Cool article about my Grandhoney
August 2, 1998
THE VIEW FROM/FARMINGTON; Out of Miss Porter's, And on to Cambridge
By STACEY STOWE
ON a cool, overcast June morning as the 1998 school year was winding down, Alice M. DeLana bade farewell to 39 years of teaching at Miss Porter's School in Farmington by delivering the commencement address. By turns elegant, cerebral and humorous, much like the woman herself, the speech asked graduates to revere and appreciate the power of words.
''We must be careful what we say,'' she said, quoting Emily Dickinson, ''No bird resumes its egg.''
In almost four decades of teaching English, computer science and art history, and leading students on tours of several of the world's art museums during her tenure at the 155-year-old girls' school, Mrs. DeLana has taught half of Miss Porter's living alumnae, igniting many to pursue a career in the arts, school staff members estimate. Friends and colleagues say in partial jest that she taught half the staff of Sotheby's. Indeed, in the months before her retirement, when she was on her self-described, ''Grateful Dead Farewell Tour,'' she was honored at the company's London and New York auction houses.
Her decision to retire at the age of 61, prompted by a sense it was time ''to do other things'' before she became too old to do them, also includes relocating from her home in West Hartford to Cambridge, Mass. The move leaves a rather gaping hole in the boards of nearly a dozen Hartford area cultural institutions, including the Hill-Stead Museum, Mortensen Library at the University of Hartford and the Hartford Stage Company.
Grown women become misty-eyed when they recall their student days with Mrs. DeLana. A former student now a teacher at Groton wiped away tears at a recent farewell dinner for Mrs. DeLana. ''I don't think I'm going to be able to keep it together,'' she whispered as Mrs. DeLana stepped to the lectern following a costumed skit spun off of ''Alice in Wonderland.'' (It included Humphrey Tonkin, president of the University of Hartford, in academic robe as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the cleric and Oxford don better known as Lewis Carroll.)
Alice DeLana, said a former student, Sandy Golinkin, publisher of Allure magazine, is ''an amazing woman and she changed my life.''
What is it about this slender figure with a ribbon-tied, silver ponytail and an equally silver laugh that ripples through her conversation like a waterfall? She summarizes her relationship to her students by saying, ''My task, my joy was to get out of their way.''
''I think the function of old people is to set up deadlines and paths for the next generation to walk down,'' she said. ''Within a fixed boundary, the truly creative do something that's really quite spectacular.''
From her small office, on the second floor of a columned brick building on campus, Mrs. DeLana shrugged off the whirl of parties that surrounded her departure as something drummed up by the school alumnae office. She was more than a little embarrassed by all the fuss and is more comfortable striding around a classroom and covering 20,000 years of art in the nine-month school term, engaging the students with question rather than lecture, answering ''Fair enough!'' when a point is challenged.
Mrs. DeLana, whose parents were academics, first arrived at Miss Porter's in 1959, 22 years old, newly married and with little enthusiasm for teaching. ''I really wanted a job that would get me home in time to prepare dinner,'' she said. Yet she was soon smitten with the teaching life and felt fortunate in the early 1960's the school accommodated her schedule, allowing her to care for her two children, Elizabeth and Charles.
The campus she fell in love with then, leafy treed, pathways lined with fresh-faced girls in polo coats, has been a continual source of delight to her. On a brisk, shiny morning in late spring she listened to the Perilhettes, an astonishingly good campus a cappella group.
''Here I am three times their age and we're all in it together,'' she said later. On her desk was a ribbon-tied box of truffles left by a student with whom she'd commiserated after reading a front page story predicting a chocolate shortage. ''That's the way it's been . . . I've loved the children.''
Parents who have accompanied Mrs. DeLana to Europe to chaperone museum tours say she handles the quixotic emotions of teen-agers with aplomb, and is at once respectful and advisory.
Recalling a recent tour, Mrs. DeLana spoke of an evening when, gathered in a small hotel in London, she and the students and chaperones found themselves sentimental. ''We were all in tears,'' she said. ''It was the last night -- no one wanted it to end. We were gathered around. It was like an African campfire, just your emotions, your stories.''
School staff members sometimes bristle at the outside world's image of Miss Porter's, whose alumnae include Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and Laura Rockefeller, as a time-warped place of teas and gentility. Yet Mrs. DeLana seems to have made her peace with that skewed image, confident of the school's rigorous academic program and proud of its insistence on civility.
''We are kind to each other here and there is a basic level of civility,'' she said. ''I think the culture at large has made Miss Porter's School -- because the name sounds kind of funny -- into a throwaway joke that in fact has an almost wistful appeal to it. The world wants to believe there is at least one place on the face of this earth where people don't say 'fuhggeddaboutit'.''
But almost 40 years as witness to the highs and lows of adolescence has engendered in her a certain wry humility.
''As most everyone knows, much of teaching has to do with just showing up," she told the crowd at her farewell dinner (where everything from the invitations to the label on the wine bottles was inscribed with a line from an E.E. Cummings' poem, ''i'd rather learn from one bird how to sing, than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.'')
M. Burch Tracy Ford, head of the school, remembered when she called Mrs. DeLana to ask how she was recovering from surgery, and the latter quipped, ''Some of the girls interested in body piercing would really be impressed with me now.''
Humor aside, she valued her students' scholarship and cultural insights. Colleagues said it was rare to find her without a knot of students, engaged in conversation. She reported the view from her window on teen-age life to her various boards and commissions, she said.
Although Mrs. DeLana has retired from teaching, she may never stop volunteering. She said she could never imagine herself slumped in front of a television when she could be at a board meeting of the Wadsworth Atheneum, where she is a trustee. Even at Miss Porter's, where volunteerism is literally a graduation requirement, Mrs. DeLana's efforts for both school and community were widely considered extraordinary.
An engaging speaker, she was often asked to address cultural organizations on local literary or art history; several of her talks, such as one on George Eliot's influence on Theodate Pope Riddle, whose ancestral home in Farmington is now the Hill-Stead Museum, were published by local historical societies.
''Her ability to use language, to stand in front of a group and speak about anything with style and intelligence is continually remarkable to me,'' said her colleague Brendan Burns, the chairman of the history department at Miss Porter's. ''She just sparkles.''
Fittingly, her husband, William G. DeLana, who was a partner with the law firm of Day, Berry & Howard, matched her with his vigorous intellect, affable personality and commitment to community service. His death in 1987, which left her feeling as though she ''was unable to breathe for several years,'' propelled her into more volunteer work. Her time is also happily divided among her four grandchildren, one of whom coined her current title: Grandhoney.
Her move, to a small carriage house in a new city. would seem to add a touch of daring to one so newly retired. But friends are not the least surprised. Her colleague Mr. Burns said, ''This was the right time. Alice has reinvented herself on a number of occasions.''
How will she fill her days? She answers with characteristic understatement.
''Every college town needs a gray-haired old lady in the back of the auditorium to ask questions after the students have grown bored with the lecture.''
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