Catharine Spragens: Centre’s longest-serving First Lady
Catharine Smallwood Spragens, widow of Centre president emeritus Thomas A. Spragens and Centre’s longest-serving first lady (1957-1981), died March 26, 2016. She was 96.
Her graciousness and remarkable ability to set people at ease regardless of station helped her make friends wherever she went, including three college campuses: Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., where her husband was president for five years, and finally Centre, where he would become the College’s second-longest serving president, behind only the 19th-century president John C. Young.
While her husband was out being presidential, especially during their 24 years at Centre, Catharine Spragens “handled the social life of the campus,” with its “hundreds of guest lists, menus, invitations and details,” as she recalled in a 1982 interview.
Entertaining was particularly “crucial” at a small college, she believed.
“We entertained constantly: trustees, students, alumni,” she once said, noting that in her time, “there were not the conveniences of now,” such as catering services.
Fortunately, she was an excellent cook with an extensive collection of recipes, including her famous green pepper jelly.
The two reached out to Centre students and frequently invited them to Craik House, home to College presidents since 1938. Their welcoming spirit would prove especially helpful during the tumultuous years of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when students might show up at their house on a Sunday afternoon and stay until 4 a.m. Monday.
“That’s what they needed,” she told an Advocate-Messenger reporter in 1998. “They needed to talk.”
Mark Lucas ’75 recalls that as a student at Centre, he found the Spragenses together “represented a kind of high-minded patrician grace that was attractive and inspiring.”
Once he’d joined the English faculty and begun teaching a seminar on William Faulkner, he came to appreciate her personal connection with the Nobel-winning writer.
“Catherine was one of the neighborhood children who used to gather on the lawn at Rowan Oak [Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Miss.] and listen to Faulkner tell ghost stories,” he says. “She remembered how genial he was with children and how distant he was with adults.”
At the seminar’s end-of-term dinner, she would share her scrapbook of Faulkner-related clippings and reminisce about the old Oxford days.
“The students were enthralled—by the stories and by the person in front of them,” says Lucas. “The experience was a bit like meeting a Faulkner character, one of the good ones like Aunt Jenny DuPre from The Unvanquished.”
A Mississippi native, she had grown up in Oxford; Faulkner’s stepdaughter was one of her best friends. After graduating from the University of Mississippi, she headed to Washington, D.C., where she took a job with the Democratic National Committee and met her future husband, then a wartime budget bureau analyst, at a dance. They married on May 24, 1941, and enjoyed a true partnership for 64 years, until his death in 2006.
Looking back over more than two decades at Centre, she remembered with fondness the many people she’d met and come to know. Homecoming, she said, was a particular pleasure, when alumni they’d known as students returned, often with their children.
In 1990, the Alumni Association named Catherine and Tom Spragens honorary alumni for their incalculable contributions to the College. The citation read, in part: “Because of his vision and energy, Centre was . . . put back on the road to greatness. Because of her charm and genuine love of people, Centre became a family. All of us who are alumni of Centre College owe both of them an immeasurable debt, for the College in which we take so much pride would not exist without them.”
Catharine Spragens is survived by her children, David Spragens ’73, Thomas Spragens Jr., and Barbara Kelley; seven grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
Above: Thomas and Catharine Spragens
by Diane Johnson
April 1, 2016