Katharine Van Bibber, 93, headmistress at Bryn Mawr

November 23, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Katharine Van Bibber, the Bryn Mawr School headmistress who helped lead the integration of the Baltimore private girls' school, died Nov. 12 of heart failure at Fairhaven Retirement Community in Sykesville. She was 93.

Miss Van Bibber, a Bel Air native, retired in 1962 from the Melrose Avenue school where she had been headmistress since 1939.

A 1920 graduate of the school, she earned her bachelor's degree in 1924 from Bryn Mawr College and taught math and physics at Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, and Brearley School in New York City before returning to Baltimore.

A tall, imposing woman whose stern demeanor masked a tender heart, Miss Van Bibber was greatly respected by faculty, trustees and students for her strong moral values.

"She left a lasting mark on this school," said Rebecca Fox, Bryn Mawr headmistress. "She was a woman of enormously strong character and cared passionately about the education of young women."

Integration of the school had been considered for several years, but it wasn't until the eve of her retirement that Miss Van Bibber announced that the school's board of managers would admit African-American students in fall 1963.

Paraphrasing a selection from the third chapter of St. Paul's epistle to the Colossians, she said: "And now put all evil thoughts behind you. No more evil temper or rage: no more evil thoughts about others. Put on, instead, the new man, who is out to learn what he ought to be, according to the plan of God. In this new man of God's design there is no distinction between Greek and Hebrew, Jew or Gentile, foreigner or savage, slave or free man."

She concluded: "If this school is to teach its girls, it must itself live up to that ideal on which this country was founded -- the Judeo-Christian belief that every person of whatever race is a child of God, and must be treated accordingly. A school -- a good school -- must do justly -- it must be fair to all the children of God."

For this, Miss Van Bibber was lauded as a "voice of conscience" who moved Bryn Mawr forward, urging students to adopt the basic tenet that she held so dear: "Never be afraid to correct the past."

Dr. Judith Sullivan Palfrey, a pediatrician and chief of general pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Boston, was a member of the Class of 1963.

"We were taught to speak out at Bryn Mawr -- it was part of our routine -- so I wrote a letter to the board supporting Miss Van Bibber's decision," recalled Dr. Palfrey, remembering Miss Van Bibber's admonition that "the important things in life must be addressed."

Dr. Palfrey also described her mentor as a "powerful intellect who was a great feminist. She was clearly ahead of her time when she taught and urged us that we could be full and equal partners in society."

Miss Van Bibber enjoyed the outdoors, spent summers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, made the daily walk from her Taplow Road home to the school without a coat and refused to close school, no matter how inclement the weather.

After retiring from Bryn Mawr, she lived in Seattle for many years, then returned to Maryland in 1988.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Monday in Fairhaven Chapel, 7200 Third Ave., Sykesville. A convocation will be held at 10: 45 a.m. Dec. 5 in Bryn Mawr's Centennial Hall.

She is survived by two nephews, Michael Van Bibber of Freeland and Dr. William T. Whitney of South Paris, Maine; and two nieces, Mary Jane Van Bibber Orr of South Paris and Susanna Pflam Grannis of Townsend, Vt.

Pub Date: 11/23/96

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