One of Phi Beta Kappa’s crown jewels is the Visiting Scholars Program, a scheme that for well over a half century has placed distinguished scholars on hundreds of campuses for short stays comprising a public address, classroom visits, informal colloquia with faculty, and ─ most especially ─ student conversations. Since the middle 1950s, there have been about 5,000 such events, and for the last few decades, they have been ably administered by Kathy Navascues. Her work in selecting the visitors is facilitated by a committee that includes people, themselves eminent in their fields, who are in a position to know who would be good at this kind of thing, possessing the expertise for an interesting and productive visit, as well as the requisite disposition to carry it off. Their judgment has been vindicated consistently: The Visiting Scholar alumni list is an all-star cast.
But such a committee requires a capable chair. Phi Beta Kappa has been fortunate over the decades to have had extraordinary people as chair of its Visiting Scholars Committee, and none more able than the person whose life was celebrated recently in a service at the Friends Meeting House at Swarthmore, Helen North.
The setting was, of course, spare, simple, plain, with no adornment to distract from the words that would stem from people’s inner light. Friends and colleagues offered reminiscences and tributes, while the scent of lilacs wafted in from the lawn through windows open to the April warmth.
The portrait of Helen that emerged was complex but consistent: a keen intellect, a gracious spirit, a person whose multivalent beauties created a kind of reverential awe and whose capacities for personal caring won her a strong cadre of close friends. Perhaps the sweetest stories came from former students who told, in their various ways, how friendship had emerged when Helen broke through the barrier of awe with a gesture of care. Care for her students’ intellect, care for their careers, care for them as persons, all merged in her.
The stories presented Helen North as a person in the round: first of all, a powerful intellect, but also quite serious about her Catholic faith, devoted to her Irish heritage, a person who relished conviviality, and who not only loved, but bet on, horses. Besides her strictly, and immensely well-respected, academic work, she with her sister, Mary, was author of a guide book to ancient Christian sites in Ireland. There was a story about her persuasiveness in convincing a farmer to allow her troupe through his field to see a Celtic monument. At Phi Beta Kappa we saw that same persuasiveness in her guidance of the Visiting Scholars Committee and in her gift of consistently capturing, for the program, elusive academic stars.
Among the tributes was one with a distinctive Phi Beta Kappa slant, delivered by Joe Gordon, Helen’s senate colleague and personal friend. Joe implicitly reminded us that the point of such occasions is not simply to reminisce about the departed, and to express our love and respect, but also to place that person’s life in the context of the whole we all share, a whole comprising these moments of transience, given to us, that we can use well or not so well. He urged us to remember that we are all, in that sense, visiting scholars. Helen had a good visit, indeed.