Past Pictures: The Edith Patterson Years, 1924-1932
by Deborah S. Davis, Archivist
In 1926, the Alumnae Association of Georgia State Womans College, formerly South Georgia State Normal College, held a "Ceremonial of Being Glad for our College" as part of the first Thanksgiving Homecoming. The then President of the Alumnae Association, Edith Patterson, prepared a speech. She expressed gratitude for the intellectual and social gifts the college had bestowed upon its graduates and current enrollees. She specifically pointed out "our gratitude to the writers of letters...the absent ones--the letters of which are bonds of the scattered family." In the Valdosta State College Archives we have those letters from "the absent ones" of which she spoke, three large boxes of correspondence painting a fascinating picture of our early graduates and their close relationship to the school which educated them.
Edith Patterson was a 1918 graduate of SGSNC and a long-time president of the Alumnae Association. She was not the first. The Association was established in 1817 by three members of the classes of 1914 and 1917. Prior to 1924, each President of the Alumnae Association had served only one year. However in 1924, Edith Patterson, an employee in the GSWC Library became President, an office she held until her early death in 1932. Her papers indicate that she was well organized, energetic, and very thorough. Since she was employed by the college full time in another capacity, her "official voice" has an organizational authority to it that a merely willing Alumnae officer would lack. She passed on messages from President Powell and Mrs. Hopper, the Dean of Women, regularly to her correspondents in both personal and form letters. She approached the national alumni organization about affiliating the GSWC chapter quite early in her tenure. She wrote,
The Alumnae Association of which I am a member is rather young and until recently we has no thought of applying for membership in the National Organization. Indeed, I know not what the opinion of the group would be in this matter....I have made a study of Alumni work as given in the Manual and Handbook and found it most fascinating. (1925)
She pursued that "most fascinating" work with vigor, planning banquets, exhorting the membership to send in dues, planning money raising events, such as Harvest Sales of Arts and Crafts, alerting members to lobbying needs of the institution when important legislation came up in the capital. At one time, the Alumnae Association asked each graduate to be responsible for finding an applicant for the college every year, and when a recruiter came into an area, members of the Alumnae Association received letters from "Miss Edith" asking them to attend recruiting events with the school representative. All of these activities mirror in some way what our current, large Alumni Associations do for colleges today. Certainly, the Alumni Association raises quite a bit of money to support the mission of the school. Numerous events throughout the year welcome alumni back and prove their important contribution to the life of the school. And in her professionalism, the then "amateur" Alumnae President laid groundwork for the professional organization to follow.
However, in one area her organization differs quite a bit from more modern Alumni Associations, and that is in the wonderfully intimate communications saved over the years in Archives. While Edith Patterson was husbanding the Alumnae Association in its second decade, she maintained a large official and unofficial correspondence with "the girls," SGSNC and GSWC graduates, all of whom she knew personally. Her contemporaries addressed her as "My Dearest Edith" and the girls who came later called her "Dearest Miss Edith."
The files are full of Christmas cards and black outlined sympathy acknowledgments as well as hundreds of personal letters. Some are humorous: Cora in Ft. Lauderdale wrote in 1932,
I've finally mastered enough nerve to address you.
I don't offer any alibis. I simply want to find out if it will be safe for me to come to the banquet. If so, I'll be there. . . If you aren't too busy to notice me then, I'll beg forgiveness in person.
Many of the letters started out with a similar "apology" for some minor transgression, such as writing late, not sending the $2 dues soon enough, or not having a better craft to send to the sale. Generally the "girls" were apologizing for not being quite as devoted to "dear old GSWC" as Edith was able to be.
The letters are newsy and reflect the times. Most early graduates became school teachers and wrote Edith details of their work:
I taught a one-room rural school this year. I had all eight grades and taught everything from Agriculture (of which I knew little) to football and volleyball. I enjoyed it thoroughly even though minor tasks such as teeth-pulling entered in unexpectedly. (Dorothy Lile, New Philadelphia, Ohio, 1931)
The graduates were ambitious and many came back to GSWC for summer courses and for continuing education. Many began their teaching careers with Associate degrees and would come back to finish a four-year degree at Valdosta or perhaps University of Georgia. Some aspired even higher, such as Evelyn Powell Edwards: "I see you have received the news that I have my AB degree, but have you heard about the M.R.S. and now the M.A.? I have them, as well."
