When Dean Mary Frances England started work on establishing the Culver Academy for Girls, she knew it would have to be “above reproach” since it would be associated with a firmly entrenched boys school. It took discipline and determination to build a leadership school for girls in her vision.
But Sarah Urban Johnston ’81 also painted a picture of Dean England for members of now Culver Girls Academy of someone who also had an unconventional side that would surprise people at times. Johnston was the featured speaker at the Dean England Day ceremony on Sunday evening. The service at Memorial Chapel is an annual appreciation and reflection in honor of England’s work to establish CGA.
Along with being a graduate, Johnston is the mother of senior Helen and freshman Beatrice. She is also a major gifts officer in the development office. She added her grandfather graduated from Woodcraft Camp in 1921 and Beatrice will graduate in 2021, covering a 100-year span of family Culver connections.
After the death of her husband, England came to Culver as a single mother of a young son in the 1960s, Johnston explained. She was eventually tasked with developing a model for a girls school at Culver. England wanted a leadership school for girls, not a “finishing school” as some people expected. But her passion for what she wanted the girls school to be was evident.
And while she could be all business, England would surprise people at times. Johnston remembered one Dean England comment concerning the girls not wearing their uniforms correctly. “I almost dropped my tea cup,” Johnston said of the meeting.
Her selection of the little-known C.P. Cavafy as her favorite poet was also an unconventional choice. Cavafy had a different way “of defining things,” which England appreciated, Johnston said. His poem “Ithaka” is read every year at the ceremony. It is also the namesake for Ithaka dorm.
England always enjoyed hearing about the accomplishments of CGA graduates. When Johnston visited England in 1993, the former dean only wanted to listen the adventures she had taken. “My journey, my stories” about living and working in different locations around the world “made her happy.” It showed the personal growth and opportunities Culver women were experiencing.
There is still work to be done, as the recent incident with the senior engineer’s email at Google points out, Johnston said. But women now enjoy even more choices than ever and have expectations of being treated equally. It is far different from the time when her grandmother was fired for becoming pregnant.
And, now, it is up to the current members of CGA to “carry the torch proudly.”