways to New Critics Leonard Unger and Allen Tate and left-leaning Americanists Leo Marx and Henry Nash Smith.

Comfort grew up within hailing distance of the University and had often traipsed across campus, but taking classes and studying here was an entirely different thing. "It was an exciting new time," she recalls.

"The wonderful English department faculty, giving us the benefit of their own scholarship, thought, and experience, inspired us to discover, analyze, and write about the ideas in literature, and to carry those skills forward with us--skills we would value in pursuing any career--or in living our lives."

More than 20 years later, Comfort would remember that excitement and decide to return to the Department of English for an MA in literature. The department by that time was transforming, influenced by new hires and the establishment of University programs on Afro-American, American Indian Studies, and Women's Studies. Comfort again found her literature study enormously stimulating--so much so than when the liberal arts began to be overlooked in larger conversations about higher education, she was motivated to step forward with support.

"When it had become a nationwide aim to promote the study of math, science, and technology, I had a different goal," she declares, "to help the next generation of scholars who, in turn, through their research and teaching, would keep their tradition flourishing and would inspire the new students of literature."

Endowed in 2003, the Mary Sue Comfort Fellowship continues to meet that goal. Laura Zebuhr (PhD '10) received the fellowship in spring 2009, the year before she defended her PhD dissertation. "Even when you love teaching like I do it's so important to have time off to focus on a big writing project like the dissertation," she notes. "During that semester I was able to draft a chapter on friendship in the writing of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. I also began research in 19th-century friendship albums, which led me to travel to Philadelphia over the summer to conduct archival research at the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania."

That research led to another dissertation chapter, as well as a presentation at the C19: Society for Nineteenth-Century Americanists Conference. Zebuhr's dissertation, "The New Work of Friendship: Antebellum American Literature, Democracy, Impossibility" (adviser: Qadri Ismail), helped her win a postgraduate Teaching Fellowship for two years at the University of King's College in Halifax. This year Zebuhr accepted a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor of American Literature at St. Francis University, in Illinois.

For Comfort these types of success stories are the best kind of thanks. "It has been a joy to meet the fellowship's recipients and to hear about their origins, their hopes, their projects," she says, "and, partly through them, to keep in touch with the department and the college."

Ruth DrakeRuth Drake Dissertation Fellowship

As an undergraduate, Ruth Drake (BA '31) was an active participant in University clubs and activities. When a nucleus formed of equally committed organizers, one of their boyfriends drawled, "You women are just like a pack of rats running around." Rats! The women laughed--and gleefully adopted the name. The boyfriend became a husband, and the women stayed friends through 70-plus years, proud to be the Rats.

Recognized as a CLA Alumna of Notable Achievement, Drake remained involved with the University as well. She and her husband Everett A. Drake (JD '33) could reliably be found in the football stands for home games, remembers their son William Drake, in a phone call from his home in San Francisco. William also graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School, as did his grandfather, making three generations of alumni. Everett had a long career at Faegre & Benson, in downtown Minneapolis, as Ruth cared for William and a daughter, Carolyn, in St. Louis Park. The couple lived in Edina after the children left home, and, in 1980, they shocked their friends, William notes, by buying one of the first downtown condos. Everett could then walk to work and Ruth to their church, Westminster Presbyterian.

Ruth continued through her life to volunteer and support community activities, nonprofit groups, and charities. "It was the era [the 1930s to the 1950s] when women didn't work outside the home," her son recalls. "It's unfortunate, because she would've made one hell of a business person. She was a people person, very organized and well-informed. I think she would have been happier had she worked."

When Everett died in 1995 at age 86, Ruth set up a scholarship in his name at the Law School, William reports. "Then she said, 'Well, wait a minute. I've done this for the law school and my husband: I'm going to do it for myself as well. I'll do something for the English department.'" And so she worked with English to endow the Ruth Drake Dissertation Fellowship, which supports doctoral students at the crucial stage of the culminating dissertation project.

"The Ruth Drake Dissertation Fellowship made a critical difference for me," stresses the first recipient, Penelope Kelsey (PhD '02), now Associate Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It allowed me to focus efforts on revising my dissertation in 2001-2002. This respite from teaching also allowed me to interview for multiple jobs, accept a tenure-line position, and successfully defend in June, 2002. The dissertation was the basis for my first book, Tribal Theory in Native American Literature: Dakota and Haudenosaunee Writing and Worldviews (University of Nebraska Press, 2008)."

Since 2001, ten dissertation projects have been supported by the Ruth Drake Fellowship, and nearly all the recipients have secured tenure track jobs. Including Kelsey, four have already published books based on their dissertations. Writes Alex Mueller (PhD '07), Assistant Professor of English, University of Massachusetts at Boston: "I am very grateful for the fellowship because it allowed me a teaching-free semester to finish and successfully defend my dissertation. That dissertation is the basis for my first book, Translating Troy: Provincial Politics in Alliterative Romance, which will be published this April with the Ohio State University Press."