They were scattered from Cuba to Massachusetts, in jobs as varied as librarians, hospital administrators, business women, insurance agents, hotel owners, college professors, of course teachers, and housewives. Some were experiencing the now familiar rigors of the business world:
...for the past year I have done the work of almost three people...(and I might add that...[this] is the only Branch in the United States that has a girl for Asst. Cashier--see, I've been doing a man's work and also holding a girls (sic) position at the same time). But I enjoy it. Only one thing to regret--if I had been working for a worthy cause like you, it would have been appreciated, but with a corporation it is different. The more you do for a corporation the more they expect you to do. (Emylee, Atlanta, Georgia, 1931)
One woman had moved to the Everglades, where "we are tomato farmers at the bottom of Florida"...I'm busy "making tomato ketchup, chili sauce, tomato pickles, preserves, and canning tomatos and pears...I'm a thrifty house wife, I am"...and "I like Florida the finest kind!" (Mildred Littlefield Brown, Everglades, Florida, 1931).
They lived in a different world than we do, where technology had not yet shrunk the distances around South Georgia:
I thought of going over for commencement, but you know they are paving the road from Thomasville to Bainbridge, and the detours are something awful...when this road is finished it will be paved road all the way to Valdosta.(Jean, Bainbridge, Georgia, 1931)
During Edith Patterson's tenure as President the Great Depression hit and affected both the college and the lives of her correspondents. Many did not mention "hard times" but simply continued with wishes for a successful year at GSWC or news of their jobs and family. However, when the subject turned to dues or trips back to Valdosta, visions of the Depression appeared: "I'm sorry that I've neglected sending my dues. But this has been a bad year with us." (A. C. Willis, 1931) One of the alumnae worked for Duval County doing social work and "for the last four months she has been working solely with the unemployed." Another writer refused an invitation with "I am surely sorry...But my salary this year was meager." Another, commenting on the times sent a note to Edith expressing her "hope that all you faculty folk have been paid your salaries to date. You are certainly a loyal group."
Emily Patterson's correspondents are fascinating. They described their children, their jobs, enthusiasms and memories. Jean Dickenson wrote in 1924,Edith, I have bobbed my hair. Can you imagine it? But I wouldn't have it back for anything in the world. So much more comfortable and less trouble. Can't say much for the looks though.
Edith's own "voice" is something of an enigma. Few of her personal letters exist, as of course they were all sent out. Her voice in form letters and in the drafts that exist is almost the epitome of the proper, post-Victorian, educated woman. She quoted liberally, from Robert Louis Stevenson's poetry to more classical allusions in her letters. One of her correspondents described her writing: "your letter speaks of you own dear personality, Miss Edith. An urgent matter, all dressed up in sweet clothing with a dainty flowery touch" (Shirly Gaskins Thomlinson, 1931) Based on Edith's letters we have a picture of GSWC as a very refined place, a place eliciting sentimental memories. Her form letters changed from 1924 to 1932 to reflect her growing professionalism and in a sense they became more distant and more allusive--evoking college experiences that could have taken place at any well-run girls college. It was the job of her correspondents to paint the college in its concrete South Georgia local and to evoke the physical place. One girl wrote after some construction had gone up, "Imagine the back campus view without the turnip greens and cabbages!" (Shirly Gaskins Thomlinson, 1931).
"Dear old" SGSNC, GSWC, VSC and now VSU has always been a special place for those of us lucky enough to attend. From its very inception it has been wedded to the employment needs of the region, which now are part of its formal charge as a Regional University. And, at the same time that it offers the practical, it gives students their first taste of the rarified world of academia and a foundation for life long learning through the liberal arts portion of the core curriculum. In the very earliest letters of its graduates to their "old school" we see the seeds that have now blossomed fully in the institution's latest incarnation. Perhaps the old cliche holds true: the more things change, the more they stay the same.