Memorial Minute

Lynda K. Beck ’80 (Hon.)


Instructor in Science and Vice Principal, Emerita

Lynda Beck grew up in Schenectady, NY, an only child, whose father was an engineer at General Electric’s laboratories there. She graduated from Niskayuna High School, where she was an accomplished athlete and scholar, and went on to earn an undergraduate degree from (SUNY) Cortland.

She arrived at PEA with her freshly minted PhD in Chemistry from UNH, the first female teacher in the science department. She was assigned to teach chemistry and physics, and soon she developed the department’s AP Chemistry program, which she taught with distinguished results, and for which she earned a summer of study at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

In the Fall of 1970, five female teachers and 40 day-student girls arrived at a school which for almost two centuries had been functioning only for boys.

Lynda Beck arrived two years later, in 1972.

In the 1970 yearbook, a student’s bittersweet, innocently anxious quote tells us what was on the mind of the boys: “About girls: we all knew that they would get here sooner or later. It is going to be a slow change to coeducation, and even then, it will be limited. But everyone knows that it will be better than what we have now. It is brightly inconceivable to envision what the presence of girls will be like; we can only reflect on what it was like without them. It wasn’t good. It will be [good].”

As a member of the small initial core group of pioneering women on the faculty, Lynda contributed substantially to PEA’s effort to become a place where the girls and female teachers could thrive rather than just exist in a boys’ school which simply hired female faculty and admitted girls.

Fifty years ago, there were very few women with a PhD in this field; graduate school was Lynda’s proving ground in terms of easing her “place at the table,” and it prepared her for teaching at that historic time at PEA. She was used to a certain amount of sexism in college, because she was usually the only woman in science classes. In a Bulletin interview, she reminisced:

“I remember when UNH redesigned its science building, I was the only female chemistry graduate student, and they asked me what kind of rugs I thought they should have. I’m not kidding!”

Rather than getting angry at the male professor asking the only woman in the class about room décor, Lynda listed the actual needs of the lab: fume hoods, eye washes and goggles.

“[One needs] to plug along, and bring people into leadership,” she said. “I didn’t want to make enemies, I just wanted to correct things.”

And this is what Lynda did in her 26-year tenure at the Academy.

“It was very difficult,” she said. “Certainly, the community was very supportive and there was a lot of good will, but there was not a whole lot of understanding of what it means to be coed, [at that time]. Each time something sexist was said, I corrected it. These men were raised in the ’50s and many just did not know how to work with women in professional settings as peers,” she remarked.

Some male faculty were simply not ready for women to be treated as their equals when the school started coeducation. “They had wives and daughters, but women colleagues were different,” she said.

In the timeline of changes at PEA, the most salient event in Lynda’s tenure was her work with the Committee to Enhance the Status of Women, which was instrumental in helping to voice the concerns of the female faculty and students. Lynda credited that committee work with helping her learn the skills needed to be successful in her future administrative roles.

Susan Jorgensen Herney, one of the five founding members and organizer of that committee, reminisced how they invited the principal, Stephen Kurtz ’44, to dinner at the Exeter Inn (in 1981) and handed him their demands. “We were clear and tough on him about the things that women needed,” she said. “Women needed to be recognized, validated, and supported. We could not be, we were not going to become a true coeducational school until those needs were taken care of.”

“To his credit,” said Susan Herney, “Principal Kurtz listened, understood us, and pledged to support and champion each one of the demands that would make a positive difference in the school.”

A major event early in Lynda’s career was her work as one of the five founding members to launch the Conference of Women in Independent Schools. With generous financial support from William Dunfey (father of former trustee Julie Dunfey, ’76), in June of 1983, it brought to campus among others Pauli Murray, Carol Gilligan and Gloria Steinem—a first ever conference of its kind, and one that took off successfully and continued on in subsequent years.

“The overall goal of the Conference was to create a national network of female faculty in independent schools similar to the one that existed for male faculty. The workshops were planned to cover broad educational theories as well as practical skills— computer literacy, financial planning, public speaking, legal rights. Things that women might not seek out or have access to. The common message in all of the workshops within the conference was one of caring, and of community. There was no anger or bitterness with the injustice that women had faced through the years, but a celebration of what women were doing and of what they can do. It gave all an appreciation for what women were facing in their jobs.”

During Lynda’s early years at the Academy, computers and the Internet were making inroads in education, and she was asked to head a team, which set policy and brought the latest technology and fiber optic infrastructure to every classroom, dormitory, and office on campus. Jim Samiljan, Modern Languages Instructor Emeritus, remarked that Lynda was chosen “for her superior organizational skills, fastidious attention to detail, and leadership qualities.”

Gradually Lynda moved from full time teaching to administration.

