Women reminisce about FSU days
Where the Girls WereSome of Florida’s Leading Ladies Were Groomed At the Florida State College for Women
By Stanley Marshall
Florida State University has felt the influence of its predecessor, Florida State College for Women, in many ways. Not the least of those is the presence in Tallahassee of many FSCW “girls,” who became some of the community’s leading citizens.
Three among the many agreed to talk about their FSCW days and their lives since. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Mart Pierson Hill, Betty Thomas Graham and Sue Chaires Boynton. Those are familiar names to many in Tallahassee, and their deeds both during and after their FSCW days made notable contributions to civic life in Tallahassee and to Florida State University.
Mart Pierson Hill: An Extraordinary Leader
FSCW was the only place considered by the families of Tallahassee girls who were ready for college. It was predestined because of the limited resources of most families who had endured the Great Depression, but it would have been the choice of most Florida girls anyway. The Jacksonville debutantes came, Mart Pierson Hill said, along with the daughters of South Florida millionaires and the Army and Navy daughters from the bases in West Florida.
During her years at FSCW, Mart Pierson was a celebrated student leader and an honor student. She graduated in 1942, soon after the United States entered World War II. The students were caught up in war-related activities and were expected to do their share in the war effort. Pierson was appointed by President Doak Campbell as chairman (not chairperson or chairwoman) of the Student Defense Committee. Her duties included helping to welcome service personnel stationed at nearby Dale Mabry field.
A squadron of Chinese pilots were here to train in American fighter planes, and the college was eager to welcome the young Chinese men who were invited to Sunday lunch. Pierson was the hostess at one of the tables and was asked by a lieutenant about the size of the college. She told him that it was the third largest school in the country, purely for women. A few minutes later she heard the lieutenant turn to the man next to him and say, “This is the third largest school in the United States for pure women.”
Hill describes a student body that was truly eclectic, with many girls from small Florida towns the Tallahassee natives had never heard of. FSCW was a uniquely nurturing place, she said, where students could spread their wings and think independently. Hill spoke of the lifelong friends made over cups of coffee at the Sweet Shop, where “we had great fun laughing and arguing and stretching our minds in an attempt to outdo each other’s ideas on life and love.” She added that she would gladly relive every day of the four years she spent at FSCW, “even the week I was ‘campused’ for coming in 10 minutes late from a date.”
Her record as an undergraduate student was a clear indication of the leadership role Hill would play in Tallahassee for the next several decades. She served in 1942, her senior year, as president of college government; she also was a member of the honorary society Phi Beta Kappa, along with Mortarboard and Esteren (now Gold Key). In addition, she was elected May queen, was a Village Vamp, and was selected for membership in Who’s Who Among American College Students.
During her 50-year marriage to Louis Hill, a prominent businessman and banker in Tallahassee, Mart Pierson Hill remained active in a large number of civic enterprises and served Florida State University in many capacities. She was a founding member of the FSU Foundation Board of Trustees and has served for many years as an officer. She is a Torch Award recipient, a life member of the Alumni Association, and a member of the CONNECT Campaign Committee.
Betty Thomas Graham: A Legacy of Service
Also a member of the Class of 1942, Betty Thomas Graham has left her mark in Tallahassee. Her first two college years were spent at Arlington Hall in Washington, D.C. The speaker at her graduation there was Doak Campbell, who arrived at FSCW the following year, as did Betty Thomas.
The newest of the girls’ dormitories was Landis Hall. That section was the heart of the campus, with the library nearby and what Graham remembers as “the handsome dining hall” and the never-to-be-forgotten food provided by Miss Tracy. She practiced piano in the basement of the Westcott – now Ruby Diamond – auditorium.
Having had the basic courses in junior college, Thomas was able to choose rather freely among the upper-division offerings. She said she focused on finding good teachers and was well rewarded by having classes with Hudson Rogers, Anna Forbes Liddell and Raymond Bellamy.
