Spring 2009: Of Note

Blair Major

Blair Major had never seen the Emory campus before she arrived with her husband, J. Russell Major, in 1949.

Kay Hinton

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A Woman’s Touch

University Woman’s Club nears ninety years of service and support

Creating Change Within

To order a copy of Creating Change Within, contact Judi Shur at judishur@bellsouth.net.

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By Paige P. Parvin 96G

Nearly a century ago, Emory’s Atlanta campus clung to the far reaches of urban civilization, beyond which stretched acres of fields, dairies, and farms. It was 1926 before the Atlanta city limits crept out far enough to embrace the campus.

Small wonder that, in 1919, a group of eight wives of faculty members banded together for support, activity, and just plain company. That was the beginning of the Emory University Woman’s Club (EUWC), now thought to be the longest continuously active group on campus. The objectives of the club, according to the handwritten minutes of its second meeting, were to “foster social life among its members, to promote the welfare of the student body, and to further the interests of the University in every possible way.”

Recently, the ninety-year history of this group was captured in a documentary created by one of its newer members, Judi Shur, and Greg Frasure 07G. An attorney and the wife of Barry Shur, chair of the Department of Cell Biology in the School of Medicine, Shur was invited to speak to the club some three years ago. Charmed by the warmth and energy of the women, Shur realized their history should be documented.

“I met all these wonderful ladies and I thought, they have been around so long, they really have some stories to tell,” Shur says. “I went back and found all these great archives and photos.”

Shur had never made a documentary before, so she contacted the film studies department for help. One of the many who responded was Frasure, a graduate student who was interested in learning the craft and starting his own video company. With almost no budget or filmmaking experience, the two plunged into the documentary project, titled Creating Change Within.

Most of the women interviewed for the film recall an Emory that would be all but unrecognizable today. In the late 1940s, a handful of faculty from across disciplines paid $65 a month to live in what was affectionately known as the ghetto, a circle of small dwellings left over from World War II that clustered where the School of Law now stands. “There were people from theology, chemistry, the law school,” says sixty-year Woman’s Club member Blair Major, who arrived in 1949 with her husband, J. Russell Major, professor and later chair of the Department of History. “It was a good way to get acquainted.”

Eleanor Joslin 45G, who holds a library science degree from Emory and has been a member of the EUWC for sixty years, was married to Stanley Joslin, the first Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law. When they came to Emory in 1948, she said, going to Atlanta was like “going to heaven”—which one reached on a streetcar, bound for downtown and Rich’s department store.

From the beginning, members of the EUWC were determined to establish the group as an agent of positive change at Emory and in the broader community. In the early days they held fund-raisers for the war effort and made supplies to send to the troops.

One of the group’s more challenging efforts involved the fight to desegregate Atlanta public schools. Many members of the Woman’s Club shared Emory’s progressive stance on integration and became activists in the community, supporting the organization Help for Our Public Education (HOPE). Joslin set up a table in her living room and marshaled volunteers for a petition and letter-writing campaign; she, Major, and many others also testified before the 1960 Sibley Commission in favor of integration.

In the mid-1970s, an opportunity arose in the form of what was then known as the Carr house off Houston Mill Road. The University had decided the house should be torn down, but club leaders stepped in and asked if they might take it over. President Jim Laney gave the women $50,000, and the club began working to raise the rest of the funds to fix up the old house.

The remarkable transformation is documented in photos and news clippings, many of which are visible in Creating Change Within. The newly refurbished Houston Mill House opened in fall 1979 with a big party, where the Laneys and dozens of faculty and community mingled and marveled at the new space.

The Woman’s Club managed the Houston Mill House until the late 1990s, when it became necessary for the University officially to take it over; but it remains the club’s home. “It’s a fantastic legacy that will always belong to the Woman’s Club,” said member Cheryl Murphy 77N.

Today, the EUWC has swelled from its original eight to 150 members. But while much has changed, their core mission still reflects those first meeting minutes taken by hand so many years ago. Their monthly gatherings are made up of socializing, guest speakers, and plans for fund-raising and service. A cherished tradition is a fall tea at Lullwater, hosted since 2003 by Debbie Wagner.

In the 1960s, they began to raise money to award student scholarships; by the 1980s, they were able to create an endowed fellowship, the Memorial Graduate Research Award, given annually to a graduate student for dissertation support. In the 1990s, their Emory Seasons cookbook raised more than $110,000 to establish two additional awards, an Arts Scholarship and a Rollins School of Public Health Scholarship.

One morning this summer, EUWC members Eleanor Joslin, now ninety-one; Blair Major, who has been a member of the club since 1949; Judi Shur; and Sheila Vandall 72G, current copresident with Sharon Gunn, gathered on the patio outside Wesley Woods, where Joslin now lives. Joking about Bloody Marys and getting old, the four women swapped stories across generations, recalling club members and events past and present.

“Sheila and Sharon have put new zip and life into the club,” said Joslin, with a twinkle in her eye.

But it’s clear that there is plenty of zip and life to be found in the elder members, too. “When I met these longstanding members,” Shur says, “I realized the strength, intelligence, and fortitude that these ladies had and still have.”

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