Alumni share memories of their Spartan days
As the first public relations director at Marymount College, Tom Foote was looking for a way in 1959 to bring attention to the four-year Catholic girls’ school atop the hill in east Salina.
That’s when he heard John Kennedy, the young, charismatic United States senator from Massachusetts, planned to visit Kansas.
“I thought it would be wonderful if we could get him to Marymount,” Foote, 91, said during a telephone interview earlier this month with The Magazine.
“He was quite popular among younger college age students at that time.”
With the help of Nell Blangers, a national Democratic committeewoman from Salina, and others, Foote accomplished his goal. Kennedy, who a year later would be the first Catholic elected president of the United States, arrived two hours late at the Salina airport on a cool, windy November afternoon.
Foote said Kennedy apologized for being tardy — he had been in Dodge City and not allowed to leave until he made a side trip to Boot Hill, the cemetery made famous on the popular Gunsmoke television show.
“It was well worth the wait,” Foote said of the future president’s visit to Marymount.
He remembers Kennedy’s speech in the recently constructed Fine Arts Building as “very inspiring.” It was filled with antidotes from the past as he encouraged students “to light the way for our country.” The United States, he said, was the world’s best hope for freedom.
It was a message well received by those in the audience. Later, other national figures, including musicians and actors, would stand on the Marymount stage to continue a tradition started in 1922 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia and carried on by the school’s almost 6,900 graduates, even after the college closed in 1989.
Nowhere was that tradition of “Marymount Forever” more apparent than Oct. 7-8, as 450 of the college’s family of former students, teachers and other guests from across the country gathered for a centennial reunion on the school’s former campus.
There were smiles, laughter and even a few tears as the years melted away and guests renewed old friendships and exchanged stories about some of the best days of their lives.
“You had these circles. That was what was so phenomenal about Marymount,” said John Johnson of Kansas City, Kan., who was vice president of student government when the Catholic Diocese of Salina announced the college would be closed because there wasn’t enough money to keep it open. The diocese assumed ownership of the school in 1983 from its founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia.
Johnson was involved in soccer and basketball and even signed on one year for the school’s summer musical, “Hickok,” a spoof of westerns written by long-time drama department head, Dr. Dennis Denning.
“It was super fun,” said Johnson, who was one of between 600 and 700 students to attend the school yearly. “You could be involved in so many circles.”
In addition to fine arts, the college was also known for its nursing program. A few years before the Sisters of St. Joseph opened Marymount, they were responsible for the founding of the former St. John’s Hospital, which now stands vacant after merging with Asbury Hospital, now Salina Regional Health Center, in 2004 and closing in 2011.
But there was much more to Marymount. Susan Martin Tackett, a 1982 graduate who followed her mother and grandmother to Marymount, developed a love of water as a student at the land-locked college.
Her interest came in 1981-82 during a school trip to the Bahamas over Christmas break led by Dr. Samuel Zeakes, who passed away earlier this year in Virginia.
“Sam’s passion for teaching and expectation of excellence inspired hundreds of students who now serve as doctors, nurses, medical technologists and other health care specialists,” his family wrote in his obituary.
Dr. Zeakes was the recipient of outstanding teaching awards at both Marymount and Radford University.
Excellence was the Marymount way.
“It gave me exposure to the world and that’s where I found my love for sea water,” said Tackett, who now resides in Illinois after living in Africa and Italy.
When she returns to Salina once a year to visit her family, she often walks up the hill to the former Marymount administration building and the chapel inside.
Tackett, who studied computer science and business administration, is also the keeper of the Marymount alumni list. It was a job started by Sister Lucille Herman, who passed away in 2011 after working for 10 years at Marymount, the final two as alumni director. Tackett also started the school’s group Facebook page, which has more than 900 members.
“It’s kind of an honor to my mother and grandmother to keep Marymount Forever,” she said.
“Just because your college closes doesn’t mean that Marymount died.”
Tom Foote’s youngest sister, Kathy Foote Triplett, majored in English at Marymount between 1968 and 1972. Two of their sisters also attended the school. One eventually joined the Sisters of St. Joseph as Sister Marilyn Foote. Their parents grew up in tiny Black Wolf between Ellsworth and Wilson before marrying and moving to Ellsworth to raise their family. Triplett said the Marymount campus was a “neat atmosphere” where she learned about writing, research and history, all of which broadened her view of the world.
“We were exposed to the classics, to philosophy. It seemed like people there were very broad-minded. It was just a special place,” said Triplett, who still enjoys walking or driving through the former campus on trips from her home in Junction City.
For many of the former students, the day Bishop George Fitzsimmons announced the closing of Marymount was similar to when they heard President Kennedy had been assassinated — they remember where they were and what they were doing.
“There were rumors, obviously,” John Johnson said. “It was a small college, but a lot of people were displaced ... Everyone was in shock. I’m confident in saying that.”
Tom Foote, who went on to work for the Ford Motor Co. for 30 years and now lives in Florida, said he felt the pain of the announcement from his home in Michigan.
“Our family was very close to the Sisters of St. Joseph. They were almost like part of our family. Marymount was very near and dear to us.
“Yet we could see it was on the horizon, even when I was there. It was just something that evolved with time.”
Foote said the impact of the announcement went far beyond Marymount students and staff.
“It really served an important role in the community and in that part of Kansas,” he said.
Brad Anderson, a Marymount graduate who taught at the college when it closed, spearheaded the effort to keep the doors open. He was reluctant at first, but during a meeting with college supporters two days after the bishop’s announcement, the names of distinguished Marymount teachers flickered through his mind.
Harley Elliott. Eric Stein. Dennis Denning. And, of course, the Sisters who played an instrumental role in creating and maintaining Marymount.
“Don’t you think Marymount deserves a fight?” students asked Anderson, who, in retrospect, thinks being “a rebellious Protestant” may have worked in his favor.
The Forever Marymount campaign netted $2.5 million in pledges and donations, including a last-minute pledge of $1.5 million from Salina business leaders. It still wasn’t enough to save the college. All the money was returned and the interest used to pay for a huge pizza party, Anderson said.
Anderson, now the executive director of Salina Arts and Humanities, thinks the experience was valuable because it allowed students to take pride in their efforts and “go down with their heads high.”
He credits the Sisters of St. Joseph for creating a special place called Marymount. During his time, 15 to 20 percent of the instructors were Sisters and the rest were lay teachers. The Sisters also were responsible for administration.
“They gravitated toward people who had a dedication and passion for their fields,” Anderson said.
He said the Sisters were “pioneers” in social justice, a passion many Marymount graduates carried with them as they started careers and families.
“To have the Sisters look at you in an unflinching way was both humbling and challenging,” Anderson said.
“They never wavered in their dedication or their faith, and that was an inspiration to students.”