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Polly Buck on Pastoral Care in Residential Colleges

An Excerpt from The Master’s Wife

Polly Stone Buck was the wife of Norman S. Buck, master of Branford College at Yale University from 1942–1959. This excerpt on the pastoral care of students and the importance of providing them with a home-like environment is taken from her delightful memoir The Master’s Wife (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1989). Another excerpt, on college tea, is also available. Despite the changes in manners over the years and the advent of coeducation, anyone with experience inside a residential college will immediately recognize Mrs. Buck’s world. (And will probably recall a number of “very smart” students like the one described below.) For additional publications on residential college life and administration please visit the Collegiate Way’s recommended reading page.

This excerpt begins on page 79, and my own editorial insertions in the transcript are enclosed in {braces}:

We were not supposed to pamper the boys, nor pester them with attention. They had their own lives and friends, and some of them had no need or even desire for our personal friendship, but a large majority saw us as something like a neighbor’s family at home, or an aunt and uncle, not too prominent in their lives, but there to be called on if needed.

In looking through student registration cards, I noticed that birth dates were given, and I wondered if sending each a birthday card at the appropriate time would be considered as a little friendly gesture, or too much of “putting in an oar.” In a stationery store one day shortly afterward, I ran across some nice-looking birthday cards with none of the “just because you’re you,” “have a nice day in every way” silly jingles, but a quiet blue and tan border, and only the greeting, “Happy birthday.” On impulse, I bought several boxes of them and began sending them to Branford students, simply signing my husband’s name and mine. Every one brought back a note of thanks, and from one boy from a broken home came this pathetic line, “You are the only people in the whole world who remembered my birthday.”

After the ski season began, weekends meant broken legs and casts, and I was really useful then, for there were always a few of our boys on crutches who needed a ride up the long pull of Prospect Hill to the labs, and then I also had to keep an eye on my watch to be sure to go after them at the right {page 80} time—too early rather than too late, or they would have begun to try to make it down on their own.

Whenever a boy had a personal problem, and neither the master nor the office secretary was available at the moment, he was apt to come into the house and talk to me instead. At any time, day or night, he might drop in to borrow something or to find the answer to questions such as these:

“Can you recommend a good dentist—and about how much is he apt to charge for a filling?”

“Where can I have a watch repaired?”

“Is there any place in the country nearby where I can go on Sunday afternoon and cut wood for my fireplace? And can you lend me an axe and a saw for this?”

(In a tuxedo, with a tie dangling from his hand), “Will you please tie this danged thing so that the bow goes across instead of straight up and down?”

“May I borrow a small stepladder?” “—an icepick?” “—a large screwdriver?” “—a stout needle that will sew through leather?” “—some brass polish?”

“May I keep my penicillin pills in your icebox?” (Which means he would be in every four hours to take one.)

“May I wait in your living room for a telephone call from my girl? I took the liberty of giving her your number, as the things we have to discuss are rather private, and I have two roommates.”

“What would be a good thing to give my mother for her birthday? And will you help me pick it out?”

“Do you have a sewing machine? If so, will you help me make (in other words, will I make) a jester’s costume for Saturday night’s play?”

“How does one answer an engraved wedding invitation? {page 81} Does it mean I have to give a present?” (He isn’t going; it is in Oregon.)

“Do you have a road map for the state of Maryland?”

“Do you have a projector that I can borrow to look at the slides I took last weekend?”

They never asked the one question that I would expect: “How can I get to meet some New Haven girls?” Either they were not interested in the species, had already met a satisfactory number during freshman year, or their steady girl back home was all they wanted.

Sometimes the questions were not so easy to answer. “If your grandfather, who was putting you through college, expected you to go into either the ministry or the law, and you would rather die first, and he was beginning to pin you down, how would you break it to the old gentleman?”

I am not a psychiatrist, nor a mother confessor. The things they brought to me were not of world-shattering importance, nor the deepest problems of their souls. But I think it was a very good thing for there to be a home near to these boys, belonging to them, in fact, and a woman there their mothers’ age, who knew them individually and not just as members of the college, who liked them, and to whom they could talk about anything at all, silly or important.

Here is an example. After a quiet, rather shy sophomore had stayed interminably one afternoon, and talked of everything under the sun without arriving at any point at all—and there was always a point, when they came in—he suddenly blurted out, “It’s simply wonderful to talk with you like this! I hope I haven’t bored you too much. Do you know, I’ve been in New Haven almost two years, and you are the first woman I’ve spoken to who wasn’t behind a desk or a counter?” {page 82}

All sorts of situations arose. One night after a big football game, which we won, and consequently a good deal of celebrating was going on, the phone rang about midnight.

“Could the master come down to police headquarters and identify and vouch for a student who had had a little trouble making a left turn? A hundred dollars bail should accompany him.”

The master happened to be in bed with the flu. I was pinch-hitter, making my first visit to a police station.

Before another football weekend a boy came through from the office, found me in the living room, and asked me politely if I knew how to sew. He didn’t want any actual sewing done, he hastened to assure me, but just some practical sewing advice—something probably very simple. He and his roommate had girls coming for the weekend, and a party planned, and wanted things to be “really sharp.” They decided their room needed a little freshening up. They had gone down and bought some flowered material to cover their couch and make some cushion covers. They had thought making the things would be easy—just straight lines, and the couch cover wouldn’t even have to be sewed at all, just thrown over. But when they spread the goods out, it seemed to go off sideways, and although they had measured beforehand very carefully, they were afraid they weren’t going to have enough, and—to make a long story short, they simply didn’t know how to go about making them. What should they do?

“Have you cut into it?”

Oh no; they had not dared. So far, they had only looked at it. In fact, they didn’t have any scissors, and thought they might possibly borrow a pair from me. {page 83}

I suggested that probably the first thing to do was to draw a thread. He was completely dumbfounded. What was “drawing a thread?” Then he had a brilliant idea. Could they bring the material over and let me show them? When I said it was quite simple, but that I’d be glad to demonstrate, he went to the front door and opened it. His roommate, who had been leaning up against it, his arms full of some pretty, gay material, fell headlong into the house. We went up to the sewing room and spread the stuff out and I tried to tell them what to do.

“Now, Mrs. B.,” one of the boys said after a few minutes of this. “I think you will admit that we are all busy people. Don’t you agree with me that it would save everybody’s time if we washed your windows or dusted your books or something, while you made these—things?”

He was a smart boy. So while I sewed, one of them brushed the dog and the other read aloud to us. He was a very smart boy, for the thing he selected to read for our entertainment was his English assignment for the following day.

On another occasion, a senior came in the middle of a morning with, “Can I ask you a very serious question? Mrs. B., (gulp) how much does being married cost?”

I got out the itemized account books that I kept during the first years of our marriage and let him go through them. He was staggered. “Can opener, $3.75?” he asked in horror.

He went away, a most dejected young man. Yet not too dejected, because the following June we received an invitation to his wedding.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021