Remarks by Karyn A. Loscocco '78, Professor, SUNY-Albany, delivered at Matilda White Riley House Dedication
May 8, 1996
Story posted May 08, 1996
I am thrilled to be here to celebrate the dedication of the Matilda White Riley house. It is an honor to participate in this fitting tribute to a wonderful teacher - and world renown researcher - who has since become a friend and colleague. I plan to take you all back with me to the 1970's when Matilda and I shared this campus. I will also update you on Matilda's important and exciting work on age, including our recent collaboration.
I arrived at Bowdoin not long after Matilda did - near the beginning of coeducation here. How lucky I was to be taken under the wing of such a successful woman! Her outstanding reputation as a sociologist was duly noted by students across campus; when Matilda's name came up - - as it often did - - fellow students would say, "she's famous you know." Yes - she was famous alright - and we were getting the incredible opportunity to learn from her.
At the time that Matilda came to Bowdoin, aging was seen as a biological process that was inevitable and irreversible, and the prevailing image of being old was to be frail and dependent. Matilda disagreed and began to dismantle that stereotype. She challenged scientists, policy makers, and students alike to think of aging as a sociological and psychological as well as a biological process - this was unheard of at that time - and she argued that the realities of aging were far more positive than the prevailing stereotype would have us believe. Matilda was fond of saying, "people don't grow up and grow old in laboratories - they grow up and grow old in changing societies. " Matilda is rightly credited with having revolutionized understanding of age and the aging process. In the decades since we were at Bowdoin, she has not slowed down a bit: she is still working on these ideas full time at the National Institute on Aging. Some of her many accomplishments are listed on the brief bio that was handed out, so I won't repeat them.
One of Matilda's major goals at Bowdoin was to develop an exemplary Sociology and Anthropology department. She did just that, fashioning a Soc/Anthro department in Ashby House that epitomized the advantages of a Bowdoin education. Students were invited to join faculty in running the department, helping with teaching, and conducting research - a model far more typical of graduate than undergraduate education. Every year a student was chosen to attend faculty meetings and we were asked to meet with and give input on job candidates, and offer our opinions on any important issues that arose. Many students got experience teaching by helping with labs, leading field trips, and tutoring. Several students worked on faculty research projects - doing library research, computing, writing up literature reviews and working on surveys. The atmosphere at Ashby house was wonderful - it was an inviting spot where students gathered to study or get extra help, and where many memorable discussions took place.
This exciting and inviting atmosphere flourished because Matilda was able to attract talent. She brought in faculty who, like her, were accomplished researchers and devoted teachers. The intellectual excitement at Ashby house and the sense that faculty and students were engaged in a joint enterprise, was shaped and shared by everyone in the department - including the exceptional clerical staff whose hard work was central to the life of Ashby House. We all benefitted also from the tremendous support that came from Matilda's husband Jack (while he was pursuing a career of his own).
The instruction in the Soc/Anthro department during Matilda's chairship was highly personalized - our professors knew us very well and they seemed to want us to join them in the study of sociology and anthropology. Matilda set the tone. She and Jack hosted many student gatherings at their home on Mere Point. Sometimes Matilda would include students in a gathering of faculty from other departments, or with people she and Jack knew from town- we were integrated into her community. I remember a Mere Point lobster bake where I talked for the first time to a Bowdoin professor I'd had for a large lecture class. This professor prided himself on getting to know most of the students in his large classes - and he did; but somehow I had fallen through the cracks - and there we were - finally meeting - at Matilda's house. At another gathering Matilda introduced me to a faculty member's spouse who she then asked to help me on a paper I was writing; my paper was much improved for it. Matilda also was known for calling ill students to find out how they were doing (of course that meant you'd better really be sick if you missed class), and she was always interested in what was going on in her students' lives. We were important to her and she let us know it.
Matilda was superb in the classroom. Her enthusiasm for sociology was infectious. I remember being in her methods course . . . it's pretty hard to get too excited about methods of any kind - they're useful yes - crucial, in fact- but not particularly compelling to most students. Matilda managed to get us excited about methods, though, - by sheer dint of her own enthusiasm. We were lucky to be able to cut our research teeth using her textbook Sociological Research; Matilda's text has been used to educate countless budding sociologists both in the United States and abroad. Her topics seminars - on aging, dying, and the sociology of health- were always a positive and powerful experience. It was as though Matilda were leading us on an important expedition: she would build our curiosity, and give us all of the tools that we needed, and then watch with encouragement and pride as we uncovered new things.