Before becoming Vice Principal, Lynda served on several other faculty committees.

She counted the writing of the Academy’s first sexual harassment manual as one of her most consequential accomplishments. There were not any cases that she knew of at the time, but she thought it was important, and that everyone needed to be clear on the rules of behavior and engagement.

Another result Lynda was pleased with was the establishment of partner benefits for gay faculty.

Principal Kendra Stearns O’Donnell, who worked with Lynda all her ten years at the Academy, valued Lynda’s sense of humor, organization and skill at designing processes to work through a problem and get to a decision.

“Lynda knew when it was the time to put together diverse teams with different talent sets in order to tackle problems. When at sea as to which direction to take, Lynda would ask “what is our mission” and “which of our values align”? She helped look for and find the moral clarity needed in administrative actions.

“Lynda took on work that was unpleasant. On legal school tasks, she dealt with the lawyers. She was very cordial in her relationship with them, but she held them to the test of the school’s mission and values on behalf of everybody involved.

“Lynda was a fair-minded person without a particular agenda about women. She understood the circumstances, and the position of different faculty cohorts. For example, she would not put down the elder statesmen; she understood their feelings without being  judgmental. And so, she could negotiate progress for all involved. Lynda negotiated on behalf of women with grace and persistence in the early days. I feel that I was the beneficiary of Lynda’s work on this matter.”

John “Jack” Herney, History Instructor, Emeritus described Lynda similarly. In his role as Dean of Faculty, on the occasion of Lynda’s 25th Year citation, he wrote about parts of her job that were ‘invisible’ to the faculty.

“You no longer deal with the chemical reactions planned and unplanned that students create in your laboratory. Instead, planned and unplanned administrative headaches that beset any school now occupy your time. This work put you in contact with bureaucrats at the FCC, local officials as you helped draft our emergency plan for the Seabrook [nuclear plant], and other potential catastrophes, as well as insurance adjusters, health planning consultants, and all sorts of lawyers laden with all manner of legal briefs. All of this work that most of us are happily unaware of, and, if made aware, all of us are happy not to be doing.

…[your] sharp analytical skills, courage to speak your mind, allegiance to principles, and refreshing candor are the consistencies you have brought to the laboratory [as well as] to the conference calls with attorneys.”

James “Jim” Samiljan, a close friend of Lynda’s admired her professional silence on confidential matters. “In my 50-year friendship with Lynda, she not once revealed to me these confidential details,” he said.

Lynda’s teaching talent and administrative experience were put in service nationally as well: as a teacher consultant for NSF (National Science Foundation), and on the board of directors of NEAIS (New England Association of Independent Schools).

An excellent golfer, enthusiastic bird watcher and ballroom dancer, Lynda coached varsity girls’ soccer and basketball.

Until 1983, she lived in the re-assigned girls’ dorms Hoyt and Soule, where she was dorm head for five years. Susan and Jack Herney who worked in the dorm with Lynda, said that she was a firm, yet a warm and caring dorm faculty to the girls, and helped them feel supported as they charted and navigated the choppy early waters of coeducation.

Even after becoming an administrator, Lynda continued to teach the AP chemistry class. The course attracted a remarkable group of students.

One of her students, Peter Durham, PEA class of 1985, wrote,

“The “chemistry” [of our] class was special; most of the students were four-year seniors and we knew each other well from previous math and science classes, and from the computer club. Lynda added her warm and witty personality, and her confidence in our ability to deliver the very best work. The result was a unique and memorable experience for everyone. When we returned to Exeter for class reunions, we would meet at Lynda’s home; she enjoyed keeping up with our successes and challenges.

“I happened to be staying with Lynda when the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality was announced; it meant a lot to share that joyous moment with her and [her partner] Sue [Ratnoff].

“Lynda was a caring, supportive presence in my life not just during my senior year, but for most of my adult life. I miss her warmth, her faith in me, and her dry sense of humor.”

Lynda filled a necessary position in PEA’s transitional years, paving the way for females to flourish without having to struggle for equal recognition, and helping the Academy become a truly coeducational school. And she did it with humor, authority, grace, and equanimity.

With gratitude to Susan Jorgensen Herney—for her invaluable help with putting in context the archival material I read; to Kendra Stearns O’Donnell, Jack Herney, Jim Samiljan, and Peter Durham ’85—for the use of their words; to Albert Leger—for conducting phone interviews; to our archivists Cecilia Franck and Magee Lawhorn, who provided me with boxes upon boxes of pertinent material; and to L. Todd Hearon—for his superb editing. I move that this Memorial Minute be submitted to Lynda’s partner, Susan Ratnoff, and be spread upon the minutes of the faculty.

Respectfully submitted,

Tatiana D. Waterman