Shorter University Departure # 84
Ms. Anita Baker
Financial Aid Assistant
8 years of service
Saving Our Shorter Legacy
The Spirit of Shorter: Dr. Sara Wingard
Open your eyes, Shorter University: Get past your short-sighted legalism and see what you’re destroying.
I am compelled now more than ever to tell you about Dr. Sara Wingard—and her legacy of academic excellence—before you steam-roll it any flatter than you’ve made it so far.
Even though she’s gonna kill me for this later.
English professor Sara Wingard, a 1950s graduate of Shorter College, taught at her alma mater for thirty-plus years. Nearly every student during my years at Shorter had to have at least one core class with her. Her courses were rigorous, demanding. She was absolutely intolerant of mediocrity—I think she actually cured most of us of it. And, as one veteran faculty member told me, administrators and colleagues always knew exactly where they stood with her—she could be just as demanding and unforgiving with faculty and administration as she was with her students. She earned respect, gratitude, loyalty—and occasionally, fear.
Months before her death in 2004, an aging Sara Wingard told my classmate who visited her, “If you have a memorial service for me, I will come back to haunt you.”
To say that Sara Wingard’s legacy lives on is an understatement—and that very phrase—her legacy lives on—has just the kind of saccharine sweetness, worshipful corniness, stilted greeting-card prosody that Sara must have had in mind when she forbade any kind of formal posthumous praise of her. And if anyone could, from beyond the grave, smack down a roomful of kiss-ups and buffoons and legalistic demagogues with a single raised eyebrow, it’s Sara Wingard.
Hear her voice: “Shame on you, Shorter University.” Hear how she pauses for rhetorical effect. Now she whispers, just to me, that when I’m done writing this, she and I are going to have a little private talk about my breaking her anti-memorializing mandate.
I’m up for the challenge and I’ll take what’s coming. As 1985 alum Dan Treadaway said in the letter announcing his tough decision this year to remove Sara’s name from a scholarship endowment he established in her honor, “I know that when I see Sara Wingard again, I will do so with a clear conscience.” I stand with Dan and more than a generation of students shaped by Sara Wingard’s career at Shorter College. It’s Sara’s and Shorter’s longstanding tradition of academic excellence I’m fighting for, a legacy Shorter University’s misguided trustees and administrators and backroom planners are killing—as this year’s astronomical number of departing faculty and staff demonstrates. Sara herself would be, were she alive, one of those departing faculty. She’d not go silently. I’d hate to be the recipient of the copiously detailed written criticisms she’d dole out to Shorter’s current leadership. Five-foot and formidable Sara Wingard—vocal, articulate, and never unprepared—embodied the very spirit of Shorter College. Sara’s Shorter always promoted critical thinking, academic freedom, and serious intellectual inquiry. She refused to stand down in any challenge of such academic excellence.
I should know.
I came to Shorter in 1985 as a Solid Student of Great Potential but a salty smartypants sometime-fly-by-nighter. Sara, diminutive though she was, had the look of an imperial schoolmarm—impeccably and traditionally dressed, always positioned behind the podium with books and notes, with glasses perched on the end of her nose to intensify the beam of her laser stare. Severe arthritis had knotted her hands—and we’d learn later that she often taught us in great pain, that she’d get up early to warm her joints to make it through the day, that sometimes the pain would be so torturous she’d have to stay home in bed—but to a roomful of naive first-semester freshmen in Honors Comp, her body’s stiffness conveyed a kind of severity that made us tremble. Some of our concern was grounded. She never gave us grades: we just had to write and rewrite papers until she said we were done. As one who believed myself (at seventeen, mind you) an accomplished writer—and as one enamored with Vonnegut-esque irreverence—I had to suck up my stylistic pride and adapt to Sara Wingard’s requirements for a formalism I thought belonged to decades past.
She quickly singled me out summarily for classroom shamings. I could whip out a killer paper in an all-nighter. Unfortunately, I’m also frank. “Whew, that one took me all night,” I said once in turning in an essay. Also unfortunately, I’m sensitive. My nascent impressionability likely exaggerates my memory, but I swear she said, “Oh? You will be sorry, Miss King.” It took a whole roll of gauze to dab up the red-ink blood all over my prized draft—which I believe I had to rewrite five times.
I had it coming.
She could elicit a delicate balance of simultaneous reverence and terror from an entire classroom. I came to loathe her evil-eye glare, her regal last-naming of all her students (“Hmmph, Miss King”; “Yes, Miss Chestnut”; “Mr. Montgomery, you’re not making any sense”), her tradition of scanning the room for shruggy evasive body language to pinpoint a victim for a question over last night’s reading. As an English major, I had class upon class with her. Sara’s World Lit tests required rapid-fire hand-cramping paragraph-long analytical recountings of symbols, images, plot points, character identifications, and instantaneous reproductions of universal theme strands—and usually a full multi-literary-work essay to boot. She was furiously stingy with A’s and intimidatingly secretive about her subjective grading standards. She forced students to play her game by her rules or else. She made us memorize and recite Chaucer in Middle English (say it with me now: “Whan that Aprille with his shoores soote. . .” ). She loved English manners and the Queen and high teas and Victorian novels and Jane Austen. She was, as far as I could see it, a staunch traditionalist, a dictatorial figurehead married to rules, rigor, outright rigidity. My polar opposite.
I had no idea then how much I loved her.