The confidence that Matilda showed in her students was a unique and remarkable part of our learning experience. Her encouragement of our fledgling intellectual pursuits was unflappable. She had the most wonderful way of challenging and supporting students at the same time, leading us to do our very best work. Her ability to exude confidence in us was formative for me. As a first generation college student, I sometimes felt overwhelmed by all the Bowdoin talent around me. Yet Matilda often told me that I had tremendous potential, and what's more important - she gave me opportunities to prove it to myself. I'll never forget the community survey that I worked on with Matilda in my junior year. When a local reporter called Matilda for comment on the study results, she referred him to me! I remember being incredibly nervous but pleased - (when it was over) - to discover that I could do it. I could talk to a reporter about sociological research!
I knew even then that the kind of time and attention that Matilda gave to students was rare -and I can prove it. I found something I wrote my senior year at Bowdoin, when Matilda and Jack invited me to their home to work on graduate school applications. (It would have been a journal entry if I'd been keeping a journal, but I wasn't). I wrote about that special day of working on graduate school applications so that I'd never forget it. I'd like to share part of what I wrote that day with you. I've suppressed the urge to edit, so here is one of Matilda's students, writing in 1978:
"Color this day beautiful. Two incredibly busy professionals have halted their own activities to take a warm, personal interest in my future. A welcome complete with hot breakfast and a blazing fire set the scene. Well-placed criticism had the intended effect - it provided the germ for creative, introspective thinking - and aided by their expertise and heartening encouragement, the results have been better than I ever imagined. What a unique opportunity; some are never so fortunate to partake in such cheerful learning. I feel special.
My spirits soar with the realization that I really am headed somewhere If I can only begin to believe in myself as much as the Rileys do, then I know that I will be able to accomplish whatever I want. As Mrs. Riley says, the only obstacle is my fear - the only thing that warrants fear. Mr. Riley smiles, such a pleasant look on his face as he opens his eyes wide, leans closer, and tells me how terribly exciting this is. Mrs. Riley supports his thoughts with a big hug. They believe in me. I haven't ever experienced such wholehearted encouragement, such unconditional praise."
I did go on to graduate school, and I've been a full time faculty member for more than a decade. (And just as a side note - one of my grad school professors told me that the admissions committee had never seen a more enthusiastic statement from a would-be candidate - in fact they were scratching their heads -is this person for real? But of course they didn't know what it meant to study with Matilda, or have the chance to work on grad school applications in the idyllic Riley home on Mere point). Over the years it's been such a pleasure to keep up on Matilda's many awards and accomplishments through our joint membership in the sociological community. Early in my academic career, Matilda was elected President of the American Sociological Association. She asked me to organize a teaching session at our annual meeting. The session was on how sociology prepares students for various professions. We got together some former Bowdoin sociology students who were then a physician, a financier (I hear he's a millionaire now), a television producer and a lawyer. They talked eloquently and convincingly about the many ways in which their Bowdoin major in sociology had helped in their varied careers. They emphasized their training in research methods and the rigors of sociological thinking - and their knowledge of social and demographic trends.
The sociology major was particularly useful for my career - no surprise there. Still, I feel so fortunate to have been trained at Bowdoin. In graduate school there were times when others would complain about how hard it was and I would be thinking - "What are they talking about? This isn't very different from being at Bowdoin." My experiences as Matilda's student provided me with such good preparation for teaching. I teach at a university with 10,000 undergraduates and too many large classes. When I won my university's teaching award a few years ago, it cited my efforts to duplicate the small liberal arts college experience (the Bowdoin experience of course) on our large and sometimes impersonal campus. That's exactly what I try to do. I know how valuable my college education was and I know why. I've never forgotten the importance of challenging and supporting students at the same time, of inviting students to be active participants in the learning process, and of sharing my own enthusiasm for the subject at hand. These are all things I learned from watching Matilda. When I teach undergraduates I like to thank that I'm sharing a little bit of the Bowdoin magic - that magic that Matilda and the Soc/Anthro faculty gave so freely.
