A trailblazer in her field, Echols pursued her doctoral degree at the University of Virginia (UVA) at the same time she started her teaching career at Mary Baldwin in 1968. She became the first woman to earn a PhD in art history from UVA, with a specialty in the Italian Renaissance, while she developed Mary Baldwin’s program, which was previously more of a sidebar to studio art.
In the 1970s, she created the Renaissance Studies in Italy program for May Term, which also broke ground for being the first study abroad program outside of foreign languages.
She led students with great energy, waking up early to get to churches when they opened and not leaving museums until they closed, all to experience as much art as possible.
“In the atmosphere of the actual object, Mary gave us insights that were impossible to understand in the classroom,” said Sara Nair James ’69, professor emerita of art history, who took all the classes Echols offered during the first year she taught at Mary Baldwin, including a trip to museums in New York City. “She knew how to draw out student responses, which built confidence: we suddenly realized how much we had learned.”
When Echols retired, James assumed her mentor’s teaching position and Italian Renaissance study abroad program, inspiring her own students to experience the wonders of art and culture both inside and outside the classroom.
Another alumna in the field who studied with Echols also remembers how her professor was able to make ancient and early Renaissance cultures come alive.
“Through Mary, I had become aware that art history was a complex and fascinating web of artistic works and characters, historical events, mathematical equations, scientific discoveries, and literary works and that it was a means — my means, anyway — to understanding the world,” said Patricia Piorkowski Hobbs ’75, senior curator of art for the museums at Washington and Lee University. “I was hooked for life, and I know that I was not alone.”
In addition to inspiring students through her academic expertise, Echols was also a generous mentor and advocate.
“She believed in a person’s integral goodness and capacity to succeed, even if you didn’t believe in yourself,” Hobbs said. “My own work in the museum field and as an artist is due much to her, in part because she was so confident in me as an art historian, a museum professional, a teacher, and an artist. She was my perpetual cheerleader.”