It began with a $50 loan, a few women from Nashville’s most prominent families, and a young chancellor struggling with the fallout from an economic crisis that parallels our own time.
The year was 1893. James Kirkland, a 33-year-old Latin professor with a doctorate from the University of Leipzig, had just become chancellor of Vanderbilt at a critical point in the life of the young university. The United States was mired in the Panic of 1893, brought on by overbuilding and speculation. Railroads and banks were failing. Credit evaporated. Unemployment soared above 12 percent.
Against this bleak backdrop Kirkland faced enormous fiscal challenges. Yields from Vanderbilt’s small endowment were dwindling. The university’s tiny operating budget was stunted by too few paying students: Nearly half of Vanderbilt’s student body fell into some category which entitled them to free tuition—professors’ sons, sons of ministers, and public school teachers among them. The half of the student body that did pay tuition sometimes struggled to stay solvent. The vote by Vanderbilt’s board to raise tuition from $50 to $85 must have seemed like an insurmountable obstacle to many of those students.
When Kirkland learned of one financially strapped student who was considering abandoning his studies, the chancellor appealed to Elizabeth Boddie Elliston, a fellow parishioner at West End Methodist Church. She agreed, anonymously, to provide the young man with a $50 loan.
Inspired by this success, a few months later Kirkland presented a plea for a student aid fund to the women of Nashville at a tea in the home of Mrs. Nathaniel Baxter Jr. It was a gathering that ultimately would affect the lives of generations of Vanderbilt students.
In the 115 years since the Vanderbilt Aid Society (known as the Ladies Aid Society for Students of Vanderbilt University until 1900) was founded “to raise funds to be loaned to worthy and needy young men in the Academic Department of Vanderbilt University,” the organization has provided loans to more than 6,000 students. For many years it was the largest internal source of loans at the university. Over the group’s history, Vanderbilt Aid Society members have contributed more than $400,000—funds that have been lent over and over again. In fact, the cumulative loans made are in excess of $2.5 million.
Nancy Anthony, BA’72, was a mathematics major and the recipient of one of those loans. She is now executive director of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, which operates the largest independent scholarship program in Oklahoma. “Providing support for students during the first year is a key element of encouraging students to go to college,” she says.
“Had I not gotten significant assistance during the first year, I don’t think that I could have gotten to Vanderbilt in the first place. Vanderbilt invested in me through its financial support, my family invested in me through the support that they were able to provide—and I invested in myself through work-study and loans.”
Lee Owen, BA’98, remembers receiving a loan just when he needed it most. He recalls, as a high school senior, “I was pretty set on journalism as a career path. I was strongly considering the University of Texas and the University of Georgia—both have excellent journalism programs and would have been far less expensive. But Vanderbilt was where I wanted to go.”
Owen won a Fred Russell-Grantland Rice Scholarship in Sports Journalism, the John R. Loomis Scholarship, and the Jenard Gross Scholarship, enabling him to attend Vanderbilt and major in interdisciplinary studies. But following his sophomore year, Owen’s father lost his job. “I’d describe my family as the average suburban American family,” he says. “Having a sufficient amount of financial aid was pretty important.”
By the time his father found another job, a younger brother was also in college at Auburn University, “making it even more important for our family to have financial assistance,” he says. “Vanderbilt really went to bat for us to cover the shortfall” with a loan from the Vanderbilt Aid Society fund.
“We were often the fund of last resort. When a student exhausted all other sources of loans and scholarships, we provided that last little piece that could make the difference between staying at Vanderbilt and leaving.”
—Morel Enoch Harvey, BS’67, PhD’79 (Peabody)
“We were often the fund of last resort,” says Morel Enoch Harvey, BS’67, PhD’79 (Peabody), who has been a Vanderbilt Aid Society member for 25 years. “When a student exhausted all other sources of loans and scholarships, we provided that last little piece that could make the difference between staying at Vanderbilt and leaving.”
Harvey and the group’s current members will occupy a special place in Vanderbilt Aid Society history. Harvey is the last president of the organization, which voted to disband last spring now that Vanderbilt will replace need-based loans with grants and scholarships in its financial aid packages beginning this fall. (See the “Opportunity Vanderbilt” feature in this issue.) But Vanderbilt Aid Society monies will continue to help students in the form of an endowed scholarship, which will benefit eight students this coming academic year from Nashville and surrounding areas—and more students in the future.
Back in Kirkland’s day, members paid annual dues of $5. More recently, dues were $30, or $200 for life membership. Members met yearly in one of their homes or at Vanderbilt venues such as the chancellor’s residence or the Dyer Observatory.
In both its longevity and the number of its members, the Vanderbilt Aid Society is unique among women’s clubs. For more than a century, the Vanderbilt Aid Society continued to flourish. Even in its final year, the group included about 1,000 women on its membership roster, a list of names that reads like a compendium of Nashville history.
“It was prestigious,” says Harvey. “It was a social thing as well as a benefactor opportunity. But the primary purpose was always to fund student loans.”
Gray Oliver Thornburg, BA’76, is also a former Vanderbilt Aid Society president—and a third-generation Vanderbilt graduate. “When I was in my early 20s, my mother looked me in the eye and said, ‘You are going to join the Vanderbilt Aid Society,’” she recalls. “In a way it was a group before its time—women organizing 115 years ago for the purpose of seeing that others receive a college education.”
