Stories including Matthew Vassar

Declining an Invitation from Matthew Vassar

I write to report a story told to me by my mother, Gladys Hull Hopkins, Class of 1913. It is part of family lore that Matthew Vassar had invited one of our family to join him as a partner in his brewery, and that our ancestor, a Nathaniel Moulthrop, had declined that invitation on the grounds that he did not want his three sons to drink. He was my great-great-great-grandfather.

We have no written records to confirm this story. However, in my extensive work on my family’s genealogy, I have found that stories passed down orally were usually true. We do have a reference to Vassar in a letter from Nathaniel William Moulthrop (born 1840), my mother’s maternal grandfather, the son of Nathaniel Moulthrop Jr. (born 1813), and the grandson of Nathaniel Moulthrop Sr. (born 1778). It was written in February 1909 to my aunt, Ethel Merle Hull, Class of 1912. She was then at Vassar, and the letter referred to a visit Nathaniel William made to the campus to watch the construction of the college. It had to have been in the early 1860s since construction began in 1861.

Nathaniel Moulthrop Sr. was a descendant of Matthew Moulthrop Sr., one of the original settlers of the colony of New Haven in 1639. Nathaniel was the son of Jude Moulthrop, who went up the Connecticut River valley from New Haven to become one of the first settlers of Rutland, Vermont. Nathaniel left home just before or soon after his father’s death in 1800 and went to sea, becoming an ocean-going ship captain out of New York. He moved to Poughkeepsie in 1808, was captured during the War of 1812, and imprisoned until the end of the war. He lived in or near Poughkeepsie for the rest of his life thereafter.

When Nathaniel would have met Matthew Vassar, fourteen years his junior, I do not know. Shipping was closely connected to the brewery business, however, with sloops regularly carrying kegs of beer to the New York metropolis. Matthew’s brewery – successor to his father’s – went through at least two partnerships between 1813 and 1829, when two of his nephews joined the firm.

I originally thought that the man we believed Matthew Vassar invited to join him as a partner in the brewery was my great-great-grandfather, Nathaniel Moulthrop Jr., born in 1813. Nathaniel Jr. had three sons, befitting the family lore. But the dates are too late – they were not born until 1837, 1840 (Nathaniel William), and 1844.

During the likely period when Matthew Vassar would have been looking for partners, Nathaniel Sr. had three sons, born in 1805, 1813 (Nathaniel Jr.), and 1817. (Two others would follow in 1822 and 1827, but would not have been in the picture yet.) Thus I concluded that it was Nathaniel Moulthrop Sr. (1778) who, in order to save his three sons from beer, turned down Matthew Vassar’s proposal. (Evalyn Clark’s history classes guided my hand in my genealogical research!)

Incidentally, Vassar College bought its maple syrup – at least during the 1910s, when my mother and aunt were both at Vassar – from our family farm in Jewett, Greene County, settled in the 1780s by their paternal ancestor, Chester Hull, after his service in the American Revolutionary War.

Doing a Little to Better the Human Condition

Matthew Vassar, whose education never went beyond elementary school, had a generous heart and an incredible, intuitive trust in women. He perceived that they were just as intelligent as men, but tragically had no opportunities for higher education. As he developed a fortune in his father’s brewery, he wondered about the best way to spend it. He suggested that he might provide a hospital in Poughkeepsie or perhaps he could build a college for women exclusively. One wise friend and adviser said to him, “Mr. Vassar, if you build a hospital, you will be known all over Dutchess County. If you build a college for women, you will be known all over the world.”

Matthew did both and the name Vassar is known all over the world where for 150 years the alumnae(i) of his college on the Hudson have made their mark in every profession one can imagine. Vassar has turned out astronomers and mathematicians, poets and philosophers and politicians, doctors and lawyers, WACS and WAVES, not to mention teachers of students of all ages and professors in all the arts and sciences.

Vassar recognizes, accepts and celebrates individual diversity and creativity. Vassar alums are invariably responsible citizens – parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers and friends – people concerned with social issues and social justice. They participate fully in the political process and become involved with significant causes.

At Vassar (1938-42) I was stimulated by my peers, the cream of the crop, and by some of the great teachers of that time. For me it was Agnes Rindge, Richard Krautheimer, and Louis Rubinstein in the art department, Rudolph Kempton in zoology and Helen Lockwood rounded it all off by teaching us to think, reason, and dare to articulate our ideas, understanding that we are always conditioned by our basic assumptions. Athletics were a very important part of my education and there I would mention Betty Richey, Ruth Tim, and Jan O’Loughlin.

Every generation adapted to the new. My mother (1911) gave up the horse for the car. I was in the generation that survived the Big Depression, World War II and witnessed the birth of TV. Our children rebelled against the establishment and often locked in their trustees. Their children became the cell phone generation and found marriage still a convenience, if not an essential, tradition. Most importantly we valued human society, respected individual human life, and clung to the idea that we each could do a little to better the human condition.

The Promise

“You have to talk to the Dru (Dean Drouilhet), if you want to run, your grades are too low.”

I knew I was in trouble…I had had a rough entry into Vassar. My older sister E.D. was a junior and had a fun group of friends. I tried to keep up with them, but let my grades suffer. I wasn’t connecting to the substance of Vassar. I knew that I was my best when I was signed up to do more than I could handle—I needed to plug into something positive where I could make a contribution in order to get myself back on track.

I made my appointment and I must say at the appointed time… I was skinny enough then that my knees actually knocked in her waiting area. She looked at me in that way she mastered—with those eyes that said “this is going to be a good one.” I presented my case.

“I need to do this to get myself back to the person I know I am. When I am busy, I am happy and I perform. If you let me run, I promise I’ll get my grades up.” (I might have said straight A’s.) I ran, I won, I got connected to my college, my courses, my teachers, my dorm, my grades. Eventually I graduated magna.

But here is the interesting part. I made a promise that I kept and the Dru noticed. She kept track of me. And when there was an opportunity in my senior year to appoint a student representative to the Master Planning committee that worked on the transformation of Vassar to a coed institution, she picked me.

I chaired the Student Center sub-committee and the Dru sat on the committee along with architects, teachers and another student. That was heady for me and taught me that I wanted to lead and that I could corral a group of diverse people. I call it my business school education.

I am grateful for my Vassar education everyday: it taught me how to question everything, to have my own ideas, to stay engaged and to be collaborative with purpose.

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