Seven anecdotes from a barrier-breaking academic career.
In November UChicago president Robert J. Zimmer announced the renaming of the libraryʼs Special Collections Research Center in honor of Hanna Holborn Gray, the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History and president emeritus of the University.
Itʼs the latest in a career of accolades for the Renaissance historian, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, and author of An Academic Life (Princeton University Press, 2018) and Searching for Utopia: Universities and Their Histories (University of California Press, 2012). To celebrate the latest feather in her cap, here are a few of our favorite stories about the inimitable Mrs. Gray.
1. Making an entrance.
In the 1950s women could enter Harvard’s faculty club only through the side door. As a young assistant professor of history, Gray recounts in her 2018 memoir, An Academic Life, she simply flouted the rule when attending departmental meetings, entering through the main door alongside her male colleagues. No one stopped her.
2. She got used to being a Hyde Park celebrity.
“Much interest was shown in my domestic life and arrangements,” she writes in An Academic Life. At the grocery store, shoppers would “look with undisguised curiosity into my shopping cart.” She once spotted “a distinguished professor of law” looking into her garage, “presumably to find out what kind of car we drove.”
3. She essentially held two roles at once: president and presidentʼs wife.
For University events, she writes, “I did the planning and oversight of dinners and receptions, selected the menus, and arranged the seating”—traditionally the bailiwick of the presidential wife. Gray was unbothered: “I like doing those things.”
4. She worked to preserve the work of another pioneering woman, Marion Talbot, the first dean of women for the entire University.
Gray asked the University of Chicago Press to reissue More than Lore: Reminiscences of Marion Talbot (1936), Talbotʼs history of the Universityʼs early days, and wrote the 2015 editionʼs introduction.
5. The University was on the brink of fiscal disaster when she arrived.
An economic downturn had the Universityʼs budget stretched to its limits. In response, Gray raised tuition, expanded College enrollment, increased financial aid, and created a centralized budget office, measures that helped the University weather a perilous moment.
6. Convocation got to her too.
Presiding over convocations was a highlight of her presidential calendar, she said in 2017. “Thereʼs a dignity and beauty about the ceremony that I always enjoyed. Each time I saw that student in front of me, to whom I was going to hand a degree, it was a joyful occasion.”