Ruth's generosity to the University did not stop with supporting students. She collaborated with Professor Emeritus Vern Sutton, long-time opera theater director at the School of Music, to establish a fund to bring visiting musicians to campus. And she gave a major gift to the Pillsbury Hall Renovation Fund, which will help to create a permanent home for English this decade.

Ruth Drake died at age 94 on May 4, 2004, not the last "Rat," but the one English doctoral graduates will remember with gratitude years into the future. Professor Kelsey says it best: "Thank you, Ruth Drake!"

Martin B. Ruud Fellowship
Martin Ruud
When Professor Martin B. Ruud passed away, in 1941, a young professor at the University of Michigan sent a mournful letter to English chair Joseph Warren Beach. "Professor Ruud had a much greater influence on graduate students and young scholars than the number of his published works might indicate," wrote Karl Litzenberg, then an associate professor at Michigan. His words were more prophetic then he knew: graduate students 70 years later are still being supported and inspired by Ruud, though they never knew him.

"Thanks to the generous Martin B. Ruud fellowship," notes current student Amanda Niedfeldt, "I was able to focus the first year of my graduate career on coursework and scholarship. While I look forward to teaching in the years to come, the fellowship enabled me to comfortably and successfully acclimate myself to the world of graduate education before I begin instructing and leading others in the University and the discipline of English."

Another student, Laura Scroggs, concurs, adding: "This fellowship year has allowed me to get to know the University more intimately as I am free to seek out collaborators across campus to enrich my own research."

The Martin B. Ruud Fund emerged from the collective gifts of colleagues and former students, such as Litzenberg, compelled to do something in his name. At first a sum of $68.50 gathered, which the department decided to use to augment Ruud's book collection, which he bequeathed to the University. Then there was talk of publishing a festschrift, a volume of essays from various writers to honor Ruud. (One of Ruud's own books, Studies in English Philology: A Miscellany in Honor of Frederick Klaeber, was collected at the retirement of Ruud's department mentor and edited with colleague Kemp Malone.) Eventually, enthusiasm built to establish a fellowship and scholarship fund in Ruud's name.

Martin Bronn Ruud (1884-1941) was hired as a lecturer by the Department of Rhetoric and Public Speaking in the late teens and was promoted to assistant professor by the time that department was absorbed by English in 1921. Ruud, like Klaeber, was a scholar of medieval English literature and language. He published Thomas Chaucer (University of Minnesota, 1926) and was by Beach's account "almost amazingly" learned. "His interests were . . . austere," described James Gray in The University of Minnesota, 1851-1951, "and the most nearly frivolous thing he ever did was to evolve a theory which was later generally accepted of how the pronoun she had come into the language."

But his knowledge ranged beyond that field, with a special interest in Scandinavian culture. A translator, he also wrote essays for the journal Scandinavian Studies on Knut Hamsun and Ibsen and published two longer works on the history of Shakespeare in Norway and Denmark. With Theodore C. Blegen, he published the important collection Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads. A supporter of the student Ibsen Club, he was responsible, Gray wrote, "for Minnesota's coming into possession of extensive collections of books in the field" of Scandinavian studies. These materials proved essential as the University in 1947 developed a program in Scandinavian studies, which state legislators had long called for as part of the University's responsibility as a land-grant institution.

According to archived department papers, Professor Ruud was humble and gracious in the classroom. A 1918 report concludes: "In manner Mr. Ruud is pleasant, subdued, and nervously hesitant. He is the typical university philologist in mind and manner." In 1920, Beach observed approvingly: "He is on good terms with the students."

By the time he died, 20 years later, Ruud had made himself indispensable. The Department of English sent a letter to his widow praising him for his "searching and disciplined mind, generous and loyal heart, and character of singular strength and integrity." The letter ends: "We would not leave unspoken the sense of loss we have for a colleague so much loved, so deeply respected and admired."

The establishment of the Ruud Fellowship underlined that sentiment--and now generations of students have learned Martin Ruud's name. First-year graduate student Marc Juberg represents yet another. "Coming straight out of undergrad, I knew the transition to graduate-level work would entail a fervent effort on my part to meet the rigorous expectations of Minnesota's accomplished faculty, as well as the high standard set by my brilliant cohort. Being allowed to devote more of my own time towards cultivating my research and writing skills is a privilege that would not have been possible without the Ruud Fellowship's support."

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This page contains a single entry by Teresa Sutton published on November 30, 2012 12:58 PM.

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