Sept. 20, 2023
Joan Bess, a former head librarian of the Huffington Library, recalled the challenges Mary Frances England faced as the founding dean of Culver Girls Academy and told students about their friendship.
“I’d like to tell you how Dean England made Culver her family and how she became an important part of my family,” Bess said. “I’d also like to tell you about the deeply human side of a woman many thought was tough, Victorian-like, and at times, a curmudgeon. This wasn’t the Dean England I knew.”
Bess, who started at Culver in 1981 and served as head librarian from 1990 to 2008, was the keynote speaker on Sunday at the Dean England Day ceremony held at Memorial Chapel to educate the new CGA students on the significant role England had played during the founding of CGA out of an all-boy Culver Military Academy in 1971.
Bess said England was just like CGA students now, in that she developed friendships at CGA. When Bess moved to Culver and worked with Bertha Jones, the head librarian in 1981, she quickly became friends with Jones and England. She remembered that Jones stood by England and went through “all the ups and downs of making CGA a reality.” Bess said that both England and Jones always gave credit to their colleagues and friends, which was something she truly admired about these women.
Bess recalled that Jones’ daughter, Marion, said that England and Jones “were among the first women in professional positions in a sea of men” that they “found kind of a refuge in each other’s company.”
Another friend of England was Sally Ricciardi, known by most as “Security Sally.” Ricciardi shared with Bess that during her time working on campus in the security department, a girl climbed out of a dorm after hours by jumping to the branch of a tree. Ricciardi reported the incident to England. The tree was cut down the next day.
“I realized that Dean England had a great sense of humor,” Ricciardi said, “and she was also going to ensure that girls didn’t get into the kind of trouble that would ruin the opportunity they had been given.”
Bess told the students that is important for women to support each other through challenges, even as an assistant. She said it is important to “recognize that being the assistant is often your own leadership shining through that friendship.”
Bess said she was fortunate to get to witness England’s humor, her many friendships, and the human being who sometimes needed to discuss her decisions.
Perseverance in the Founding of CGA
Bess said that the other side of England is that she also had moments of vulnerability, but she rarely showed those emotions.
“She didn’t want naysayers and those who didn’t want girls here to know these things pained her,” Bess said.
One of England’s friends, Janet Burke, shared a story with Bess about how she and England overheard one of the girls on the phone telling her parents it was acceptable to get A’s at Culver.
“Janet told us how Dean England teared up to hear this girl’s pride that she was at a school where girls were encouraged to excel,” Bess said.
Bess said England felt too close to the history of the school to continue writing about that history, and she surmised that some of what England went through as the founder of the school was too painful for her to write about years later.
Dean England’s Vision
Bess shared that England’s vision of CGA was built around the philosophy that girls should have a voice and ownership in their school. At that time, most military schools that were admitting girls enrolled those girls into the same military system. But England believed that girls would have more opportunities to practice leadership if they could establish a model of leadership for girls.
Additionally, Bess shared with the audience that England’s friends often called her “Mai Fan,” which was the name her sister gave her in childhood. Bess said she would picture how the young Mai Fan, who had to hide from her father because she wasn’t supposed to be on certain parts of the campus, didn’t know that she would become what a previous head of schools referred to as the “Tall Majestic Oak.”
“Though your school has changed in dramatically innovative ways, that idea that girls should have a voice in their own development is one that has remained through every dean of girls since Mai Fan,” Bess said.
Bess said that England had deep roots in Culver, much like a giant oak tree, and that is why she was called a Tall Majestic Oak.
“But it was the shadow of that oak, that long cast itself for decades to come,” she said.
CGA - Home Away From Home
Bess said she hopes CGA students develop lifelong friendships and have the opportunity to offer their friendship to someone facing challenging times.
“Though I hope you all get the opportunity to practice leadership, I hope you will also thrive in the assistant role so that you might support someone like Mai Fan.” Bess said.
While perhaps some of the students have already felt the pressure and pain of leadership, Bess said that at times, students will learn to manage their emotions and learn that it is acceptable to be courageous and vulnerable at the same time.
Bess hopes CGA students walk the path here at Culver among friends and those who are here to guide them and among the great traditions and philosophies that came before them.
“I hope you will see the history that came before you and know that you are now the voices of CGA,” Bess said, “and you will see that you too may cast a shadow as tall and as majestic as Mai Fan’s.”