November 2012 Features

Determined Spirit

Remembering quintessential Mawrter Barbara Cooley McNamee Dudley ’42.

By Priya Ratneshwar

Photo by John Eldridge

To Bryn Mawr College Trustee Emeritus and former Alumnae Association President Barbara Cooley McNamee Dudley ’42, her birthdate of August 27, 1920—the first day the Nineteenth Amendment came into force—was a mandate rather than a coincidence. “She felt that being born the first day when women had the right to vote basically created an obligation for her,” says Dudley’s son Roger McNamee, a former Bryn Mawr trustee. “And education was her view of how that’s done.”

Dudley credited Bryn Mawr with taking her out of the protected environment of her childhood and laying the foundation for the woman she would become. The Albany, New York, native graduated during World War II, a steadfast feminist and Democrat. The first female “copy boy” at the Albany Knickerbocker News, she moved on to cover the aeronautics industry as a journalist based in Washington D.C. When she lost her job as GIs returned from the war, she moved back to the Capital District with first husband Daniel Vincent McNamee, Jr., lawyer and later president of the First Albany Corporation.

“Her life was one of continual enterprise and reinvention,” says daughter, Dardis McNamee ’70. “She’d had a career, and then it was taken away from her. I think she spent the rest of her life saying, well, in spite of that, I’m going to do a lot of really interesting things.”

Until her death on December 17, 2011, this spirit of determination marked Dudley’s years as a journalist, political activist, secondhand and rare book dealer, investment banker, volunteer, and community leader. “She was very idealistic about fairness in society and human rights,” Dardis McNamee recalls, “and an enormous admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt. Our whole lives were informed by my mother’s sense of moral integrity and almost utopian idealism.” Indeed, Dudley helped coordinate the presidential campaigns of Adlai E. Stevenson in both 1952 and 1956, became a founder of the World Affairs Council and active in the League of Women Voters, and participated in the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington.

When her husband died in 1977, Dudley had to draw on her determined spirit and reinvent herself once again. After passing three New York Stock Exchange licensing exams within 18 months, she assumed joint control of First Albany with her son, company President George McNamee, and she served as Chairman of the Board until her retirement at the age of 70, making her one of only four women in the U.S. serving as senior executives of a New York Stock Exchange member firm. During this time she also served on Board of Directors of Norstar Bank, continuing on after its merger with Fleet Bank.

Nowhere was Dudley’s capacity for commitment more evident than in her role in the life of the Rensselaerville Presbyterian Church. A civically engaged church with a strong intellectual tradition, it had been a cornerstone of Dudley’s life since her parents had moved to the village in 1937. Over time, she took over responsibility for the church’s efforts to advocate for social change by bringing in visiting preachers that included blacks, women, gays, Catholics, Jews, and Muslim theologians.

One of her final projects was to raise funds to repair the church’s steeple, and during the last year of her life, she and childhood friend Nancy Chase ’43 began writing a history of the church. After the manuscript was put in her hand on the day she died, she told Chase, “Now I can go; everything is moving along as it should.”

Bryn Mawr remained Dudley’s other great passion. “My mother believed in education as a foundational element of democracy,” Roger McNamee says, “and she saw the education of women as a goal in itself.” As president of the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Association from 1969 to 1972, she helped position the organization to function as a worldwide entity, says President Emeritus of Bryn Mawr Mary Patterson McPherson, Ph.D. ’69.

In 1973, Dudley joined Bryn Mawr’s Board of Trustees, serving in this position for nearly 13 years. “I think she helped to really professionalize the board,” McPherson says. “There were a lot of great women on the board who at that point didn’t have professions but ran all kinds of things in their communities. Barbara was certainly one of those. But she wanted the younger generation of professional women, people who were then working outside the home, to take roles on the College’s Board so that it could benefit from their rather different kind of experience.”

A mentor as well as a leader, Dudley influenced generations of alumnae. Heidi Pemberton ’82 recalls the first time she was introduced to Dudley by her college advisor at the Albany Academy for Girls (of which Dudley was also a graduate). “I remember how absolutely electrified and enchanted I was when Mrs. Dudley swept into the room, her energy creating a nearly visible nimbus around her,” Pemberton says. “She gave me the first bit of excellent advice in a long string of great advice. She said a Bryn Mawr education would be rigorous and broad—the perfect preparation for playing a meaningful role in work and community. I had a eureka moment that it wasn’t just about getting into a good college, but also about going to a college that would help me grow intellectually and personally and develop into a strong woman.”

Dudley’s principles guided her vision for Bryn Mawr, McPherson adds, from encouraging College divestment of stocks in apartheid South Africa to supporting efforts to diversify the student body. She brought her love of reading in service of the latter goal by launching an annual secondhand book sale to raise scholarship monies—an endeavor that evolved into the Bryn Mawr Bookshop in Albany. Over the course of its 34 years, the store raised nearly $750,000 in scholarship funds and served as a model for other Bryn Mawr bookstores across the world.

For Dudley’s family, the bookstore was more like a “family sport,” Dardis McNamee jokes. The children were all put to work collecting and sorting books, and before the store opened, volumes would be piled high in the barn at the family’s home in Loudonville, New York. “My entire image of Bryn Mawr as a little boy was of a place where they really liked dusty old books,” Roger McNamee says.

Dudley drew her family into Bryn Mawr’s orbit in other ways as well. Dardis McNamee recalls visits to her mother’s expansive and tight-knit network of Bryn Mawr friends. “I just thought that women who went to Bryn Mawr were the most interesting people I’d ever met,” McNamee says, and the experience factored into her own decision to attend the College.

In 2000, Dudley asked Roger McNamee to bring his venture capital expertise to the College’s Board. “I got there just as the market was crashing,” he adds. “I got to work on the investment committee with two amazing women [Susan Kelly Barnes ’76 and Cheryl Holland ’80], and we were able to contribute to getting through the crisis. It was something I started doing as a favor to my mother, but it ended up being an experience that changed my life.”

After every board meeting, McNamee would debrief with his mother. “We would spend hours discussing the issues, and sometimes have wild, wild debates about them,” he says. “If I leaped to a conclusion, she would straighten me out.”

“You never fudged anything with Barbara,” McPherson says, recalling a woman “who didn’t suffer fools gladly.” But despite her exacting standards, Dudley engaged in great acts of generosity, both of her resources and of her spirit.  When her second husband, the late George Austin Dudley, was severely injured in a car accident, Dudley declined to press charges against the young woman at fault. Instead, she asked the judge to speak to the woman privately. As Dardis McNamee recollects, Dudley told the young mother, “‘What you have to understand is that your job now is to pull yourself together and take good care of your children because you’re the only person they have.’ She was encouraging her to straighten up and fly right.”

The love for family, friends, and community at the core of Dudley’s life graced her last months. Faced with the news that she had cancer and but a few months to live, she immediately decided to transform her home into what Dardis McNamee describes as a “nearly continuous house party.” Every day until the week before she died, Dudley gathered family and friends for lunches, dinners, and teas that often seated a dozen or more at the table.

“Mother embraced the moment,” reminisced Dudley’s youngest son, Giles McNamee, at her funeral service. “With all the dignity and grace that were her trademarks, Mother said, ‘the mistake most people make is that they die and then they get all their friends together for a big party that they can’t attend themselves. That’s silly.  I think we’ll have the party first.’ As an old friend of mine told me the other day, the worst thing in life is for our loved ones to leave this earth while we who are left behind have left some things unsaid. I think Mother made sure that she would not leave anyone in that position.”

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