A Tale of Two Friends: A Conversation with Kathy

Traci Williams ’ac
Staff Writer

On Friday afternoon Oct. 28, I sat alone in the first aisle seat of the second row in the far left section of Sweeney Hall. I was preparing my thoughts for what I may or may not learn at the Implicit Bias Workshop, when she walked over.

I remained calm, and attempted to appear professional, confident, unimpressed and equal. I stood to introduce myself, “Hello. I’m Traci Williams. I’m an Ada, here.” “I know who you are,” she said, “I see you all the time, everywhere. I’m thinking we should be friends.” I refused to appear star-struck, undeserving or surprised that Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith College, would know who I am. My thoughts were competing: “I’m one of about 2,500 undergraduate students here. I’m also a student of a seemingly mystified program of barely 100 nontraditional students whose classroom presence is sometimes seen as unexpected, a typical and temporary deviation within that general 2,500. How could she know me?” Then, “Why shouldn’t she know? I know who she is. And, she’s right, I am everywhere!”

Our brief exchange inspired me to write the beginnings of a fictional tale about a fictional friendship between the President and me. However, after a few paragraphs, I thought to myself, this story should not be fiction. President McCartney and I should be friends. Hence, the challenge of realizing it arose, and the challenge of learning if her “we should be friends” was sincere.

I sent President McCartney an email, asking for an in-person interview, as a conversation between friends. I did not email the college’s news director Stacey Schmeidel, who’d handle such matters normally, and I did not email McCartney’s executive assistant Beth Berg. No, a friend should be able to email a friend directly, and that’s what I did. Advising that I had no script and no agenda, I suggested the conversation be in a comfortable, intimate and informal space, where we would both feel at ease. I suggested her home, since I’d never been there, or my home in Hadley, since she’d never been there. I wrote, “Friends should visit each other’s homes” and attached a smile at the close of that sentence, hoping not to appear cocky.

President McCartney was sincere, indeed. I received three responses to my email within just a few hours: one from Stacey, one from Beth, and one from the President with these closing words (in part), “And I have saved you a Smith chocolate bar for your collection. Best, Kathy.” The interview had been scheduled. I was granted the full hour requested and chose to do the interview at the President’s campus home, so I wouldn’t lose any of the hour with her traveling to and fro to Hadley. The candy bar made me smile, too, but more importantly, I was signaled to dismiss the President jargon and call her, my friend, “Kathy.”

Armed with a list of thirty questions, I rang the doorbell. Bill Hagen, Kathy’s husband, answered the door and quickly disarmed me with his smile and an offer to join them at the table for breakfast. I opted for coffee only. After a few pleasantries, Bill excused himself with his newspaper and coffee, leaving Kathy and I alone to talk. Here is the interview, in part:

Traci Williams: Forgive me, I’m finding it difficult to call you “Kathy.” Why do you let students call you “Kathy?”

Kathy McCartney: I don’t want to present an air of dominance or hierarchy to anyone, especially to students. Kathy evens the playing field, conveying accessibility … just like I hope I can call you “Traci”?

T: I respect that. I appreciate that. And, yes, you can. We can. We’re friends.

K: We are.

T: What’s your favorite color?

K: Green, the color of leaves. Ever since I was a little girl, it’s always been green. That’s one of the reasons I like living here. My bedroom is green. I never got to live on a college campus before Smith…not even when I was a college student. I love being so close to the events.

T: You open your home to students. Why?

K: The President’s House was built as an entertaining space as well as a home. Recently, I learned that some students don’t think Bill and I live here. I assure you that we do, and that we love living in the middle of campus. We also enjoy entertaining. Last year we hosted more than sixty events for members of the Smith community. Students were included in many of these.

T: You’re a first generation student, right? An honorary F1G?

K: Yes. My dad didn’t finish high school. My mother did. I am an honorary F1G. I know the struggles, I have a t-shirt and I’ve attended some of the events.

T: Any hobbies? What relaxes you?

K: I enjoy independent films. I like to go to Amherst Cinema. I have an Academy Awards party every year. That’s my favorite thing. I love to read novels and am in a book club with friends from Cambridge. And I love music … all types of music. I go to a lot of musicals. I exercise each morning; this helps prepare me for the day. I start with yoga and move on to my elliptical machine. One of my favorite forms of exercise is the one-mile Mill River walk that begins near the President’s House. This fall, I learned a new term – “forest bathing,” which is when you stop and contemplate in a forest. It’s a kind of meditation. I think a good nature walk may provide the best context for meditation, at least for me.   

T: Any pet peeves or phobias? What gets under your skin?

K: When you’re a leader, people make assumptions about you.

T: I understand. The character is viewed through the title often. I hope this conversation changes some of that for you.

K: I don’t think I have any real phobias, but I will confess I don’t like scary amusement park rides. No roller coasters for me.

T: No roller coasters for me either; so, I understand that a large part of your job is to raise money for the college?

K: Yes, one third of my job is to raise money and my highest priority is money for financial aid. I dream of making Smith need-blind. Financial aid is approximately 65 million dollars a year. I’m proud to say Smith was awarded two ten million dollar gifts, recently.

T: Adas or trads? Pick a favorite. Just kidding. What do you admire about both Adas and traditional students? What challenges do you see both groups facing? Separately and together?

K: I love the Ada Program; it’s a point of pride for me. I love the traditional students, too. I don’t see them as separate. I take note of people’s identities but I don’t focus on those. Each student has a story that strengthens the Smith community. My background is in developmental psychology; I’m most interested in how people become who they are.

T: Well, now, have you attended the “Ada Monologues?”

K: No I haven’t. Send me the date for the next, and I’ll do my best to be there.

T: Do you know about Bridge? Is it enough?

K: I am proud of the Bridge Program. Each year, I hear positive evaluations of the program from students and alumnae. With additional resources, I am sure we could strengthen this program, like we could for most of our programs. We have limited resources — limited financial and human resources — so we are always doing our best to use them wisely. Bridge is a wise investment.

T: It is a wise investment. I know where we can probably get some money. Do you read the Sophian?

K: I do read the Sophian, a great student-run newspaper. I read your story on the aftermath of the election, and I learned a great deal from your quotations of students.

T: Is there anything you’d like to say to Smithies?

K: I want Smithies to know that each and every faculty member and staff member is here for them. We all want the smith experience to be the best it can be. I consider myself to be a servant leader, which means I view my job as serving the community. Servant leadership is a philosophy that guides one’s day-to-day practice. Through my work, I hope to build a more just and caring Smith community. For example, we discussed my desire to have need-blind Admissions. I also want Smithies to know that I realize Smith isn’t perfect and that smith sometimes lets you down. I think students expect a lot from Smith because you love Smith. I hope students will reach out to me and my team with your suggestions. I promise we will implement as many as we can.

T: Sounds like a good and solid plan.

I hope you can see Kathy was very genuine and generous with her responses to my questions, answering all thirty and then some. Betwixt the prepared questions, we found multiple opportunities to be friends, sharing personal experiences –both good and bad and that were off-the-record for both of us. Relieving Kathleen the president of her office for just an hour was well worth it for me, as I got to know and understand Kathy as a person. I hope sharing this helps the Smith community know and understand Kathy and Bill, our friends, a bit better too.

Leave a Comment