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College life way back when

Deposited on a railroad siding by a mail train, a Skidmore student walks through a small town on a cold March day. She’s eager to meet her off-campus study mentor, an artist in the scenic Hudson Valley. But she soon discovers the artist has been called out of town and has arranged for her to study instead under another artist. The student trudges to that address, only to be told that this artist has fallen ill with pneumonia. Hours from Skidmore, with no tutor and no place to stay, now what?

“That was the worst moment of my Skidmore years,” says Priscilla Douglas Polkinghorn. It happened in March of 1931. And she still recalls it vividly. The 103-year-old member of the class of ’31 marked her 80th reunion this spring. She couldn’t travel from California back to campus, but she celebrated in spirit— and by sharing some Skidmore memories through her son Frank.

Polkinghorn chose Skidmore partly because a neighbor in Montclair, N.J., had studied there. She also knew it had a strong arts program. Her grandfather’s boyhood friend was Charles Warren Eaton, a well-known artist who encour- aged her in her own art and gave her several of his paintings.

She did major in art, and a senior-year honors program allowed her to spend a month focused on painting in the artists’ colony of Woodstock, N.Y. The town was


so small that there was no commercial transportation to it—hence the mail car. Left on her own in rural Woodstock, Polkinghorn first took a room at the Cash Dollar restaurant. But the men who lodged there got up before dawn and made noise, so she found a room in a farmhouse. She re- calls, “It was unheated but had a vent from the kitchen below. The tub in the bathroom was unused in the cold months, so the land - lady brought me hot water every evening to allow me to wash. The landlady’s son was making maple sugar in her barn, and outside my room a maple tree dropped sap into a metal bucket all night long. The son’s house was being renovated, and a house painter was stay- ing there, but he said I could use it as a place to paint.” She made the arrange- ments work. She says, “I painted outside and had three meals a day at the Cash Dollar.” She also remembers another artist in the neighborhood: “He was fre- quently drunk, and I was afraid of him. When sober, he was afraid of me.” Polkinghorn says she learned from the Wood- stock adventure “that I could take care of my- self under very trying circum- stances. This convinced me, and my father, that I could go

by myself to study art in Paris for the year following graduation.” It impressed her only sibling too: Barbara Douglas Macmillan also chose Skidmore, graduating in 1944.



Polkinghorn spent half her Skidmore time involved in art but was “surprised and delighted by the breadth of the liberal arts half” of her edu- cation. She was a member of the Out- ing Club and still re- members “getting written up for singing too loudly in a Skid- more truck coming back from an Out- ing Club activity.” She says it was a fellow club mem- ber who gave the group’s Adirondack Mountain lodge its

name, Skid-irondacks. In Saratoga, when the local cinema

didn’t know how to show the new talkies properly, sassy students “shouted funny comments during the showing.” The owner told President Henry T. Moore that “if the Skidmore girls were not better be- haved, they would not be welcome in his theater.” After her junior year Polking- horn and a friend used their knack for words to write a play as a summer assign- ment. In the fall Professor Stanley Saxton wrote music for it, and the show was staged and recorded. (Much later son Frank Polkinghorn found the recording and sent it to Skidmore’s music depart- ment for the long-retired Saxton, who was still living near campus.) These days Polkinghorn not only re- calls her past but also follows the youth culture, staying in touch with great- grand children via Skype, the popular video-phone computer application. Clear- ly Skidmore’s lifelong learning ethos has stuck with her. —SR

FALL 2011 SCOPE 25


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