Though Sara was certainly more traditional than I am in her pedagogy, she knew her stuff—and she knew just how to push your buttons when they really needed pushing. I recall more than one meeting in her office my junior year for lectures about responsibility. I’d gone through a horrible and awkward breakup that distracted me not only from my studies but from my own personal potential—academically and otherwise—for the latter half of my time at Shorter. I flubbed my way half-heartedly through homework. Sara pulled me aside for a lecture, then another, then another: shoddy work ethic, misguided priorities, what regrets I might have down the road when I’d gained hindsight.
And though Sara’s Advanced English Grammar course ushered me into what became a thrillingly automatic propensity for diagramming extensive multi-clause sentences (I loved it when I had to attach a second page to fit it all in), she recognized that my breezing through what came easily to me (I could actually diagram on the chalkboard on the spot without having completed assignments ahead of time) was no excuse for ill-preparedness (her biggest pet peeve). At the end of the course, a lecture, again, longer this time: “Melissa, you knew more grammar than anyone in this class. I’d venture to say you know grammar better than most students across my teaching career. . . . ” (I fought rolling my eyes with an active internal monologue: please oh please, Dr. Wingard, good grief, just get on with it). She closed her lecture with a zinger: “And that is why you get a B.” Whatever, Sara. “And not just a B, but a B minus.”
Lectures notwithstanding, I got what I had coming. I missed valedictorian by .015.
They may not have sunk in, but all those lectures were evidence not simply of a tough professor’s overborne efforts to draw the best out of students not accomplishing tasks responsibly. They were pure proof: Sara Wingard was not just my professor. She was my greatest advocate.
At twenty I didn’t see myself in Sara Wingard. Here was a woman my mother’s age who’d lived her life unabashedly self-propelled and single. She’d fulfilled a need for family beautifully by taking in animal after animal (I remember her dogs Jane and Darcy, a cat or two, all named after Austen characters). Sara saw me, though, for what I was: beneath my brash and salty and forthright exterior, I was vulnerable and heartbroken, someone who thought she’d lost the only love of her life. Sara had pinpointed in me what I could not yet see: that deep down, in some inexpressible place, I feared that I could not truly stand alone and that I would be forced to do so. I know now that Sara Wingard, lover of dogs and rescuer of feral cats, had taken me in, too, as a kind of protégé, a proud willful bulldoggish daughter after her own heart—but a misguided daughter who had yet to find herself, to find how to be herself independently, without fear or apology.
The last lecture was the best. It wasn’t a lecture at all. “I have something for you,” Sara said, so I walked down Shorter Hill to her house for what I thought might be yet another talking-to. Over tea and English biscuits served up via antique china, Sara played for me a crackly recording of a song from the 1950s Leonard Bernstein musical Wonderful Town— Rosalind Russell brashly belting “One Hundred Easy Ways.” “I heard you were planning to be a contestant in the Miss Shorter pageant,” she said. “This will be just perfect for you.” She even had sheet music ready for me.
I took her up on it. I love good musical theatre. The song’s a real puncher, with quick quips I still sing to myself (“Just be more well-informed than he/ You’ll never hear ‘O promise me.’/ Just tell him where his grammar errs/ Then mark your towels ‘hers’ and ‘hers’./ Yes girls, you too can lose your man/ if you will use my little plan!/ One hundred easy ways to lose a man!”).
Sara, of course, was in the audience that night. I don’t know if I rocked the house, but I certainly cracked up some of the more knowing members of the pageant audience (remember, everyone knows everything about you on the Hill, whether you like it or not). I am not a pageant girl, but I got first runner-up. But you could tell she wanted me to win. She even gave me post-show coiffure commentary, some vague recommendations for a stylist. “Your hair. It was just . . . there.” (see photo above; she’s right—like I said, I’m not a pageant girl.)
Dr. Sara Wingard made me think—even if in simply rethinking who I was, reshaping myself, rebecoming. She made me believe in myself. Lecture after lecture, she made me suck it up and be tough.
Lecture after lecture, Sara Wingard loved me.
I owe Sara Wingard everything I can to reclaim Shorter and give it back to her, the Shorter College that was: the Shorter that entrusted its faculty to carry themselves responsibly in public places and in public and private relationships without requiring them to sign away their name and their integrity, the Shorter that would never have forbidden the teaching of Gothic literature out of a Puritanical fear of occult influences, the Shorter that entrusted its faculty to teach, to teach without censorship or unwarranted oversight, to teach well because teaching is their calling, their duty, their profession.
Shorter University, why have you thrown away Lux Veritas—Shorter College’s decades-tested pledge to light and truth? Sara Wingard’s Shorter, my Shorter, taught me that seeking the truth—whatever it is, wherever it lies—is not merely an opportunity, but an intrinsic mandate—the kind of Right We Do in this world simply and purely because it is right, not because we have signed a document forced upon us by an insultingly mistrustful administration.
Despite all that Shorter University’s trustees and administration have done to kill it, Sara Wingard’s legacy does live on—in her continuing influence in her students’ lives, in my own teaching, in my code of ethics, in my craving excellence from my students and demanding it from myself. Yes, Sara Wingard, your powers certainly extend beyond the grave—but I trust that’s just a nice metaphor.
Nonetheless, I’d hate to be Shorter University’s current leaders and policy makers. Open your eyes, Shorter University. Shame on you, shame on you indeed. You have killed everything Shorter College and Sara Wingard stand for. Hers is a lecture I would fear. And oh, is it ever one you have coming.
Melissa King Rogers, PhD
Shorter College Class of 1989