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Miss Cornelia Strong: A Tribute

By Magnhilde Gullander, Albert Keister, and Helen Barton

Read before the Faculty Council and filed with the Faculty Council minutes, November 1955. The Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina.

On June 3, 1955, as the college was entering upon its commencement season and many alumnae were returning for their various reunions, Miss Cornelia Strong, a beloved teacher and devoted friend of the Woman’s College for fifty years passed quietly away. Although she had been retired for seven years, she had maintained an active interest in the college’s affairs and its activities.

Miss Strong was a native of South Carolina and the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She received her early education at the Agnes Scott Institute, not a standard four-year college at that time. After two years of teaching she entered Cornell University and in 1903 received her Bachelor of Arts degree and was elected to membership in Sigma Xi, the national honorary society for distinction in science. It took real courage for this shy southern girl to go so far away from home to the northland and to a coeducational institution; yet she always referred to her years there as very happy ones. Her excellent mind and her pure delight in learning soon won her a reputation as a real student. Two lasting friendships with distinguished mathematicians developed during these days at Cornell: one with Professor John Henry Tanner and the other with Professor Louis Karpinski, later of the Mathematics Department of the University of Michigan. Several years after she had left Cornell, she returned to assist Professor Tanner in writing a high school algebra text. Two years after her graduation from Cornell she came to the Woman’s College, then the State Normal School, and she remained an active member of its teaching staff for forty-three years.

Miss Strong was a student all of her life. She attended summer schools at many universities: Cornell, Michigan, California, Colorado and Wisconsin. It was from the University of Michigan in 1931 that she received her Master of Arts degree in Mathematics and Astronomy. Immediately thereafter she introduced courses in Astronomy at the college. But her interests extended beyond the subjects she taught and she often took courses in literature, poetry, government and sociology. She held memberships in a number of professional societies: the Mathematical Association of America, the North Carolina Educational Association, the North Carolina Academy of Science and the Astronomy Club of Greensboro. She was a loyal and active member of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant.

Miss Strong was a unique personality of rare refinement and distinction. She was a timid, self-effacing and gentle lady; yet she had an inner strength in her quiet but unswerving devotion to the right in all things small and great. On any moral issue she was open-minded, but firm and steadfast when her mind was made up. When she spoke her mind she did so with kindness and magnanimity, never creating enmity in the minds of those to whom she spoke. She never asserted herself but she could rise to the occasion quietly and effectively. She stood absolutely on her own, asking a favor of no one, but she was most gracious and most appreciative of those things others did for her. Always sensitive to the feelings and needs of others, she never failed in her helpfulness to her friends, nor in her consideration and generosity to all with whom she came in contact. Nothing that might give pleasure or help to another was too much trouble for her. Coupled with this warm sympathy was another characteristic which delighted her friends. They will long remember the light touches and the twinkle in her eye with which she revealed her sense of humor of a “Barriesque” and almost impish quality.

Miss Strong’s keen intellect and her ability to analyze a situation clearly, logically and without prejudice made her a most valuable member of the college faculty. Her associates were constantly impressed by the sharpness of her mind, her ability to discriminate and her clarity of expression. She was a member of many important committees, often serving as the chairman. From 1913 to 1937 she was chairman of the Committee on Advanced Standing. This was a difficult task; for during this period many alumnae were trying to standardize their degrees, and it required good judgement, patience, and tact to maintain the standards of the college and at the same time preserve happy relations with these older alumnae. From 1937 until her retirement in 1948 she was chairman of the Student Loan Committee. At one time she represented the Woman’s College on the Administrative Council of the Consolidated University.

In the college community Miss Strong will be remembered largely for her many kindnesses: notes of congratulations, of appreciation, of sympathy; a small bouquet left on a desk; Christmas packages to many of the faculty and their children; and in the summer a small basket of fresh vegetables from her sister’s garden. One of the last times she walked up McIver Street, just before entering the hospital for what proved to be her last illness, she was carrying some Easter remembrances to the children of one of the professors.

As a teacher, Miss Strong will be remembered by hundreds of alumnae who studied in her classes as a woman of profound knowledge and infinite patience, with concern and kindly interest always in the individual student. To quote from an article in the Alumnae News, August, 1948, written by a former student of hers at the time of her retirement:

Her students 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; they came to understand and even falteringly to apply logic in their reasoning … and (at least some of them) experienced … the rare moments in their lives when the wonder and beauty of the mathematical universe flashed upon their sight.

To those in the Mathematics Department who worked intimately with her for so many years, she was the perfect colleague. Her cooperation was spontaneous even when she might feel hesitant about entering upon a new undertaking. The whole department gathered strength from her intellectual integrity and found delight in her keen sense of humor. The newer members of the department soon felt the warmth of her personality and learned to love and respect her. During the seven years after her retirement her advice was sought on many occasions and her judgement was always sound. She was an integral part of the department to the last.

In the hearts of her many students and friends, in the Mathematics Department and in the entire college community, Miss Strong will live for many years to come, an inspiring and gracious influence.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021