CMC Magazine, Fall 2003
Something To Talk About
The Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum Celebrates Its Platinum Anniversary: Twenty Years of Inspiration and Ideas
-By Anne Dullaghan
When you were a student, this place may have been part of your dally ritual, scanning the newspapers and having afternoon tea with professors — maybe even participating in a discussion that changed your life. This unique and special place blends the coziness of daily routine with the grandeur of visiting presidents, leaders, artists, and philosophers. This is the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum. This is the Ath.
Perhaps no other CMC institution leaves such a lasting impression, connecting generations of alumni and students to endearing memories of life in Claremont. As the College commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, many have reflected on its unique alchemy.
The highlight of the Ath isn't any single event or a series of events; its what this institution adds to a student's CMC experience. I find it personally gratifying that the concepts that we built into constructing a newer, greater Ath proved both correct and enduring," says former Dean of Students Jerry Garris P'91. The fundamental concept of providing an elegant facility with outstanding speakers and good meals has propelled the Ath since its founding, and it isn't slowing down."
The excellence of the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum has been noted outside the CMC community, as well. Thomas Shandley, vice president for student life and dean of students at Davidson College in North Carolina, who chaired an external review committee on CMC student services, called the Athenaeum nothing short of a treasure," noting that its "richness of programming for a campus of 1,000 students is extraordinary." Perhaps even more special, he said, "is the ease with which students can access such a program and enjoy not only the formal presentation and dialogue that follows, but also the informal exchange that occurs during dinner among faculty, staff, students, and community members."
Discussion and debate form the heart of the Athenaeum, named for Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and the temple in Athens where the ancient poets, philosophers, and orators gathered to recite and discuss their work. Founding Trustee Donald McKenna developed the concept for the original Athenaeum in 1968, inspired by his parents' intellectual salons for faculty members and students of Pomona College, where Donald and his brother, George, studied. McKenna later remarked that these times had "more educational effect on me than anything else, including my college classes."
The first incarnation of the CMC Athenaeum was somewhat modest — the former Presidents house, now the Office of Admission and Financial Aid, at 890 Columbia Ave. It was there, in 1970, that new President Jack Stark '57 helped bring McKenna's vision to life: a living room, a library, and two dining rooms, where meals and conversation could occur. Modeled after the literary and scientific dining clubs of 19th century London, the Athenaeum was developed to promote intellectual and social exchange between students, faculty, and visiting luminaries, in an intimate and relaxed setting.
As the Athenaeum became more popular, it outgrew its premises. Recalls Garris, now director of research and assistant vice president and director of foundation and corporate relations, "in the early 1980s, I chaired a committee to develop a new concept for the Athenaeum. We wanted to upgrade the facility, to be able to host multiple events each evening, and to increase the number of students benefiting from the unique experience."
"We were driven by our goal to bring students and faculty together in an informal setting, and to be able to hear some of the most outstanding speakers in the world," recalls former director Jil Stark. "We were always able to host incredible programs, guided by the principle of the leaders of today helping the leaders of the future."
A fundraising campaign soon began. Donald McKenna contributed two million; the Philip McKenna Foundation contributed a million; and a million gift from trustee Marian Miner Cook, widow of John Brown Cook, who in 1978 had established the John Brown Cook Association for Freedom at CMC, helped complete the project. Hundreds of other donors are recognized on a wall in the Ath courtyard. The current Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum was completed 20 years ago, in September 1983.
Today's 15,000-square-foot facility's walls are adorned with original art. Gourmet meals are served nightly. "Not only does it enhance both the academic and social life for students and faculty, but it also serves as community outreach," says director Bonnie Snortum. "Many people from the local community regularly come to the evening programs."
Events include poetry readings, musical concerts, theater, social gatherings, and the commemoration of important national events. "Many colleges find themselves beating the bushes to encourage students to attend lectures outside of class," notes W. Torrey Sun, vice president for student affairs. "We find ourselves filling up programs in advance. What takes place here is 100 percent for the students."
And guest lecturers do more than just speak: they sit down, have dinner, and talk with students, which is a momentous opportunity for students like April Wilson '04. "One of my most memorable moments was hearing former President of Ireland Mary Robinson talk about her experiences, frustrations, successes, and visions for the future," Wilson said. "She is a role model of active compassion and engaged politics."
Justin Hance '06 says, the close contact to renowned experts is not easily found at the undergraduate level. When playwright Tony Kushner came to the Ath last month, I read a play with him. It was an experience I couldn't have had anywhere else."
As inspiring as these encounters can be, Wilson says, "Some nights at the Ath have brought my attention to the more difficult things to face in the world: the collapse of public health and the realities of genocide. But those nights have inspired me to seek an active role in the topics that grab my heart."