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In Memoriam: Grace Ellsworth

Posted 07/28/2014
Submitted by Meagan Fazio
Category: Campus Announcements
Grace Ellsworth in a photo taken at the dedication of the Handel Center in 2008.

Grace Ellsworth in a photo taken at the dedication of the Handel Center in 2008.

Grace Ellsworth, a founder and longtime supporter of the University of Hartford and a member of its original Board of Regents, passed away last month at the age of 100. A celebration of her life will be held on Wednesday, July 30, from 5-7 p.m. at the Hop Meadow Country Club, 85 Firetown Rd., Simsbury. To read Ellsworth’s obituary and send a message of condolence to her family, please visit the Robinson, Wright & Weymer Funeral Home’s website.

University President Walter Harrison shared the following tribute to Ellsworth:

Grace Ellsworth (1913-2014)

When Grace Ellsworth passed away in June at the age of 100, the University of Hartford lost not only its last living founder and last living member of the original Board of Regents, but also one of its most steadfast supporters. Grace was a woman who had helped frame the University’s purpose in 1957, who had helped define its links to the Greater Hartford community when it was founded, who presided as chair of the Board of Regents’ Physical Plant Committee over many, many years as the University grew into a national and international university. And she always retained her fervent interest in the University’s intellectual mission as a center for teaching, learning, artistry, and scholarship. Grace stands out in my mind as a person who devoted a significant part of her long and happy life to making the University what it is today.

I still remember the first time I met Grace, on the day I was elected president by the Board in May 1998. After a day crowded with official activities, Board members were invited to a small reception to meet me informally in the Roberts Room. Perhaps 40 people attended. I clearly remember looking up at one point as two elderly people walked across the room to meet me, one a small, attractive woman and the other a rotund man with a personal manner decidedly reminiscent of Winston Churchill. The woman was Grace; the man was Atwood Collins.

“We are founders of the University,” Atwood said, after introducing himself. Then he looked down his nose as I had always imagined Churchill might, and said: “We came to meet you, to discover why a Trinity man would want to lead this institution.”

I was totally taken aback. I was coming back to Hartford after 30 years of academic wandering around the United States and Europe, most recently nine years in Michigan. The Midwest doesn’t have characters like this, I thought, at the same time I was reminded by Atwood’s reference—and by his personal style—of my earlier life among Connecticut Yankees during my Trinity years. Oops, I thought. Do I fully realize what I am getting into?

But mostly I was thrilled! I had never met anyone who had founded the college or university I was attending or at which I worked. I thought that talking with and learning from them would be one of the best ways for me to understand the history and evolving mission of the University. And during the first few years I was president I spent lots of time with each of them separately and together. I did learn a lot about the University. Even more, however, I loved their stories!

Atwood, for instance, told me about how he had located the spot for the campus (he was a lawyer, and one of his clients owned and wished to sell the last farm in Hartford, a Danish dairy farm owned by Peter Kelly’s family). At the time, Atwood said, the regents were considering buying what is known as the B12 parcel just north of where I-84 cuts a cavern through downtown Hartford, the plot of land now being considered for a minor league baseball park. Imagine how different the history of the University would have been had it been sited there!

Grace told me my favorite fundraising story about the University, one that reflects the University’s unique and profound connection to Greater Hartford. Grace and her family were prominent residents of Simsbury, where her husband, John, was the CEO of the Ensign Bickford Company. Somehow someone decided that Simsbury residents should donate money to support this local university the community was founding (just that instinct is such a tribute to mid-century American spirit), and Grace was picked to head up the campaign. Grace’s memory was that they raised $40,000, a considerable amount in those days, and they decided they would see if they could get one of the local manufacturers of helicopters to allow them to use one to fly the check over Talcott Mountain and land in Bushnell park, where Grace would emerge from the helicopter with an oversized check to present to other founders. A good media opportunity, as later day folks might categorize it.

Grace was designated to call the Sikorsky Company, where the phone was answered by a nice enough corporate executive who explained to her that company policy did not allow them to provide helicopters for such purposes. Well, imagine that, Grace thought—and her next thought is indicative of the combination of spunk and savvy that not only defined her but helped define the initiative and spirit of the University. She called Igor Sikorsky himself, who she knew from attending social events with John and other corporate executives. “Igor,” she said, after explaining her earlier conversation with his colleague, “If you don’t want to provide us with a helicopter, I’ll call Charley Kaman. I’m sure he would be happy to provide a Kaman helicopter for the event!”  You know what happened next: Sikorsky committed the helicopter.

The helicopter arrived in Simsbury, Grace and the oversized check appeared, but they soon discovered that the check was too large for them to close the helicopter door. So, Grace climbed in the helicopter around the check, they left the door open, and although she had never previously ridden in a helicopter, Grace and the pilot took off in an open helicopter, flew off over the mountain, and landed in Bushnell Park, where she emerged and was greeted as planned by reporters and photographers!

Grace served for over a decade as chair of the Physical Plant committee, and as her colleague and admirer Bob Killian frequently recalls, Grace knew how to design and build things. Bob cites how well constructed the complexes are (they were designed and built on her watch)—he uses much more colorful language to describe them, but he’s right. These well-constructed residence halls reflect Grace’s care and conservative approach—and David Labau, the architect of these buildings, confirmed for me during his lifetime what a polite but demanding client Grace was.

Grace’s conservative tastes were reflected in virtually everything she did—in politics, economics, finance, music, and art. She was lively and outspoken, but always interested in debating and discussing her views and opposing ones. For the first decade I was president she came to see me at least twice a year to be sure we were giving students a chance to hear a variety of viewpoints: she always worried that our faculty—especially in political science—were too liberal for her tastes. And when Dean Malcolm Morrison and the Hartt School faculty decided to change the structure of the voice department in Hartt, both the dean and I had visits from Grace! Grace had been a Hartt School trustee before the University was formed, and she remained a devoted fan of opera. But here is what I always appreciated: Grace had strongly held views and told me and other University leaders how she felt, but she always ended those conversations by reminding me that she was expressing her views but respecting our authority to run the University.

I walk around campus and recall Grace’s views (she loved the dam on the Hog River and was never happy that we had replaced it with a bridge, for instance) or remember what Grace would have said about some of the visiting lectures I hear. But I also always recall that Grace valued above all else our freedom to express these views. She was adamant that she and her colleagues had founded the University as a place of learning, and she knew that learning frequently involved conflicting opinions.

Small of stature, Grace has cast a long shadow on the University she and others founded, and she gave it meaning and purpose. Grace and her colleagues left a lasting legacy on this University with distinctly American values and in a distinctly American way. If Grace were here, she would have made me define what I mean by that. That would take another essay, and this time I get the last word!

Walter Harrison
University of Hartford
July 2014

Grace Ellsworth in a photo taken at the dedication of the Handel Center in 2008.

Grace Ellsworth in a photo taken at the dedication of the Handel Center in 2008.