By Hilary Disch '05
Every year, faculty-selected English students at Millikin are honored for their outstanding achievements through the Conant Awards. However, these awards also serve to commemorate the legacy of Grace Patten Conant, the first English Department Chair of Millikin University, and a leader for both students and the Decatur community.
Born in 1874, Grace Conant was already quite accomplished before coming to Millikin. She graduated from Bates College in Maine in 1893, and received an A.M. degree from Cornell in 1897. She held positions as Fellow at Cornell and the University of Chicago, and was an instructor in a Vermont academy as well as at Goucher College in Baltimore. Conant left her position as Head of the English Department at Western College in Oxford, Ohio to take on the same position at Millikin in the fall of 1906. Upon arrival at Millikin, she built the English department around two basic courses- World Literature and English literature from beginning through Keats.
She initiated the English Club in 1920, as mentioned by a letter written by one of Conant's Millikin colleagues and long-term friends Dr. Davida McCaslin on Oct. 11, 1953.
One of the first projects taken on by the English Club was the Elizabethan Study, which was dedicated in 1923.
"Luxurious rooms for study are not common in the middle west," reads a newspaper article from June 6, 1923. "The universities of England and the larger institutions in the east have many such quiet places where work is easy. In the Elizabethan Study, Millikin students have a beautiful room where they may work surrounded by a proper atmosphere."
Conant was also a notable leader in the Decatur community.
"She was the founder of the Decatur branch of the AAUW," said Louise Kidd, Director of Alumni and Development Services.
In the fall of 1915, Conant organized and was elected president of the College Club, which in 1924 became the Decatur branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). Conant worked alongside her students to bring the AAUW to Millikin, and kept in touch with members even after moving back to Boston in 1926.
Caroline S. Lutz, a former student of Conant who quickly went on to become an Associate Professor of English at Millikin wrote in a letter dated May 18,1926 that "it is all in the spirit of above (in the letter) right down to the time we shocked Dean Walker by sitting on the Blackburn bathroom floor and laying our final plans for forcing open the AAUW door for Millikin."
The charter was lost in 1939 when the requirements were updated, but an article from the November 7, 1941 issue of the Decaturian states that it was quickly regained. By 1952, Decatur hosted the third largest branch of the AAUW in Illinois.
Although Conant found her work fulfilling at Millikin, she expressed in a letter to the university's president at the time, M.E. Penney, that "The opportunities here (in Boston) and the lure of the East are too strong."
In 1926, Conant stated her decision not to return to Millikin, and accepted a teaching position at a private school in Boston.
Grace Patten Conant happened to be a descendant of Governor Roger Conant who helped to found Salem, Massachusetts. When she moved back to Boston, she was a member of a committee that raised $30,000 for the resurrection of a large statue of him that stands to one side of Washington Square. Conant remained interested in Millikin's affairs and kept in contact with the English faculty. In 1927, the English Club renamed itself the Conant Society, in her honor.
On February 21, 1962, James Weinstein, Conant's lawyer, stated in a letter to Wayne Krows, who was then the current Director of Alumni Relations, that Conant had set aside $5000 with which she desired to "establish a Scholarship Endowment Fund, the income of which will provide two annual Achievement Awards for the Department of Literature."
The letter goes on to mention that Conant had discovered that the English Department was the only department at Millikin that did not have a fund of that sort.
Beginning in May of 1963 and continuing to present day, the Dr. Grace Patten Conant Endowment Fund has provided two achievement awards annually in English literature for literary creation and literary interpretation.
"The money is invested whenever we get an endowment...as of this year that (Conant) account is worth $12,000," Kidd said.
Professor Judi Crowe, who won four Conant awards during her time as a Millikin student (two in 1990, and two in 1991) is in charge of collecting submissions and issuing submission guidelines.
"For literary creation, we've had poetry, short stories, chapters of books...pretty much everything," Crowe said.
Students may also submit papers they have written in literature classes for the literary interpretation award. Submissions must be work that students have completed at Millikin in conjunction with a professor, although it does not necessarily have to be class work.
According to Crowe, the judging process is very objective, as one of the submission requirements is that the writer's name is typed on a separate sheet from the piece. The judges tell Crowe which are the winning pieces by number, and the winners are not named until Honors Convocation.
"We've done honorable mentions, too, because there are so many very good pieces," Crowe said. "It doesn't happen too often, but judges want to see that students are acknowledged for that."
The Conant winners are also published in Millikin's creative writing publication, Collage.
"We now have the fall edition of Collage which is great...this way the winners are featured with other writers," Crowe said.
Ryan Strawhecker received honorary mention for the Conant Award in literary creation in May of 2004 in recognition of his collection of poems entitled "Freedom Green."
"I have great respect for the English department at Millikin and I would like to thank the teachers for challenging me," Strawhecker said. "What the award meant to me was that it's important not to be afraid of yourself and that you have to be responsible for what you do."
Strawhecker is currently attending graduate school at Creighton University for a Masters degree in English.
Conant also donated $1000 in 1961 as an award to be distributed annually to the English major who maintains the highest grade point average for seven semesters (The Conant Society Achievement Award) as well as to an English student who plans to continue on to graduate study with the highest cumulative grade point average.
Meg Schleppenbach, a May 2003 graduate who majored in English Education with a minor in music, won the Conant English Department Award in 2002.
"I'm especially proud of this award because it is specific to my major...the area about which I cared the most...I love having an award that shows I was part of and did well in a program with such wonderful teachers and students that challenged me every day," Schleppenbach said.
She went on to graduate school at the University of Illinois, and is now in her second year of studying educational psychology, hoping to work in public schools.
Grace Patton Conant died on March 15, 1964 in Littleton, Massachusetts at the age of 92 years old. However, the faith and good will she invested in Millikin's English Department is still alive in the work of dedicated English students, and their faculty's efforts to support and honor the learning process.