By GABRIELLA DEBENEDICTIS
August 20, 2019
Special to the Chronicle
STORRS — Edwina Whitney focused on the future in her professional life as a librarian at what would become the University of Connecticut.
But she was also nostalgic for the past.
A lifelong Mansfield resident who, for decades, worked for the university her family helped establish, she once wrote a poem pining for the simpler times of her childhood in the late 19th century.
“When I was a girl in Mansfield/The brooks were rippling and brown/There, barefooted children sailed their boats/And played till the sun went down,” she wrote.
“Now the brooks run straight as arrows/Between confining walls/Landscaped and conventional/To answer the engineer’s call.”
Passion and a willingness to speak her mind defined both Whitney’s personal life and her career.
Whitney was born on Feb. 26, 1868 — almost 15 years before the school that would become UConn was founded.
She was born in a white house that still stands on the school’s campus, in between Storrs Road and Mirror Lake.
During her childhood, the Town of Mansfield had only about 10 percent of the town’s current population.
At a time when most women didn’t work outside their homes, Whitney spent 34 years as a librarian at what became UConn.
The school was called Connecticut State College when she retired in 1934.
Whitney was instrumental in ensuring the library grew and changed as did the school.
UConn Today writer Tom Breen said she can be credited with continuing UConn’s growth during a time when state governments and the farm lobby were resisting its transformation from a school strictly focused on training farmers, into a broad-based university.
“She arrived at a time when there was a legitimate crisis, in fact, with the existence of the school actually in doubt. A lot of people deserve credit for navigating through that crisis, but I don’t think Edwina Whitney has really gotten her due,” Breen said.
“She was the face of the ‘school’ side of the enterprise as college librarian, and she worked diligently to establish the central importance of that role.
“It’s easy to say the institution would have developed the same way with anyone in that role, but I don’t think that’s true.”
Many members of Whitney’s socioeconomic class feared the downfall of an agricultural economy and the rise of urbanization and mass immigration in Connecticut.
Evidence proves Whitney knew the university needed to move toward more broad-based education.
And the university did change.
Throughout the course of her UConn career, she saw it change its name from “Storrs Agricultural College” to “Connecticut Agricultural College” in 1899, and from that to “Connecticut State College” in 1933.
She also saw it grant its first four-year bachelor of science degrees and first master’s degrees.
“She was the last link between a place on the cusp of becoming a modern university and its humble past as a school for farmers,” Breen said.
Long after her retirement, former provost and academic vice president Albert Waugh wrote her a letter celebrating her 95th birthday.
Waugh expressed appreciation and admiration for her. He said he had read her first annual report as a librarian and was amazed at how much had changed.
Whitney also served as a German instructor from 1901 to 1926 and an assistant professor of German from 1926 to 1934.
Outside of her work at UConn, Whitney was active in the community.
“You cannot talk about the college, or about Storrs, or about the Storrs Congregational Church, or about the Women’s Club, without coming to Miss Whitney,” Barbara Atwood wrote in the Feb. 16, 1941 edition of the Hartford Courant Magazine.
The article focused on the then-new UConn dormitory to be named in Whitney’s honor: Edwina Whitney Hall.
She lived a long life, turning 100 in 1968.
Whitney died two years later in 1970.
Editor’s note: The writer is a University of Connecticut journalism student.