Remembering Two Great Alumnae:
Helen Fricke Mathieson ’52 and Elizabeth Babbott Conant ‘51
Remarks at the 2021 Lear-Conant Symposium at the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment
March 6, 2021
I cannot imagine a better way to celebrate two brilliant Connecticut College alumnae, Helen Mathieson and Babs Conant, than on a brilliantly sunny Saturday morning, in a roomful of people, at a symposium on an urgent topic, hosted by both the Center for the Environment and the College they loved and supported so passionately for so many years. Today, of course, our room is virtual and so I love the idea that they, too, are with us virtually as we launch this event. I am also glad that our online medium means that some of their family members can be with us from around the country. And so, before I go on, I want to extend our warmest welcome to Helen’s daughter, Peggy Conver, and her sons Andy Mathieson and Peter Mathieson; and to Babs’s partner Camille Cox and extended family Jennifer Cox, as well as her niece and grand-niece Margaret Babbott and Claire Babbott-Bryan. We are honored to have you here! Our webinar format means that we cannot see your faces, but I invite you to say hello in the chat and tell us where you are joining from. And I invite everyone else who is with us this morning to do the same and extend your welcome, too. Thank you for being here. It means a lot to us.
I want to say just a few words about what Helen and Babs meant to this College and then Professor Turner will return to say more about what they meant to the Goodwin-Niering Center. I will begin with Helen.
Helen Fricke Mathieson was, simply put, a force of nature. I remember the first time I met her, in Boca Grande, Florida, just weeks after starting my job as Connecticut College’s 11th president. She hosted a lunch for me with many CC alumni in the area, and after it was finished, she insisted on giving me a tour of the village, showing me the beautiful house where she had lived with her husband and children, and regaling me with stories of her alma mater: the inspiring woman, Rosemary Park, who led Connecticut College during her years as a student; the two presidents with whom she worked as a trustee from 1994-2004, and much else. She was an incredible raconteur, with a sharp wit, sparkling eyes, and a mischievous sense of humor, and it was impossible not to fall in love with her on the spot. Which I did.
Helen was passionate about everything she took on. And she did nothing halfway. Of course, she was a vibrant student, graduating in 1952 with a major in economics. Of course, she was also president of her class. And of course, she developed a deep love for the natural world while she studied here. An environmental activist before her time, she went on to serve the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania for 25 years as a trustee, and, yes, as president. Richard Goodwin, one of the founding members of the Nature Conservancy, had joined the faculty of Connecticut College just four years before Helen arrived here in 1948. He must have made a big impression. 50 years later, she would give the very generous gift that endowed the Center that now bears his name. And then her children would extend that generosity by establishing a scholarship fund in her name to support students majoring in environmental studies. This is an incredible Mathieson legacy—a gift that will continue over so many lifetimes. Thank you so much! In 2007, Helen received the College Medal, the highest honor we bestow. We are proud to honor Helen and her family again at this event today.
Now, this event, as I said, is a symposium that bears the name of another passionate alumna of the College, Elizabeth Babbot Conant, who was known affectionately as “Babs” for her whole life. Babs played many roles at Conn: as a student, a faculty member, a dean, a trustee, and generous friend. Like Helen, she was a natural leader, an excellent student, and a respected president of our student government. She graduated with a B.A. in zoology from Conn in 1951, and went on to Radcliffe College, where 5 years later she completed a PhD in Biology.
One of her first teaching assignments was back here at her alma mater, where she served for another 5 years, from 1958 – 1963, both as a faculty member and as a dean of sophomores. You’ll hear more about the life-changing impression she made on a young and grateful Linda Lear, class of 62, in a moment. Babs had a formidable intellect that led to a rich and international scholarly career, taking her to Nigeria and up and down the East Coast, before she ended up settling in Buffalo, New York. But she was no ordinary scholar. An activist in every sense of the word, she put research into action through many passionate causes, ranging from civil rights to LGBTQ rights to breast cancer awareness. She also loyally supported the institutions she loved.
She served as a trustee at Conn under Norman Fainstein and Claire Gaudiani from 1982 – 1992 and she, too, received the College Medal at the end of her service, in 1995. By then, Babs had started a new life with Camille Cox, with whom she spent the rest of her living days, marrying as soon as same-sex unions became legal in 2012. Linda Lear established the Lear-Conant symposium in her honor almost two decades ago with a gift in 2002, an event that has brought so much good into the world. I know today will be no exception. We are honored to remember the spirit of these two extraordinary alumnae and leaders. I’m sure you will feel their unique presence with us, and want to thank them—as I do—for all they did to render their alma mater more noble and more beautiful.