I just returned from the annual Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling conference. That conference is always a highlight of my spring, and in fact when I scheduled my knee surgery (if you’re tired of references to my surgery, I’m planning for this to be the last post in which I reference it) I made sure I would be healed enough to attend.
This year’s PCACAC conference was special in that it was the organization’s 50th anniversary, and so it was held at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Virginia (the town is the birthplace of golf legend Sam Snead). The anniversary meant that it was an opportunity to look back at the organization’s proud history as well as look to the future, and a number of PCACAC’s Past Presidents had featured roles during the proceedings. I had the opportunity on Sunday afternoon to serve as moderator/participant for the opening plenary session, a panel consisting of five former PCACAC Presidents. Three of us had also served as President of NACAC, and the other two had served or are serving on the NACAC Board. There was a lot of experience and wisdom in the room, and it was interesting to ponder the ways in which our profession has changed and stayed the same.
The highlight of the opening dinner on Sunday night was the presentation of the Jack Blackburn Award, named for the legendary late Dean of Admissions at the University of Virginia and given to an individual for commitment to ethics, integrity, and access, all principles that Jack Blackburn personified. The award is relatively new, but has quickly become as valued as the other top award presented by PCACAC, the Apperson Award. I was privileged to receive the Blackburn Award a year ago, and the previous winners include Lou Hirsh, who will succeed Todd Rinehart as Chair of the national Admission Practices Committee for NACAC. Those are big shoes to fill, but Lou is a superb replacement as chair.
This year’s Blackburn recipient was Mildred Johnson, Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment Management and Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Virginia Tech. I have known Mildred since we were rookie admissions roadrunners nearly 40 years ago, and she is an inspired choice. Mildred is an old-time admissions officer in the best sense, someone for whom the essence of the job is working on the front line with students, and she has insisted on (and been allowed to) continuing to do school visits and counsel students in a way that is rare among senior members of our profession anymore. I am always amazed at how well she knows my students despite working at a large state university.
I also did a session on Monday on “Gender and College Admission,” and will write about that in my next post (unless I decide to write first about the Common Application asking students to list where they are applying), but had to leave the conference early after I learned on Monday morning that a close friend died over the weekend and the funeral was Tuesday.
The death was not unexpected, for my friend was 91. She had told me in our last conversation that she wasn’t doing well, and I had been trying to her reach her by phone daily for the previous week without success. It was nevertheless sad to see one of the most unique, special friendships of my lifetime end. Following the funeral, my son suggested that I write about her in the blog, so here goes.
Mary Alleta Pannill was my friend for more than 40 years. Her late husband was my advisor and philosophical mentor in college, a once-every-hundred-years professor at any institution. When I first visited Randolph-Macon College as a prospective student, none of the admissions staff was available (they may have been at PCACAC) and he interviewed me. He was so honest and forthright about the college’s strengths and weaknesses and such an impressive person that I’m not sure I ever gave any other college a chance, but the opportunity to study with him by itself made Randolph-Macon the right place for me.
Once I arrived on campus I became close friends with both husband and wife. He had suffered a major heart attack the previous year and had to limit his afternoon office hours, so she maintained them when he couldn’t be there. On many Sunday mornings I would see them out for breakfast when I went out to get a newspaper and would stop and visit. She and I engaged in a tutorial on subjects ranging from existentialism to the philosophy of William James.
Two weeks after I went off to graduate school, her husband passed away suddenly from another heart attack. I worried about her, because she was physically frail, looked older than she was, and was devastated from losing a life partner to whom she was truly devoted. They had no children, and our friendship developed into a new phase. She told me at one point that her husband had always hoped that I would replace him, and I can imagine no greater compliment. I ultimately had the opportunity to come back and do that for a year, and she served as my unofficial teaching assistant, co-hosting a reception for my students and suggesting the book that became the culmination of my Intro to Philosophy class, Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction.
Through the years we maintained a personal and intellectual friendship, visiting bookstores together and having conversations on a myriad of topics. After she moved into a retirement home where the other residents didn’t share her intellectual interests, I tried to take her to lunch regularly. She was a creature of habit, so we always went on Sunday, always went to the same fast food place, and I was to pick her up at 11:30. If I hit traffic lights or had to wait for a passing train, I worried about disappointing her. Over the past couple of years my son would join us, and she would have us look-up tidbits online to help in her scholarly pursuit of knowledge about the 19th and 20th century British Aristocracy.
In recent months I worried that each time we got together it might be the last. She was the first person to call me after my surgery, a huge step for her because she hated to bother me. I was desperately hoping to recuperate in time to have lunch again, but ran out of time. The last time we talked she told me she was not doing well and said how much the friendship meant to her. The feeling was mutual. I was so proud of how she made a life for herself after losing her husband, and inspired by her passion for learning and for ideas. Her death leaves a void in my life, but I am richer as an ethicist and as a person for having known her.
One last note: The last post on the lexicon of college admissions was featured earlier this week as one of the two featured “Around the Web” articles on Insidehighered.com, the fourth time the blog has been mentioned on that site.