A Woman of Vision: Dr. Mary Downing Irving

November 17, 2006

Dr. Mary Downing Irving in 1966Visionary. Powerful. Compassionate. Hardworking. Devoted. These words describe Dr. Mary Downing Irving, professor emerita of education. She was much more than that. Irving was a woman ahead of her time and one who fought for students and education, opened the door to her home to students, faculty, and staff and continued to thrive after losing two husbands.

She died after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s November 15, 2006.

Irving was born in 1921 in Surry County, Virginia. She attended Longwood College where she met first husband, William Emmett Downing. Soon after their marriage and her graduation from Longwood, he left to serve on the S. S. Frederick C. Davis in the Mediterranean during World War II. He did not survive when his ship was torpedoed in the North Atlantic in 1945.While he was at war, Irving discovered she was pregnant with her first and only child, Mary Ellen.

Irving studied at Columbia University Teacher’s College in New York City while raising her daughter. In 1954 she was among the first women to earn a doctorate in education from University of Virginia. Along the way she met and married second husband, Donald Irving. Her early career included teaching seventh grade in Waynesboro, Virginia, and traveling as an educational consultant for Ginn and Company Publishers throughout the US and Canada.

Dr. Mary Downing Irving and Mary Baldwin studentIrving joined Mary Baldwin University in 1966 as associate professor of education and psychology. She was instrumental in helping the college hire accomplished education professors to build the department. She launched the post baccalaureate teacher licensure program. In 1972, Irving hired Dudley Luck, who would become the first director of Mary Baldwin’s Baldwin Online and Adult Programs. She also hired Patty Westhafer and Jim McCrory in 1984 and 1985 respectively, both of whom continue to teach in the department. During her tenure, which lasted until 1991, Irving chaired significant faculty committees, including Faculty Status and Education Policy.

“Mary Irving was a real force for teacher education on the Mary Baldwin faculty, and she did a great deal to make it the fine program it is today. She had a politician’s skills, and she worked hard with the state department of education to move that bureaucracy and get it to make decisions which would be helpful to students not only at Mary Baldwin, but also throughout the state. She was a strong advocate for her students and for the program. The college’s teacher education program owes much to her vision, tenacity, and hard work,” said Jim Lott, dean emeritus and member of the Board of Trustees.

Luck, associate professor of education emerita, remembers that Irving, whom she considered a mentor, “always had a genuine concern for her students. She would do anything in the world for them.”

Irving once told Westhafer, “If you’re in education, you’re in politics.” She was not afraid to stand up for what she thought needed to be done and had very definite beliefs on how teachers should be prepared, Westhafer added.

She was highly visible at the state level both the Virginia Board of Education and the Virginia Department of Education. She was successful in bringing to the Mary Baldwin faculty the part-time services of Wayland Jones, Virginia’s former director of teacher education, upon his retirement from service in Richmond. She was active in the Virginia Association of Colleges and Universities, the organization that serves as the voice of the 38 institutions in the state which offer teacher education. She also worked closely with Virginia Council for Independent Colleges on issues that affected teacher education programs.

When she lost her second husband in a car accident in 1979, Irving established the Donald Ross Irving fund at Mary Baldwin to help pay for food for students teachers who worked in the public schools during the college’s spring break. The fund has been combined with the Mary Irving Fund for Teacher Education established by Cynthia Luck Haw ’79, a current trustee.

Westhafer tells a story that is illustrative of Irving’s generosity. The housekeeper who cleaned their offices was unable to make ends meet at Christmas time and was having problems getting to work because she didn’t have a reliable car. Irving bought her a car.

Irving was also known as a gourmet cook and enjoyed bringing students and faculty to The Hill, her home in Verona. “You felt special when you sat at her table,” Westhafer said. The Hill was also where retreats were held for the Mary Baldwin Advisory Board of Visitors, Parents Council, Office of Institutional Advancement, and the Board of Trustees. Haw remembers that she had her own room at The Hill and felt as if she were “part of the family.”

“Above all, she was a champion advocate for individual Mary Baldwin students pursuing a teaching license. She went beyond advising to actively whatever she could to help a student to graduate “on time,” to smooth any difficulties in the public schools for a student teacher, to encourage, to instruct, to inspire,” said Professor of Education Jim McCrory.