In Loving Memory: Martha Grafton 1908-2005

February 8, 2005

Like the library that is the academic heart of the college and bears her name, Mary Baldwin University Dean and Professor Emerita of Sociology Martha Stackhouse Grafton was the institution’s heart and soul for 40 years. Although she retired more than 30 years ago, her influence and presence are felt here today.

Martha Grafton, often touted as an “unassuming realist” by students, friends, and colleagues, died February 8, 2005 with two of her daughters by her side. She was 96 years old.

Young Martha GraftonBorn in South Carolina in 1908, Mrs. Grafton earned her undergraduate degree from Agnes Scott College. She was just shy of her 22nd birthday when she started work at Mary Baldwin as assistant dean and instructor of history. She remained on the administrative staff, with her husband Dr. Thomas Grafton, professor of sociology, until 1970. Named dean of the college in 1938, Mrs. Grafton served as assistant to the president through the difficult years of World War II and stood in as acting president four times. She earned a master’s degree in history from Northwestern University and was given an honorary doctorate from Mary Baldwin University in 1989.

Dr. and Mrs. Grafton on Grafton DayThe Grafton name is also associated with an important college award: The graduating senior with the highest grade point average is given the Martha S. Grafton Award. Alumnae are inducted into the Grafton Society – named for Dr. and Mrs. Grafton – when they reach their 50th reunion.

Mrs. Grafton also served on the board at James Madison University, where the Grafton-Stovall Theater is named for her.

Mrs. Grafton was predeceased by her husband and one of her twin daughters, Letty Grafton Jernigan. Dr. Grafton passed away in 1999 after nearly 70 years of marriage. She is survived by two daughters, Lib Grafton Greer of Columbus, Georgia, and Margo Grafton Rundles of Durham, North Carolina.

Mrs. Grafton was unapologetically dedicated to education. In addition to her duties at Mary Baldwin, she served as president of the Association of Virginia Colleges, president of the Southern Association of Colleges for Women, chair of the Conference of Academic Deans of the Southern States, and was a member of Staunton City School Board for 14 years. After her retirement, she spent several years on the college’s Advisory Board of Visitors.

“How can you have a college without books? You can’t,” said Professor Emeritus of Music Gordon Page, a close friend of Mrs. Grafton. “How could we have Mary Baldwin University without Martha Grafton? We couldn’t.”

A banner fron Grafton Day

“Her legacy is the college, as simple and as profound as that is,” Page added. Like almost everyone Martha Grafton met, she made an indelible impression on him during the more than two decades they worked together. During that time, she started the longstanding college tradition of singing A Hymn to Mary Baldwin, written by Page, at Commencement and other significant events.

“She was absolutely the center of the school,” Page said. “The college revolved around her, not because she insisted that it did, but because everyone loved her.”

The following excerpt from a 1969 issue of the student newspaper Campus Comments further illustrates Mrs. Grafton’s unfailing humility about her influence:

When the Trustees, ready to tell her their choice of name [for the college library], called upon her in the late afternoon of April 18, 1968, Dean Grafton faced the group and said “What have I done? Do you want to fire me?”

Mrs. Grafton is also a practical woman. “After they told me, I did just what I had planned to do. I went to the hairdresser,” she said.

“She grew up with this College. The changes that Mary Baldwin went through in which she played a part are mind-boggling,” said Ethel Smeak, professor emerita of English. Smeak was a student when she met Dean Grafton, and, later, her “respect and liking deepened” for Mrs. Grafton when she returned to the college to teach in 1965.

Mrs. Grafton likewise inspired awe in Dr. Samuel Spencer Jr., who served as Mary Baldwin president for several years during her tenure: “Martha Grafton was one of those exceptional women’s college deans in the era when only men were considered able to serve as college presidents. At Mary Baldwin, presidents came and went, but for half a century it was Dean Grafton who gave the college continuity and stability. Today, hundreds of women in this country and abroad may look to her as a primary source of the values and standards that guide their lives.”

The student newspaper from Grafton DayJust as in the years when she looked out for them at the college, there is still no shortage of student admiration for Dean Grafton, or “Mrs. G,” as they called her. In 1969, shortly before her retirement, the entire student body was involved in planning Grafton Day in her honor – banners bedecked the balconies, paper flowers were strewn on the hillside, and she and her husband were treated to a candlelight dinner in the Dining Hall. Nearly 30 years later, some of the same students, led by Jane Townes ’69, added personal notes, pictures, and poems to a book celebrating her 90th birthday.

Elizabeth Jennings Shupe ’70 penned verses for that book that recalled some of her most poignant memories, including Mrs. Grafton’s chapel sermons The Gospel According to Snoopy, and about working across the hall from her as a member of the college staff. Along with history courses and a debate class, Dean Grafton was also the instructor of the popular course Marriage and Family until her retirement.

Many argue that Martha Grafton’s administrative skill lay in her ability to get right to the root of the situation. “She didn’t say what you wanted her to say, she said exactly what you needed to hear,” Smeak said.

Patricia Menk, professor emerita of history, echoed the comments of many who knew Mrs. Grafton and praised her uncommon wisdom in the face of difficulty. Menk said she realized the full scope of Dean Grafton’s contributions to the college while documenting Mary Baldwin’s history in her book To Live in Time.

Grafton and students on Grafton Day“As far as shaping the college, we had Mary Julia Baldwin in the 19th century and Martha Grafton in the 20th,” Menk said. Martha Grafton was a key player on the talented administrative team that guided Mary Baldwin through its formative years as a college. During her first years at the college, she helped Dean Elizabeth Phfol Campbell establish a student government association, now in its 75th year, and write the first official student handbook.

College Chaplain Patricia Hunt came to know Mrs. Grafton after her retirement. Hunt sought out the former dean to learn more about how she had earned the trust of the Mary Baldwin community. She admires Mrs. Grafton’s personal life as well as her professional one – she worked after marrying and while pregnant, an uncommon practice in that era.

“Martha Grafton did an enormous service to this College by just being herself,” Hunt said.

We know that many more members of the Mary Baldwin University community have memories to share about Martha Stackhouse Grafton and we are glad to receive them at

There will be a graveside service at Thornrose Cemetery in Staunton this Thursday, February 10, at 2:00 pm followed by a memorial service in the chapel at Sunnyside Retirement Home at Massanetta Springs, east of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Dr. Samuel R. Spencer Jr., fifth president of Mary Baldwin University and currently a Trustee, will speak at the memorial service.

The family has requested that any memorial contributions be made to Mary Baldwin University. We will work with them to designate a fitting purpose for such gifts.