Order of Merit
by Jim Stewart
Virginia Thomas’ appointment in 1931 as dean of Greenville Woman’s College proved to be an inspired choice.
She took the job during difficult times. The Depression had left GWC in a precarious financial position — to the point that, to save the school and its assets (and to help their own budgetary woes), the Furman trustees voted in 1933 to coordinate with GWC and consolidate the schools’ administrations and faculty while maintaining separate campuses in downtown Greenville.
Thomas (left photo), who had joined the GWC English faculty in 1921, was known for her tact and gentility, which came in handy as the schools struggled to adapt to their new relationship. Once the merits of the merger became evident, especially in terms of finances and enrollment, its success eased the concerns of those who weren’t initially sold on consolidation — including Furman president Bennette E. Geer.
While her people skills helped the schools bridge their cross-town gap, Thomas never lost sight of GWC as an entity itself. In Academy and College: The History of the Woman’s College of Furman University, Judith Bainbridge, professor emerita of English, describes how Thomas “placed an indelible stamp on the manners, morale and aspirations of the women” during her tenure, especially in fostering a sense of identity and culture.
Thomas was a staunch supporter of such activities as GWC’s May Day festival, complete with games and a queen. May Day eventually moved from GWC to the men’s campus (and later, for a time, to the current campus). She introduced the “Hanging of the Greens,” annual Christmas celebrations that featured elaborate pageants and a campus adorned with garlands of laurel, cedar and holly. She brought a “rustic mountain cabin” to GWC and turned it into a snack bar and meeting place known as “The Shack.” Today it sits beside the lake as part of Furman’s Greenbelt residential community — and is the only GWC building that survives.
Thomas could not have known that GWC and Furman would eventually unite on one campus outside Greenville. And she would probably have been dismayed to learn that virtually all traces of GWC — from its celebrations and publications to its alma mater, ring, and school colors of blue and gold — would ultimately fade away at the new, coeducational Furman.
All except one.
Senior Order, established by Thomas in 1937 as a select leadership organization for women, stands today, three quarters of a century later, as a time-honored link between past and present. With close to 1,000 members (dead and alive), Senior Order reveres and recognizes such qualities as humility, character, scholarship, service and responsibility. Election to the group is among the highest honors a Furman woman can receive.
Thomas envisioned Senior Order as an advocacy group for women’s points of view at Furman. She chose the first members from the Class of ’38, selecting women with “outstanding abilities” who “rendered meritorious service either in the college or community” (1938 Bonhomie).
The dean would not, however, have much time to help the group grow and mature. She became seriously ill in 1941 and resigned in 1943.
But it was Furman’s — and Senior Order’s — good fortune that her protégé, Marguerite Chiles ’40, was on hand.
Thomas hired Chiles (right photo), a member of the third Senior Order class, as her secretary in 1940. After a time Chiles went to graduate school, then returned in 1945 as director of student personnel for women and advisor to Senior Order.
For the next 35 years, as she climbed the ranks to become vice president for student affairs — the first woman vice president in Furman history — Chiles planned events, coordinated campus activities, and oversaw programs designed to help students embrace the full benefits of college life.
Chiles, a student favorite, was especially admired by the women of Senior Order, with whom she shared many adventures. She modeled the group’s ideals through her wisdom, compassion and love for the university, and she fostered a true sense of camaraderie among the women.
After she retired in 1980 she remained close to Furman and to Senior Order, returning often for the group’s annual Homecoming brunch. In return the women of Senior Order made sure that Chiles was not forgotten by leading efforts to establish the Marguerite Chiles Scholarship, and to name a residence hall in her honor. The board of trustees did so in 1997.
TRADITIONS, OLD AND NEW
Senior Order’s prominence at Furman has varied through the years. At first it functioned almost like a sorority. Members met weekly, assisted with orientation and admission programs, decorated the campus for the holidays and raised money for charitable causes. More recently the group has become primarily an honorary organization, with a loosely defined structure.
At GWC Senior Order would meet in a room where the china collection of Gordon Poteat, president of Furman from 1903-18, was displayed. One piece, a bowl decorated with a dragon, spawned a Senior Order legend that, to ensure the safety of the student body, a woman must be sacrificed to the dragon each year. The members soon designated themselves as “Daughters of the Dragon” because of their sacrificial commitment to the school — which is how the group’s symbol features the Greek Delta letters “DD.”
New members are elected each spring by the graduating cohort. In the early years eight women were chosen; today the average is 15.
Members admit that the election process is not an easy task, and on occasion it results in complaints or bruised feelings. In 1964, for example, The Paladin, upset that some women had, from its perspective, been unfairly excluded, published an editorial naming additional members to a “Senior Disorder” list.
For years new members were “tapped” into the organization during a solemn, all-women convocation that was followed by a weekend retreat in the mountains. Nowadays things are less formal, and it’s not unusual for the neophytes to be welcomed to the club by being “hijacked” in the middle of the night, usually with the help of complicit roommates.
Helen Athanasiadis ’82, who traveled from Greece in the fall to attend her 30th reunion, spoke at the Homecoming brunch about her initiation experience: “I was a commuter, and when they came to my house to get me, my mother was afraid I was being kidnapped. They had to explain to her that I was really being honored.”
Ah, the brunch — probably Senior Order’s most meaningful tradition. It frequently takes on the qualities of a religious experience (see related story).
Some Senior Order groups remain close and stage annual gatherings. Others come together occasionally. Last summer all but one member from the Class of ’69 met for a reunion on Hilton Head Island, S.C. “We still thought like Furman women,” said Mary Ann Klutz Hanna. “We all had done things and all of us had grown, but we still had a special connection with each other, and with Furman.”
As for the 16 members from the Class of 2013, their selection launched a new era for Senior Order: its second 75 years.
They are now part of an elite Furman organization. No matter what follows, they will always have this group, and this place, in common.
This spring they will choose the new class and, after enjoying the lighter rites of initiation, will host a banquet for their successors and their families. The new members will hear testimonials to their worthiness, receive their symbolic, black and yellow scarf, and add their signatures to the roll of honor.
Perhaps Virginia Thomas, who died in 1962, or Marguerite Chiles, who died in 2007, envisioned this kind of enduring legacy, one that has continued under the leadership of Carol Daniels ’82 and now Casey Crisp ’09.
In any case, they would likely be pleased to know that, in a time when tradition is often dismissed and ceremony mocked, Senior Order continues to celebrate such virtues as discipline, service and character, and to serve as a standard of excellence for Furman women.
This story owes a major debt to Julianna Battenfield (Senior Order Class of ’11), who as an undergraduate did extensive research about the group. Her work is available on the James B. Duke Library’s Special Collections and Archives website.