February 20, 2014
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 8, 2011 issue of The Spectator. We are publishing it again to honor the memory of Patsy Couper, who passed away on Feb. 17, 2014.
Over the course of the past few years, Patsy Couper has taken to waving the choir students goodbye as they depart on their annual tour.
“It’s such fun to talk to individuals as they load the bus and pick up their bag lunches,” she said. “I say a few words with a great many of the students there. It’s the simple things that pleasure me the most.”
That’s the spirit Couper lives by each day. At age 88, she constantly surrounds herself with people—particularly Hamilton people. She doesn’t ruminate on the past or over-analyze or think in terms of absolutes; instead, she cares about continuing the legacy of her late husband.
Sixth-generation Hamiltonian Richard (Dick) Couper ’44 served as administrative vice president in the 1960s and participated in almost every volunteer activity and capital campaign since mid-century. His wife Patsy, a lifelong friend and benefactor of the College like her husband, received an honorary degree at Commencement in May.
Her contagious warmth and companionship make Couper one of Hamilton’s most beloved presences. And despite that much of her family lives in Vermont, she chooses to stay on the Hill. “I have all my extended family around here,” she said. “I think of everyone as son, daughter or grandchild.” She has become close with a handful of students over the years, including Nick Stagliano ’11, Stephanie Ingraham ’13, Elizabeth Debraggio ’07 and Ruthie Dibble ’07.
Every year she also takes some of the summer interns supported by The Richard and Patsy Couper Grant out to lunch. “The young seem so brilliant these days,” she said. As a student at Smith College and at the Latin American Institute in New York (where she studied bi-lingual secretarial courses), Couper wasn’t always inclined to speak up. “It’s awesome to me what students here say in class, because I’m so scared!”
Nevertheless, Couper is an enthusiastic learner. Having audited courses on Jane Austen, medieval and Renaissance history, opera and Shakespeare, she enjoys being in the academic setting. “I have no fear of going out feet first,” she said. This semester, Couper and Ellie Wertimer (widow of the late Professor of Economics Sidney Wertimer) are taking James L. Ferguson Professor of History Maurice Isserman’s “History of Hamilton College” class.
They’re both walking history textbooks themselves, though. Couper, who still uses Dick’s old email account and wears his watch, maintains close ties with the administration and faculty, as well as the Communications and Development office. She is also an avid supporter of the arts at Hamilton, having attended almost every classical music concert on campus since around the time of her husband’s death. And in a request that was something like good-humored blackmail, Couper told Senior Associate Dean of Students for Strategic Initiatives Meredith Bonham that she would not put up with having to park far away from Wellin, especially in the winter. Bonham granted her rather liberal parking privileges in response.
It’s a sign that the administration will do anything for Couper, who, beneath her demure exterior, has a spunky side. She is adamantly opposed to the possibility of hydrofracking near campus (“I cannot have Hamilton ruined,” she said), and she will defend her friends —like President Stewart—to the death.
“I cannot imagine a better president,” Couper said. “I really deplore some of what students have said about her—it hurts me.”
On April 5, 2010 (two days after Couper’s birthday), Stewart and Vice President for Communications and Development Dick Tantillo took her out to lunch, where they asked her if she would accept the honorary degree. “With that, tears were streaming down my face,” she recalled. “I have been in another world since then.”
Couper is modest about her influence on the College, attributing it to her husband’s legacy and to her admiration for students. She remembers reading The New York Times in the Burke Browsing Room once a few years ago and overhearing a tour guide tell his group a list of rules. “He said, ‘Number one: you must smile.’ I couldn’t believe it—he had everyone in such a happy frame of mind.”
Though she and Dick spent some of their years together in Albany, New York City and Princeton, New Jersey, they returned to Hamilton in 1990 for their retirement. The friendships Patsy has since made keep her close to home.
“My life is people,” she said. “What a climax to an already idyllic life!”