Janet Farrar Worthington, BA’85, recalls being asked to give a talk about her student experience at a Vanderbilt Aid Society luncheon. “I drove out to a nice lady’s gorgeous home in my ’72 Mazda, which burned so much oil that I kept a case of Quaker State in the car at all times,” she says. “When I turned off the engine, it tended to backfire, so I arrived with a bang.”
Worthington, who majored in English, has worked as a science writer, served as a commentator for American Public Media’s radio program Marketplace, and also co-written a college survival guide, among other pursuits. “The loan I got made a big difference,” she says. “Although it doesn’t seem like much now, back then it pushed me over the edge from not being able to afford Vanderbilt to being able to come to this wonderful place. My college tuition was a kind of patchwork quilt: My parents paid for part, I had a government loan and scholarship, plus the Vanderbilt Aid money—and I still had to work while I was at school, so I didn’t have a free ride by any means.”
The organization’s loans have played a critical role at times when federal monies and the national economy fluctuated. During World War II, for instance, when Vanderbilt instituted an accelerated year-round curriculum program, students who otherwise would have worked during the summer to pay their way through college had few options besides Vanderbilt Aid loans.
Angela Powe Johnson, BE’00, is a biomedical engineer who works with the Defense Logistics Agency in Virginia. Johnson says her loan enabled her to take summer school courses and thus lighten her class load during her senior year. “I needed to take summer classes in order to graduate,” she remembers. “Considering my engineering course work, it was extra helpful. I would not have been able to attend summer school without it. And the Vanderbilt loan had a lower interest rate, which made it more attractive.”
Though the Vanderbilt Aid Society has disbanded, it will continue to change the lives of future students like Johnson. On a Tuesday afternoon this spring, approximately 70 members of the Vanderbilt Aid Society met at the Vanderbilt Student Life Center for the final annual meeting of the organization. Those attending included Carolyn Southgate Sartor, BA’48, great-granddaughter of the organization’s very first president. President Morel Harvey announced that the loan fund balance will be converted to the endowed Vanderbilt Aid Society Scholarship Fund.
“We can still make donations, and our legacy will continue to grow,” Harvey told the women, noting that those who wish to help students with financial needs can contribute to the scholarship. Students with outstanding loans will continue to repay them to the endowment.
Lisa Littlejohn, BS’77, MS’78 (Peabody), presented a final check from the organization for $5,500 that Vanderbilt will add to the scholarship. Harvey and Douglas Christiansen, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions, unveiled a plaque that will be displayed in the Undergraduate Admissions Building to honor the society and its accomplishments.
“I cannot begin to tell you how important you have been, each of you, in changing the lives of our students,” Christiansen told the women. “We are thrilled that the new endowment will continue to change lives in the years ahead.”
With any luck, future students will go on to live out their dreams as Lee Owen has. Following graduation from Vanderbilt, he worked as a sportswriter for a couple of start-up Nashville newspapers, covering the Tennessee Titans during the 1999–2000 season of their Super Bowl appearance. “I got to travel across the country covering the NFL. It was about as memorable a first job as anybody can have,” says Owen, who has spent the past eight years in higher education—most recently teaching and serving as an editor at Mercersburg Academy near Washington, D.C.
“Though I appreciated the financial aid I received while I was a student, I’m even more grateful for it today,” he says. “While having Vanderbilt or Harvard or Stanford on your diploma is certainly not a slam-dunk guarantee of professional success, it opens doors. I’ve seen it firsthand. All qualified students should have access to the best education. Cost should not be a barrier.
Over the group’s history, Vanderbilt Aid Society members have contributed more than $400,000—funds that have been lent over and over again. The cumulative loans made are in excess of $2.5 million.
“The fact that Vanderbilt and the Vanderbilt Aid Society thought it important enough to commit money to students with financial need made an impression on me,” he continues. “It was a signal that Vanderbilt cared more about the things students can control—grades and achievement—than things they can’t—family background or ability to pay.”
Forty-four years after James Kirkland became chancellor during the Panic of 1893, he retired in the midst of another economic crisis, the Great Depression. In his remarks to the Society in 1937, he said:
“It so happens that I have a memorandum of the first 150 loans made by the Society. … Glancing through these 150 names, I was easily able to select a group of 26 names that were still very familiar to me. Of these 26, 11 are teachers, one is a preacher, six are lawyers, and eight are business men. Three are members of the present faculty at Vanderbilt, and three are members of the Board of Trust.”
He ended his remarks by assuring the women:
“I feel, therefore, sure that no dollar contributed to the Society by its members will ever be lost, but that it will continue its circuit of blessings, passing from one hand to another through the long years of university history yet to come.”
Now, looking back on its long history, Morel Harvey concludes, “It was a wonderful opportunity for the women of Nashville to participate with Vanderbilt. We hated to see it go. It was probably Vanderbilt’s original outreach into the community, and it’s a great heritage.”
That heritage will live on, thanks to 115 years of generosity by a dedicated group of Nashville women, the thousands of Vanderbilt students they have helped, and generations of students who will benefit in the future.
Those at the final annual meeting of the Vanderbilt Aid Society included:
Much of the historical information in this article was provided by Lyle Lankford, senior officer for university history and protocol at Vanderbilt. Lankford’s 2007 presentation to the Vanderbilt Aid Society, “Women to the Rescue: Making Dreams Reality,” which includes additional historical photos, is available online.