In a time where the humanities are under attack, many liberal arts schools have suffered the blow from policy makers and skeptical parents alike. The rhetoric surrounding English, the arts, and softer sciences paints them as vagabonds on the path to Make America Great Again. They forget however, that it was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense that rallied Americans against the British; It was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle that made us evaluate heinous industrial practices and it is the Mona Lisa that brings 6 million visitors to the Louvre each year.
In a world where technology is developing faster than we can comprehend, there is still a crucial need for the humanities and the value that they add to the world. The problem is that they are often the first programs cut and it takes benefactors to keep them going. It is these very people that still ask the question of what are people for and what if it doesn’t have to be this way. They are the people that see us on the moon and through their generosity—inspire us to get there.
They don’t however, get the credit for their contributions to society and sometimes they don’t even get a thank you for their contributions to the university. Their generosity comes packaged with an obituary—they are faceless—lacking a biography and their life’s work. It is up to us to keep their vison alive and the imagination of students to add the color to their fading silhouette because if it wasn’t for people like Mary Louise White, departments across the country would be missing a big part of what makes them special.
Like many, Mary Louise White’s contribution came with a partial obituary stapled to the papers. There was no known family, no friends to write a sorrowful article or faculty to keep her legacy alive. That didn’t stop her from becoming iconic though; her name could always be heard in the mouths of seasoned students, her legacy seen through the programs and events, and felt every Spring as a deserving student lets out a sigh, reading their recipient letter.
Like the humanities often do, White’s ambiguity inspired students to get creative and challenge themselves to more. They wouldn’t accept that she was just a woman who once attended Fredonia. They wanted to reveal the details like how she never pursued higher education and moved to Fredonia after getting married, that her husband helped people like Daniel A. Reed, a New York State congressman, get elected, and how the family helped contribute to the rich history of Dunkirk, New York. Her life like many was spent in the background, in private, but helping others from her quaint little home.
She would modestly decline requests from the newspapers, but would run for positions the Northern Chautauqua Girl Scouts council; they would show up in the newspaper here and there, but only on their terms and in their words. She dropped out of school at a young age, but donated endowments supporting three local schools and the greater community. In each case the funds were appropriated through the Mr. and Mrs. Dean Warner White fund, except the only donated to the State University of New York at Fredonia. The more we dug and discovered, the life was breathed back into her life and her human complexities became more intriguing.
We discovered she had a dog, and that her friends and family called her Tippy. She loved to paint, but we found none of her paintings. She would vacation at Van Buren, a local treasure on the coast of Lake Erie where she met her husband. The White’s would host community balls, participate in elections, and yet, White’s life was often defined by the details of others, even in the details of her obituary.
In what was supposed to be one of the final celebrations of her life, she was defined simply as a wife, a homemaker, and a relative. Her life marginalized by the lack of grandiose accomplishments, but nonetheless important. It is her anonymity, her unconditional support that makes her so special. The details that were found just bolded the lines of her life, it is the potential, the creativity that allows students to define her legacy and add the color.
When her gravestone was found, it was covered by grass with the golden letters barely peeking through, a metaphor for the programs she so graciously supported. At a time when the humanities are being overshadowed, their value is still shining through thanks to benefactors like White. They stumble along every now and then bringing their shears and a brush to scrape off the grass and polish the letters.
It is people like White that quietly ensure the gears of the world keep turning. They make sure that the often forgotten parts of the machine are given their proper attention, oil, and grease. They enable departments and students to redefine Shakespeare’s Hamlet, traverse the Amazon with the Yanomami, create magic on the stage of Broadway, and create the next Picasso. They challenge us to remember where we are and how we got here. At a time in history where we have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, it is more crucial now than ever that we invest in the humanities.
White might not have been an extravagant writer, a brilliant musician, or even a Frida Kahlo, but she doesn’t have to be. It is through her appreciation of the arts and humanities, understanding their importance to the past and the future. They may not have been the Medici family, a driving force of the Renaissance, but they are still fueling small fires that otherwise might have gone out.
Without them, we would lose our ability to wander through the Forbidden Forest of Hogwarts, ponder life’s universal questions, and appreciate the significance of ancient texts. We wouldn’t have many of life’s simple treasures and large milestones. And despite this current debates, it is thanks to people like Mary Louise White that we are able to maintain such a culturally rich society. When thinking about the humanities you must think about all of their contribution and ponder to yourself, if this isn’t nice, what is?