Not Forgotten UConn: Longtime librarian left indelible mark

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.