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Alumnae past, present and future

September 25, 2013

September typically fills up with reunions and other events for alumni, just before the return of our current students and arrival of a fresh group of first-years.  It’s a time of year I always enjoy, a time for renewing contact with the extended Somerville community and rediscovering why the college is so important to so many people – and in so many different ways.  This year the month has been tinged with sadness.  Patricia Margaret Norman (who matriculated in 1939), aged ninety-three and in declining health, spent several months in hospital and then a care home before her death at the end of August.  As I researched her quiet and little- recorded life in order to speak at her funeral here were mixed emotions: sorrow that in the end she had little other than Somerville in her life, and a deep gratitude that she remembered us so generously in her will.  Thanks to her legacy amounting to over £1 million, the college will be able to endow significantly better funding for teaching in the humanities and support for students, and we’ll be able to secure the future of a humanities subject at Somerville in perpetuity.  What a remarkable gift.

The week after Patricia’s funeral, there came a deluge of more celebratory events for alumni.  A “Family fun day”, subtitled “a celebration of learning” was the brainchild of alumna Sian Thomas Marshall, and drew in alumni of all generations and their families, many of them returning to the college for the first time since they graduated.   Fellows gave small lectures or mock tutorials, adeptly tailoring their remarks for general audiences who could range in age from three to seventy.  Students gave tours to the many teenagers who were clearly thinking about applying to Somerville.  There were a bouncy castle and bouncy rabbits for the littler ones, archery, and a tent with a magician doing science tricks (and inviting the audience to make their own torpedoes); zorb ball racing, a high wall for budding mountaineers, and an endless supply of tea, sandwiches and cakes.  All free, thanks to our generous sponsor.  The extraordinary kindness of Fellows, staff and students, giving up their Saturday with great good humour, matched the excellence of the talks and the high quality of each attraction.  It was the first time Somerville has provided such an entertainment, and it lived up to the fun in its title.  We also proved triumphantly that the college could entertain 450 energetic visitors with room to spare.

The next few days included an open day for prospective students, auspiciously mingling with the degree day crowd.    Hard on the heels of that came the 50th year reunion of alumni who matriculated in 1963.  The collected summaries of their lives, including several obituaries, made fascinating reading.  Public service, eccentricity, lives and families in far flung places, late-developing creative talents, a striking number of truly distinguished academic and public careers and above all a collective gift for friendship: these were the impressions that I took away.  I have been wont to think of the tall ornamental thistles in the college’s garden borders as epitomising the typical Somervillian character: we grow tall in our lives and aspire, we may become ornaments to our professions and certainly to our college; and we are also spiky to the touch, to be approached warily.  The year of 1963, a small but cohesive group, rather belied that characterisation with their vivacity and their intellectual generosity (and their readiness to play the fool for each other, with a specially written and hastily rehearsed short play).  I hope they found their two days back in Somerville as much fun as I did.

This being one of those weeks when social stamina is the most essential qualification for a Principal, there was also a reunion for Rhodes Scholars including a dinner for those from Somerville and a special reception for Indian Rhodes Scholars.   We met under the gaze of the college’s portraits of Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, alumnae extraordinaires.  The special Rhodes reunion coincided with the Oxford-wide alumni reunion, for which Somerville provided lunch and a special lecture by marine biologist Professor Alex Rogers.   Alex’s revelation of the hitherto hidden biodiversity around sea mounts and thermal vents, deep in the southern oceans, also contained a sobering warning about the all-too visible impacts of global warming.  A large and well-informed audience found it difficult to let him go.

There were three separate degree days in the past week.  Most of the students I welcomed here in my own first year have morphed into alumni.   The sun shone on them and their families (most of the time) and it was good to share a little of their well-earned pride.  It is also difficult not to feel sad that this dynamic, public-spirited, year of high achievers and good friends will probably not come together again as a group until some future reunion forty or fifty years hence.  Many members of the Somerville community who have graced the quad this past week and laughed and chatted in the Hall and meeting rooms –including me—will be ghostly memories.  But that means it’s time to think about welcoming the next year and passing on to them a sense of the college community that they will then proceed to make their own.

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