A few years ago Matilda invited me back into her intellectual life when she included me in her exciting "Project on Age and Structural Change", known as PASC. Matilda has been so successful in encouraging research at the National Institute on Aging that she has been relieved of all administrative responsibilities to work exclusively on this ambitious undertaking. (She has been given both flex-time and flex-place - and for the past couple of years she has been working for five or six months out of her fully computerized home at Mere Point). Matilda has brought together literally hundreds of scholars from all over the world to develop the new paradigm that is at the heart of PASC; it hearks back to her contention that aging is a complex bio/psycho/social process. Contributions to PASC come from lectures and meetings held at the Sorbonne in Paris and at other prestigious venues in Budapest, Stockholm, Mexico City, Honolulu, San Juan, Moscow, Kiev - the list goes on. PASC is charting new theoretical territory that is extremely important to the academic community, yet it also has crucial policy implications. This is in keeping with Matilda's longstanding commitment to bridging academia and the public interest.
What PASC is now reporting is that the aging process is far from fixed. Let me mention just two of Matilda's favorite examples from a massive literature. First, with experimental interventions, the cognitive functioning lost by some old people can be restored to their performance levels when they were twenty years younger. Second, muscular leg strength and bone structure can be largely restored through appropriate regimens. Under Matilda's leadership PASC scholars provide an image of old age in 1996 that is very different from what it was in 1978. For the first time in all of human history, most people live to be old and only a tiny minority of the "oldest old" are dependent and living in nursing homes. The term "oldest old", which was coined by Matilda to refer to those 85 and older, is already being revised to extend to those 90 and older - because new data show unexpected increases in longevity. (By the way, Matilda had her 85th birthday two weeks ago!)
As Matilda has written, the oldest old are the fastest growing segment of the current US population - and this translates into a startling statistic: the great majority of older people are spending at least one third of their adult lives in modern retirement. But she shows that most older people (even the frail) want to be more involved in something that society values. Some want to continue to do paid work - and many do so. Some take on much-needed childcare responsibility and others take care of disabled family members.
Matilda and I officially became collaborators in 1992 when we developed some of these ideas in a chapter on the changing structure of work. Working with Matilda on our piece for a National Institutes of Health program brought me full circle - all the way back to Brunswick and Mere Point - as Matilda and Jack hosted me and my husband in their cozy home. There I was, so many years later, enjoying once again the intellectual excitement, warmth, and wonderful company of Matilda and Jack. They gave me new memories - including one of an early morning swim in the brisk Maine water. Matilda and Jack made it look so easy - but my husband and I still shiver when we tell the story of trying to keep up with Matilda and Jack in the bracing Maine ocean - and we seem to tell that story a lot.
It was an honor and a pleasure to write with my undergraduate mentor. In one of the first courses that I took with her, Matilda had talked about the three rigid boxes of education, work and retirement or leisure that have been the organizing principle of the life course for many years. She argued that they were in desperate need of restructuring. The article we wrote together reports recent changes which are already beginning to alter the life course of many Americans. We discuss the ways that people move in and out of studying, working, leisure pursuits, and time with family. These trends can help solve the work-family "crunch" now felt by many in the middle years of life. There is evidence of the kind of society which Matilda has been talking about for a long time - a society in which chronological age isn't that important - and therefore a society which offers people many more choices and improves the quality of life for people of all ages.
In closing I want to emphasize that I am only one in a large and fortunate group of people who Matilda has taught, challenged, mentored and encouraged. Bowdoin was truly privileged to have Matilda White Riley at the helm of the Sociology and Anthropology department. It is so fitting that the new quarters for Sociology and Anthroplogy will bear her name. This will be a visible tribute to her extraordinary contributions to the life of the college. I envision a Matilda White Riley House bustling with energy and excitement as faculty and students pursue knowledge together. What a wonderful legacy given to us by a truly remarkable woman. I know that I speak for the entire Bowdoin community when I say - simply - "thank you Matilda White Riley."
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