Meeting Bernice Fox
By the time I took up my position as professor of Classics at Monmouth College in 1984, Bernice Fox was already a legend. She had retired three years earlier, in 1981 after having taught at the college since 1947. She was originally hired to teach English but gradually moved over to Classics since she loved Latin and there was no one else at the college teaching that language. After the retirement of Harold Ralston in 1970, she became chair of the Classics Dept., a position she held until her retirement.
She always said, somewhat bitterly, that she didn’t volunteer to retire, she was pushed out. I can believe that since teaching was her great joy and leaving the classroom left a real void in her life. Like many women professors of her generation, she never married and had no siblings or extended family, so it was no surprise that when the college announced a campaign to endow a chair in Classics, Bernice made the Classics chair the benefactor of her entire estate. At the time the college estimated that gift at about $75,000, but that figure proved to be a very low estimate of her eventual donation. In making this gift, Bernice had hoped that, perhaps, the endowed chair would be named in her honor, but that was not to be. In the end, a much larger gift was received by Mr. Keith Capron, who asked that the chair be named after his mother, Minnie Billings Capron, who had taken Latin during her short career at Monmouth late in the 19th century. The college did not handle this well. Instead of informing Bernice privately of this decision, the naming of the chair was announced at the national convention of Eta Sigma Phi, the Classics honorary society, which Monmouth hosted in 1982.
Bernice had an additional disappointment in the years immediately following her retirement and prior to my arrival. Her hand-picked successor as Classics professor — a former student — did not finish the necessary doctoral work and was not retained.
I was hired in 1984 to replace that person, but, in reality, I realized that I was actually replacing Bernice — impossible shoes to fill!
So, when I started teaching at Monmouth, I knew that it was very important to reach out to Bernice and made an appointment to visit her at her home, 1025 Cramer Ct. Somehow Bruce Haywood, the college president, learned in advance of this pending visit and called my home to talk about it. I wasn’t home to take the call so he talked to my wife instead. He told her that he was calling to warn me about Bernice, that she was a very difficult personality who was likely to criticize any grammatical slip I might make in her presence. Bruce, I know, did not want this meeting to be a disaster and had what he thought were my best interests at heart. But that phone call certainly did not provide me with positive feelings about meeting Bernice.
Somehow, however, that initial meeting went well. I don’t remember any details but I must have avoided any malapropisms and was invited back. I suspect that, actually, Bernice was just as anxious as I was for the meeting to be successful and for the two of us to find at least a modus vivendi or operandi.
As I learned more of her story and the reasons why she had become embittered with the college, I sought ways to put salve in her wounds. I couldn’t have the name of the endowed chair changed, but I did persuade the college to establish an annual Classics lectureship in her name and to invite her to give the first lecture. Since she had also been very active in supporting high school Latin programs in Illinois during her career, we also established, in her honor, a Classics Writing Contest for high school students. Both this lecture series and writing contest continue into the present.
Bruce Haywood was right about Bernice in some ways. She did have her prickly side but she also had a great sense of humor and I enjoyed getting to know her well. In the end I wound up visiting Bernice regularly over the years and in 1990 we even collaborated in the publication of Sex Fabulae Breves, her Latin translations of six English short stories. In 1991, at my instigation, the college also awarded an honorary degree to Bernice, who, for various reasons, had never finshed the doctoral work she had started at Ohio State many years before. In the following year, in honor of her 80th birthday, I also presented her with a collection of essays by colleagues and former students entitled Foxfestschrift, which I edited. She died in 2003.