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milestones.The Learning Years

After our 88 Olds was out of sight, I wiped away my tears and turned around to face my new adventure –– only to soon discover that my world had spun around with me. The social mores, class distinctions and racial attitudes of the South were unfamiliar to me, and I was taken by surprise as I tried desperately to fit in. I was a girl from the North, different in speech, dress, manners and outlook than my predominantly Southern classmates.

Dress was the easiest to remedy: I learned my first lesson in the importance of “Brands” and rushed downtown to buy a McMullen Liberty print round collared blouse, a pair of Weejun’s, and a proper ”pocketbook”. But my North Jersey quick speech and hard accent never adapted to the soft drawl and slow rhythm of the land below the Mason-Dixon Line. And then came my shocking introduction to Jim Crow, when a new-found friend abruptly pulled me back as I jauntily headed down the aisle of a bus to sit in the rear (“nigra’s sit in back” she whispered). And again on the first day back to school in 1963 when 130 classmates did not return because of the summer’s racial riots in downtown Danville.

Equally as unfamiliar were the strict rules and codes of conduct and social manners that a Southern Baptist all-girls school would impart. Dining tables were set with white linen and sterling silver cutlery. A “monitor” was in charge at each table to ensure that we learned and obeyed proper etiquette: the art of cutting bone-in chicken on your plate; how to properly eat soup; which utensil to use when and where to put it; the uses of a linen napkin; how to pass family served dishes; proper dining table conversation and proper topics for a “lady” and how to have a conversation that would include everyone at the table, not just your neighbor and oh, so much more. And need I mention the requirement that we wear a girdle and stockings? This was rather amusing for a girl of 5’5” and 104 pounds who would in a very few years succumb to an avant-garde trend and nod to women’s rights by eliminating the use of a bra.

Main Hall (front facade, 1964), Averett University

Main Hall Façade, Averett College, Danville, Virginia 1964

While Averett, at that time a two-year junior college, with a beautiful campus on an ante-bellum plantation, may have seemed little more than a finishing school for the daughters of well-to-do southern families, in reality it was a respected professional school. More fundamental than molding proper young ladies, it provided a no nonsense education. And among its many offerings was a curriculum for a career in the science of retail.

Vintage Postcard of Averett College

Vintage postcard of Averett College

I thrived academically and quickly absorbed a solid knowledge and understanding of all aspects of the retail industry: the organization and operations of a successful store; business planning and project management; personnel management and training; procurement and product merchandising; how to create a strong brand identity in the marketplace. We were also schooled in research, problem solving, and presentation and public speaking skills.

Averett College Fashion Show -newspaper

Newspaper clipping with images of local Fashion Show models. That’s me…. on the riser second from the right…..the Northerner with the SHORT hair!!!

Elements of design and style were now being woven into my life tapestry – color, line, drawing and composition. Located in America’s fabric belt, Averett offered courses in textile science that were rated among the best in the nation. This was a bonus that would later become a pillar supporting my “critical path”.

Once again, despite my initial misgivings and disappointments on the parental choice of my career path, it turned out that “Father Knows Best”. The intimate and nurturing environment that Averett College provided was the perfect melding of professional training and personal growth that I required. By the time of my graduation I had attained a credible resume for entering the retail industry and had been well-schooled in the social etiquettes and skills needed to thrive in the corporate environments of New York City.

In cap and gown, diploma in hand, and at the precipice of my professional career, I wore a broad smile that reflected both the joy for my accomplishment and, more importantly, the great love for my father, who had the wisdom to know what I needed, and the faith in what I could achieve.

(Averett College grew to a fully accredited, co-educational, four-year college in 1971. Today, Averett University attracts students from across the nation as well as around the world and offers degree programs at numerous Virginia locations.)