April 24, 2020
group of former history faculty from 1968 [View Image]
Author: Fred Wayne
While it seems just like yesterday, it was actually more than 50 years ago when as teenage boy just out of high school, I walked into a college political theory class for the first time. There was nothing extraordinary about that except I happened to have no clue what political theory was all about. And that is where this story begins.
At the head of this particular class was Dr. Ruth Douglas See. Descended from Scot-Irish Presbyterians, Ruth grew up in the valley of Virginia in a family with a strong sense of duty and responsibility, and especially a sense of social justice—a value not shared by everyone at that time. After Mary Baldwin College awarded her a bachelor's degree, she earned a master's degree from New York Theological Seminary. With a doctorate from New York University, her 1953 dissertation "The Protestant Doctrine of Vocation in the Presbyterian Thought of Nineteenth-Century America" gives a clue about the values instilled in her by her family and which guided her throughout her personal and professional life.
She began her teaching career at Spelman College, the historically black liberal arts college for women located in Atlanta. As Richmond Professional Institute was merging with the Medical College of Virginia to become VCU in the late 1960s, Dr. See moved to Richmond as one of a select group of academics who was invited to join the faculty during this critical period in the university’s history.
If you will indulge me for a moment, I'd like to take you back to that political theory class of 50 years ago. As the semester wore on, I realized that we had never been given a pop quiz or a test. No term paper was expected of us. From September to December, we traveled from ancient Greece to 20th century philosophy. On the day of our final exam, we arrived with blue books in hand and in her quiet manner, Dr. See said "Now put it all together." With that one statement, I transitioned from a teen into a man. I fully expected our exam to ask a series of isolated questions which would allow me to shine as I proved I could answer facts. But that isn't what happened. Those five words were paralyzing. I had never before been asked to construct anything of this sort.
What happened next was one of the most exciting moments in my life. I wrote for three hours and was fearful I wasn't going to be able to finish on time. At the end of the exam I knew things were different. Dr. See had unlocked synthesizing potential I never knew I had. As I walked out of the room, I felt—I knew—things were not the same. I saw myself and my future differently. I took every course Dr. See offered while an undergraduate and 50 years later, I have not forgotten the many ways she encouraged me, challenged me and helped me to put all my learning into perspective and of the importance of using it for the common good.
Fellow alumna Donna R. Sanford (BA/H&S '69) recalled Dr. See encouraging critical thinking among her students. "We were transitioning from teens into adults and Dr. See made us aware that we would soon be taking stances in the future of our country as the civil rights era was more and more of a presence on the horizon," recalls Sanford.
After leaving VCU, Dr. See became scholar-in-residence at the Heritage Foundation of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in Montreat, North Carolina. Now known as The Presbyterian Heritage Center, this afforded her an opportunity to engage in one of her favorite pursuits – scholarly research. Retiring late in life, she returned to the valley of Virginia where she lived until her death in 2007.
Several years after her father's death in 1979, Dr. See wrote a memoir of him for family and friends. In the forward she described him as "a gentle man whose life of quiet service called forth no headlines, but whose story was written in the hearts of many people." That sentiment could just as easily have been written to describe Dr. See. A classroom stalwart, a champion of intellect, a cheerleader for independent thought—she left an indelible impression on me as well as a great many of her students in those early days of the new VCU in the thick of the civil rights era.
I recently established the Dr. Ruth Douglas See Scholarship to support students who, like Dr. See, have an academic interest in or work on issues of social and economic justice. Like me, she would be both amazed and encouraged by the percentage of today’s VCU students who pursue challenging work that aims to address inequity or disparity, and would find any way to support them in that effort.