Seeds of Change: Elaine Comegys and Diversity

A Periodic Column by Steve Duffy ’77, Library Circulation Specialist

Steve DuffyAugust 30, 2012

One of the Antiochians I most often miss and think about is Elaine Comegys, former associate dean of students. She was a great mentor and partner in fighting what Professor Emerita Jewel Graham called “the good fight.” She worked to build a community where everyone is simply appreciated for who they are.

Many Antiochians and villagers from all eras miss her and the loving way she could make changes to things that needed some big pushes. She made the hardest issues seem like a breeze; she was able to make you walk in someone else’s shoes without hurting your feelings—well, at least not too much—and might make you laugh along the way, and laugh with you rather than at you. She was a person who could lovingly yank you up a notch or two in your consciousness in the gentlest and loving of ways. Elaine could be a deep intellectual or make things so simple to understand that some people with opposing opinions could see HER truth clearly before they knew what was happening. She made difference melt away and with some quiet laugher.

After she retired from the College, she left the village, but a homing instinct brought her back. She always kept her eyes on the prize—the prize being diversity in the College environment along with some basic love. When it came to the intersections of sex, race, and class, she was years ahead of the curve.

After years of wearing a dean’s hat and fighting many battles in our slightly irregular utopia, Elaine coasted a bit in retirement. Often, she just watched the world go by and held court on the some of the benches in downtown Yellow Springs. She was there so much so that she was deemed to be the unofficial mayor of Yellow Springs. A bench near the post office carries a plaque dedicated to her.

In times of crisis, Elaine was always nearby. When the Alumni Board would come to town, folks would often secretly seek her out and eventually find her and her groceries, sitting on a bench near the drug store, and enjoying the world and everyone in it as they passed.

Antioch College’s “year one” is now turning into “year two,” and one of the most diverse entering classes ever in the College’s history will be settling into the dorms. They’ll be breaking in an amazing geothermal and solar-powered North Hall! There are so many times I wish Elaine was here to see things and guide us when humans begin to be human. Her wisdom and sense of humor were priceless. I hope some of us will develop those gifts.

Back when I was a freshman, and when Elaine first arrived on campus, the world had a different climate. The winters were certainly snowier, and there were intervals of crisp cool summer evenings when you would need a sweater. I remember Elaine had a station wagon for a spell during one unusually stormy winter in the ’80s that would only go in reverse and was stuck in a snowdrift in the Horseshoe. A bunch of folks tried pushing it while she revved it in reverse. Our frustration with snow banks and creaking station wagons that could only go in reverse all had us cackling until our sides split. But we eventually got Elaine on her way. Her laughter over that insanity made us laugh. We all had just gone through payless “paydays” and salary cuts, but something kept us all going and relatively content. We all had each other and that made up for chronic institutional poverty.

Elaine Comegys and me

Around the time Elaine and I first met, both the College’s and the country’s cultural climate were also stormy. Cultural winds of change were blowing. It was the era of the “Revolution.” Many basic civil rights had been recently won, but yet much remained in upheaval. People were waking up and folks were trying to figure out who they were, and where they might fit in the world. The war in Vietnam and the War on Poverty made everything a little more complex. As a fairly fresh Antiochian myself, and a New Yorker from a totally diverse and ever changing neighborhood, I took a co-op in a hospital in Boynton Beach, Florida. I thought it was going to be paradise. Not quite. I walked into a hospital that had Colored Wards (that were way less well appointed than the others), and a town that had areas called “Colored Town,” gas stations with three bathrooms—men, women, and colored. During that spring co-op, both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. When I heard what the hospital co-workers in Boynton Beach were saying after the assassinations—well, It was the sort of learning experience you have on a far-away co-op that you need to revisit after you come back to campus. Talks with mentors like Elaine Comegys helped you put it in perspective.

Decades later, by 2003, Elaine and I would almost gravitate to each other like magnets when we were at campus events. During Alumni Reunion in 2003, Elaine and I came together under a tent. I was on the Alumni Board, and doing my best to be a Reunion host in sweaty midsummer Ohio heat. During a break between programs, Elaine was sitting under the tent and fanning herself a mile a minute, so I sat down with her. She said, “Wait a minute! I am having an epiphany!” I was drained from being a host and by the heat. On top of that I really was quite unsure of the meaning of the word epiphany. So I just listened, and kept trying to figure out what an epiphany was. Was it a religious experience? Then she said, “It is time do something about this!” Finally she took the conversation in a direction I understood (and I found a dictionary later). At that Reunion, there were only two faces of color. She burst out with, “Next year is 2004! It’s the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education and we are going make it the theme for the 2004 Reunion—and maybe we can get some folks to reconnect or at least start something.”

Well, Elaine and a bunch of us, including Bob Gates ’78 and Athena Turner-Frederick ’82, worked and organized and that did become the theme in 2004.

Soon after that, in 2006, Jewel Graham received the J.D. Dawson Award and told us all about her adventures in the real world. With Elaine and Jewel’s presence, a number of folks came to Reunion who may not normally have had us on their radar. At Reunion 2006, Pennell House not only was the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s decades gathering spot, but also was the center for celebrating Antioch’s fostering diversity. There were posters, memorabilia, and scrapbooks for anyone to view. With Elaine and Athena as organizers, it became an inclusionary zone where all were welcome. Ted Bunch ’83, Dona Green ’82, Tim Eubanks ’00, Duane Grier ’81, Kenneth Frederick ’86, Bradley Wilburn ’85, and Eric Miller ’81 all became decade as well as diversity hosts. The Pennell House zone’s party continued well past the others. Even a Yellow Springs police officer, Alfred Pierce ’71, joined the party.

After Reunion ended, folks sat around a picnic table and talked about what could be done to make the institution more inclusive. By this time, Sid Paige ’66, Alicia Williams ’81, and Charley Brown ’82 also were involved. Among the first goals of this emerging affinity group was the establishment of a Walter Anderson Award at Reunion, to set up a fund to help either alums or students foster diversity and discussion for mentorship possibilities. People plunked down money on the picnic table like it was a card game. This affinity group and first fund was called the AOC fund, for Alumni of Color. In the years since, the acronym has remained the same but it now has been renamed Antiochians of Courage for Diversity, so it is more inclusive.

This affinity group has been a virtual alumni chapter. It meets bi-monthly by conference call, has a Facebook presence, and each year has travelled to a big city and had meetings along with the alumni chapter there. In 2011, the first meeting was in Washington, D.C. Year two is in New York and 2013 will be in Chicago.

All are always welcome to work on the tasks at hand. This first fund has grown quite a bit and may be of use to some future Antiochians.

Meanwhile, back on campus, there is a similar Campus Diversity Working Group. It has had its first events, a birthday celebration for Coretta Scott King, with an eclectic mix of bluegrass, gospel, and spiritual music. It has also had a movie night at the Little Art Theater, where both the College and village community were invited to view John Singleton’s Higher Learning (1995), with a discussion afterwards. Antiochians Maryann Otuwa ’15 and Rachael Smith ’15 facilitated a discussion group of more than 50 attendees.

Other Antiochians who have been helped nurture Elaine’s seeds in the AOC affinity group include Tendaji Ganges ’71, Karen Mulhauser ’65, Stacey Wirrig ’98, Mitzi Cooper ’57, Steve Oliver ’90, Gary Houseknecht ’66, Matthew Derr ’89, and doubtless some more that I forget. But remember, as Elaine would have wanted, EVERYONE is welcome!