When she graduated, Thomas’ father told her he would be satisfied if she could just earn enough money to support herself – a thought she now says had never occurred to her. The college had come to her rescue by offering a War Emergency Secretarial Course. Thomas took a position working for the director of vocational rehabilitation at the Florida Department of Education. She found going to work in the Capitol exciting – even riding the bus downtown – although her office was in a small space under the back steps.
After her marriage to Lee Graham, Betty Thomas Graham did secretarial work in Alexandria, Va., while her husband attended the Virginia Seminary. His first charge was back in Port St. Joe, a small mill town without any formal efforts at beautification. She became the garden editor for the local paper and saw to the planting of flowers and trees, which made a great difference in the appearance of the area.
On to Birmingham, Ala., they went, where they became involved in mental health programs. Betty Graham persuaded her church circle to visit the local mental hospital to work with the patients. Alabama legislators heard of their efforts and became interested because their constituents were. After 13 years in Birmingham, the Grahams moved to Tallahassee, where Lee became minister of St. John’s Episcopal Church, and remained there for nearly 20 years. Betty Graham was busy as a mother of four sons and a daughter, along with many church-related activities. She was active in improving race relations and in a variety of other community activities. In Memphis, Tenn., where the Grahams lived for years before returning to Tallahassee, Betty was asked to take part in state-level mental health activities in Tennessee.
The active life of Betty Thomas Graham seems to have been guided by a statement of purpose that she expressed during our interview. “Being there,” she said, “doesn’t just take ability, it takes a lot of determination. That’s a big part of succeeding at anything.”
Sue Chaires Boynton:A Small-Town Girl Remembers
Sights, sounds, smells and touches are as much a part of Sue Chaires Boynton’s memory of her FSCW days as events, persons or places. Her first visit to FSCW occurred when her high school basketball team played in the state tournament during the 1937-38 season. She had never seen a real swimming pool, she said, before she saw the indoor pool in what later became Montgomery Gym.
Sue Chaires was assigned as a freshman to live in Reynolds dorm when she arrived in fall of 1939. She describes dorm life as “seventh heaven to a country girl who grew up rather socially deprived.” She was the last child of older parents, and there were no siblings at home and no neighbor children. Now she had friends with whom to eat, go to the Soda Shop, walk downtown, study and meet in class, and to engage in those wonderful bull sessions.
The winters were much colder then, Boynton remembers, and the fountain in front of Westcott froze many times each year. The dormitories had no thermostats, so students followed the practice of turning the steam radiators on and off, and opening and closing windows, to adjust to changing temperatures. When warm weather came, the students spent a lot of time outdoors because the rooms were not air-conditioned.
One of the highlights for her was the Odd-Even skits given at Thanksgiving, written and directed by students. The Odds and Evens, determined by the year of admission to the college, had a fierce rivalry in athletics.
The only cars on the campus belonged to faculty members, and not many owned vehicles. Freshmen were forbidden to ride with anyone except family. At Christmas vacation and the end of the school year, there were long lines of buses to take the students home.
Boynton remembers vividly the outbreak of World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, with the dreadful news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This brought a sense of urgency and seriousness. Some students joined the WACS or the Waves or participated in some other way in the war effort.
Servicemen from nearby training camps were seen on the campus most anytime, whereas before the war, a man would never be seen except on the weekend. Military aircraft made frequent flyovers, including a greater-than-usual number over the sunroof on Landis Hall, which was often buzzed.
In December of her senior year, Sue Chaires met Bill Boynton, her roommate’s brother, who was en route to Navy midshipman’s school in Chicago from his job with the U.S. Border Patrol along the Texas-Mexico border. After two years of only a few dates but lots of letters, she and Bill were married. For the past 61 years, Sue Chaires Boynton has called Tallahassee home.
The message that emerges most clearly from these FSCW girls and others I have talked with is that they were fortunate to have studied under outstanding faculty members. FSCW people still are proud that in the competition with the University of Florida for a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, the distinguished academic society was awarded to FSCW.
FSU faculty and students who are mindful of the university’s history recognize and celebrate the great contributions FSCW made in assuring that the university that was founded in 1947 got off to an impressive start, and many of the FSCW girls still are contributing to good things taking place at the university and throughout the community.