Syracuse University Magazine

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Commemorating a Beloved Scholar

This academic year marks the 50th anniversary of the Renée Crown University Honors Program, which began in 1963 as a few small classes in the College of Liberal Arts, now the College of Arts and Sciences. Today, distinguished faculty members from throughout the University teach Honors courses in a wide range of disciplines to more than 800 students a year from every school and college. “As part of a year-long anniversary celebration, we renamed our library—which holds the bound versions of students’ capstone projects—in honor of Mary Marshall, one of the program’s founders and its first director,” says Kate Hanson, assistant director, scholarship and fellowship preparation, and co-coordinator of the anniversary celebration.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Marshall, a professor of Shakespeare in the English department, had a profound influence on many generations of SU students and faculty who were inspired by her love of words and literature and strong commitment to scholarship. Drama professor Gerardine Clark—a self-proclaimed “Mary Marshall groupie”—recalls how as a new faculty member she was totally in awe of Marshall. “I’m usually quite verbose, but in Mary’s presence I grew very silent and could barely speak a word,” says Clark, a member of the Honors core faculty. “She was always so kind and flattering, but she scared the life out of me because I was acutely aware of the gap between my teaching skills and hers. I didn’t have any women faculty mentors back then, so Mary became my model for the kind of teacher I wanted to be.”

Marshall graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College in 1924 and earned a Ph.D. degree in English from Yale University in 1932. After conducting research in medieval drama as a Guggenheim Fellow, she joined the SU faculty in 1948. In addition to co-founding the University Honors Program, Marshall accrued many professional accomplishments throughout her 69-year academic career. She was the first woman to obtain the rank of full professor in the College of Liberal Arts; she was named the Jesse Truesdell Peck Chair in English Literature; and she co-founded the Syracuse University Library Associates. After her official retirement in 1970, Marshall was granted emeritus status and continued to teach courses through University College for more than 20 years. Clark says one of her fondest memories is sitting behind the door outside of Marshall’s classroom to catch a few minutes of her lecture before running upstairs to teach her own class. “Mary put herself into every word she spoke with such quiet authority, and she never said anything she didn’t believe to be true,” Clark says. “She had a strong moral code and a mischievous dignity—I can still see the twinkle in her eyes.”

As testimony to how much Marshall was loved and admired, a large group of her family and friends formed the “Mary Circle” to care for her in her final years until her death in 2000 at age 97. Clark says she trusts Marshall would be quite pleased with how much the Honors Program has evolved over the years because she always believed in living a full life of the mind. “The growth of the Honors Program would tell Mary that, despite all of the media claims to the contrary, there are still young people today who want to learn and live deeply,” she says, “and the students in the Honors Program continue to hold that as an affirmative principle.”     —Christine Yackel