When the College opened its doors in 1795, the campus consisted of one building, 19 students and a single instructor whose salary was $635 a year.
This followed the state Board of Regents granting its first charter to establish a college in Schenectady, bypassing the favored choice of Albany. Regarded as one of the first public calls for higher education, news of the charter touched off a celebration that spilled into the frontier town’s streets.
As part of Founders Day Thursday, the campus community gathered in Memorial Chapel to celebrate the 228th anniversary of that charter and Union’s place among the top liberal arts schools in the country today.
Andrea Barrett ’74, part of the second class of women at Union and a National Book Award winner in 1996 for fiction for “Ship Fever and Other Stories,” began her keynote address by honoring “the beautiful retreat we know as Jackson’s Garden,” one of her earliest pleasures of campus life.
Reviewing the life of Isaac Jackson, the garden’s founder and first caretaker, she said many of its details “make me want to write a story…
“But any story inspired by those scraps of history wouldn’t turn out to resemble whatever I can imagine right now. Stories are born in the actual act of putting words onto paper, each choice and each mistake leading to another.”
She said she learned to listen to what stories are trying to tell her “by failing, again and again.”
And for years, she encountered failure as she tried to figure out her life’s path, which meandered through a series of majors and jobs, from receptionist, test prep trainer and greenhouse technician to customer service representative in a corrugated box factory.
Once she started writing, “I kept failing, as I still fail. I make my work by way of many drafts and endless revision which is a kinder word for repeated failures. It’s a good word, a crucial part of my work and my life.”
It was the National Book Award, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world (which included a $10,000 prize), that firmly established Barrett as a literary force. In the quarter century since winning the award, Barrett has written five other books, including “Servants of the Map,” a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Her latest collection of stories, “Natural History,” was released last fall.
Over the years, Barrett also has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship, or genius grant, which carries a prize of $500,000.
In her talk to the Union community, she credited the College for nurturing in her something that Tolstoy called “the blinkered energy that sends us exploring down paths that often lead nowhere but which, just occasionally, result in useful discoveries.
“Only a willingness to explore paths on which we might fail lets us to unfold into the people we can be. Walking along the paths of Jackson's Garden, you can marvel at all the revisions that, over almost two centuries, have generated such a complex and lovely space.
“Lives, like gardens and stories, shift and swerve unexpectedly if we let them – and that’s a good thing. Nothing’s more useful than the courage to keep revising the way we should live, who we should be, what we can best bring to the world.”
Schaffer Library’s Lally Reading Room has an exhibit of Barrett’s papers, which she recently donated to the College.
Barrett, who majored in biology at Union, lives in New York’s Champlain Valley with her husband of 43 years, Barry Goldstein ’73.
Following her talk, President David R. Harris presented Barrett with the Eliphalet Nott Medal, which recognizes the perseverance of alumni who have attained great distinction in their fields. The medal is named for Eliphalet Nott, president of the College from 1804 to 1866.
Also at Founders Day, Sarah Christy, a music teacher and choir director at Averill Park (N.Y.) High School, received the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award. Named for the 1809 graduate of Union who was New York State’s first superintendent of public education, the award recognizes a high school teacher who has had a continuing influence on a Union student. Francesca Morone ’26 nominated Christy. During the pandemic, Christy organized an ambitious hybrid format that included socially distanced and at-home rehearsals and outdoor concerts.
The celebration opened with remarks from Kathleen LoGiudice, College marshal and professor of biological sciences; Robert Bertagna ’85, chair of the College’s Board of Trustees; Stephen Schmidt, chair of the Faculty Executive Committee and Kenneth B. Sharpe Professor of Economics; and Gwyneth Sultan ’23, president of Student Forum.
The event also featured a dance performance by Bhangra Union.
The hour-long ceremony concluded with a performance of “While These Visions Did Appear,” an original digital composition by Aspen Morris ’25 and a jazz-influenced rendition of “Ode to Old Union,” led by Tim Olsen, professor of music, and featuring the Union College Chamber Singers.