A Commencement Story
The United States was at war, and in a commencement address delivered at Washington College just a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt urged the audience to embrace their patriotic duty. For many young men in that class, that meant enlisting for military service. For others like Margaret Pitt Bailey ’42, that meant embarking on a teaching career to develop a new generation of responsible citizens.
Margaret Pitt Bailey, one of six children raised on a farm in Cecil County, Maryland, had wanted to be a teacher since she was six years old. As her first-grade teacher took out her red China marker and began to grade papers, little Peggy Pitt saw her future.
“I sat there at my desk as she unwrapped the paper from the tip of that red grease pencil and thought, that’s what I want to do,” recalls Bailey, who will celebrate her 100th birthday this November. When it was time for her to go to college, a Washington College recruiter, Frank Goodwin, drove up to the farm and made the case for Peggy to attend Washington College.
“It was a privilege to go to Washington College,” says Bailey, who was one of 60 students in the Class of 1942. With Professor Fred Livingood as her advisor, Bailey took coursework in English, French, and Latin—subjects she would later teach in Cecil County schools. She lived in Reid Hall, abided by a curfew, and dressed for dinner in the dining hall. Although things were much more formal then, even good students sometimes found their way to a little tavern called the Blue Bird.
“If kids were caught up there, they got detention. If you were caught two or three times, you were expelled,” Bailey recalls.
Bailey graduated unscathed and embarked on a career as a teacher and guidance counselor that lasted 41 years. Though she retired in 1984, Bailey continues to hear from former students who adored her.
“I liked the cyclical nature of teaching, the beginning and the end of something,” she says. “I liked the idea of starting the same subjects again with different students who had different reactions to the material. I also liked having summers off. I thought about the people who worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground and got just two weeks off a year.”
While Bailey can’t recall exactly what Sophie Kerr had to say at that college graduation ceremony 78 years ago, she has been a great reader throughout her lifetime, favoring historical novels, murder mysteries, and biographies. And this year, as another Sophie Kerr Prize is awarded, Bailey has even more reason to feel nostalgic about her college graduation. Her great-nephew Aaron Barclay, a talented baseball player, is graduating with a degree in physics.
So what advice does she have to the Class of 2020?
“With all these changes, all I can say is hold on tight. Enjoy every day and do the best you can,” Bailey says. “‘This is the day that the Lord has made. Rejoice and be glad in it.’ That’s my motto. Because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”