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Miss Cornelia Strong Retires After Forty-Three Years

By Jane Summerell
The Alumnae News, August 1948

After forty-three years of intelligent and devoted service Miss Cornelia Strong is retiring from the mathematics department of Woman’s College. When she began her work in 1905, it is doubtful whether anyone, even Dr. McIver with his ability to recognize worth in an individual, could have foreseen how significant was the coming of this resolute and brilliant young woman to our campus.

By background and by training hers was the stuff of which great teachers are made. She was born in South Carolina in the turbulent days when the state was being delivered from “carpet-bagger” rule, and she grew up in a family of ministers and teachers who had always put excellence of mind and spirit above material considerations. Her first college training was at the Agnes Scott Institute, which was really what would now be called a junior college, but which she says with pride, “had steadily refused to assume the name until it measured up to the thing named.” Then after two years of teaching she went to Cornell University, where she studied for three years, receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1903. It took great courage for her to go to a northern co-educational university: but, to quote her own words: “Cornell was better than any of us dared hope. It was so beautiful and so friendly! Perhaps it had not been a great university long enough to outgrow the manners of a small college. Anyway it had a warm welcome for a shy southerner wearing a homemade suit and with no evening dress except a long-sleeved lavender lawn.” There she found her studies a joy—not only her major, mathematics (she even took physics in the engineering school in order to get as much mathematics as possible), but also comparative government, which early stimulated her interest in things political, and English literature, in which she distinguished herself by winning the Barnes Shakespeare prize. In her senior year she was elected to Sigma Xi, the national scientific honor society. With Professor John Henry Tanner of the mathematics department she enjoyed a particularly close relationship. He early discovered in her the kind of student whom he was wont to encourage by lending money without interest. “To those of us who borrowed,” she says, “he was not only banker but ‘guide, philosopher, and friend.’” He and his lovely wife welcomed Miss Strong into their home, and made her virtually one of the family circle. After she came to the Woman’s College (then the State Normal College), she was granted leave for a year to help Professor Tanner write a high school algebra.

Throughout her teaching years Miss Strong continued to study in the summers at various universities: Cornell, Harvard, Michigan, California, Colorado, and Wisconsin. In 1931 she received her M.A. degree in mathematics and astronomy from the University of Michigan.

It was apparent, therefore, that Miss Strong’s naturally acute and imaginative mind had been thoroughly furnished unto every good work expected of a teacher. Her students readily perceived this excellence in her: they felt the stimulus of her wide range of knowledge, the compelling quality of her thorough methods; they respected her passionate insistence upon accuracy; they responded to her infinite patience; and, above all, they came to understand and to apply logic in their reasoning. This habit of mind, so vigorously emphasized and upheld with such enthusiasm when the going was hard, strengthened the mental and moral fiber of hundreds of students. It also made possible those rare moments in their lives when the wonder and the beauty of the mathematical universe flashed upon their sight. Later when Miss Strong introduced courses in astronomy and had a telescope installed, which she manipulated with amazing dexterity, she brought to her classes enlarged concepts of space, of intricate design, and of titanic power. Last year one of the important events at the College was her scholarly lecture, “The Telescope: A Chapter in Modern Science.”

But there was another side to Miss Strong’s interest, the delightfully personal one. She had a deep and sympathetic concern for her students, and they can tell of some friendly act, some clear advice in a moment of perplexity, some sharing of joy, some flash of humor that played upon a period of dreary routine. Her notes of congratulation or appreciation or comfort, often accompanied by flowers or a significant gift, are among her students treasured possessions. For many years she taught a voluntary Bible class in the Young Women’s Christian Association. These many expressions of her helpfulness the members of the faculty shared with the students. In the mathematics department she regarded herself singularly blest in the administrative heads: they, in turn, loved her for her unfailing consideration and relied heavily upon her sound judgement. And there are few people at the college who have not at one time or another felt the beauty and strength of her kindness. Nosegays of lovely flowers, grown she is always quick to say by her sister Miss Daisy, continually appear in the offices and homes of new-comers and old friends alike in the college community.

Aside from her teaching and her happy personal associations Miss Strong has served on many important college committees. From 1913 to 1927 she was chairman of the Committee on Advanced Standing. This work in the 1920s was especially useful in helping old graduates to make their degrees standard. Since 1937 she has been chairman of the Loan Committee. In 1936 she was chairman of the committee which discovered and recommended Mr. Lyle as librarian. For seventeen years she has served on the Mendenhall Scholarship Committee. At certain periods she has served on the Curriculum Committee, and for a term of four years she was one of the representatives of this college on the Consolidated University Administrative Council.

Though Miss Strong has retired from active duties, happily she has not withdrawn from our midst. Her home near the campus, in which her mother and sister shared with her a concern for the best interests of the college, and in which Miss Daisy still lives, will continue to be the focal point for alumnae and faculty who need inspiration and advice and courage. And to the campus itself Miss Strong will often be recalled to lend the judgement which the college for so many years has formed the habit of seeking from her. Fortunate are we to have still available the integrity, the insight, and the love which are the measure of her stature.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021