By John Grennan
Mary Doyle Springer, the College’s first tenured woman professor and a revered English and Seminar instructor for close to 40 years, passed away on June 21 at age 89. Her engaged teaching, lifelong commitment to literary scholarship and principled advocacy for faculty and students earned her respect and admiration from colleagues all across campus.
“Mary Doyle Springer stood tall as an academic virtuoso, one devoted to liberal education, productive feminism and progressive faculty involvement,” says Brother Mel Anderson, president of the College for much of Professor Springer’s tenure.
Professor Springer and her husband, fellow English professor Norman Springer, were central figures in the College’s academic and cultural life from their arrival on campus in the 1960s until their retirement in 2004.
The couple met and married after World War II, with Norman beginning a career in academia and Mary raising their two sons during the 1950s. When the boys reached college age, Mary went to college herself. She graduated in 1963 at age 44 with a bachelor’s degree in English from Holy Names College.
After completing her master’s degree in English from UC Berkeley in 1965, Professor Springer began teaching at Saint Mary’s, where her first student was the late Brother Gary York.
While teaching at the College, Professor Springer wrote her doctoral thesis on the novella in modern English literature and received her Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1973.
In her mid-50s, Professor Springer did postgraduate work at the University of Chicago, where Saint Mary’s English professor Sandra Grayson first encountered her.
“Surrounded by twenty- and thirty-somethings, Mary was the most energetic student in the class,” Grayson remembers. “She argued with the professor, demanded he explain points in more detail, and would let no question rest until she was satisfied. She presented for the rest of us a wonderful model of fearlessness and intellectual engagement.”
Complete intellectual engagement also characterized Professor Springer’s approach at Saint Mary’s, where she had a reputation for reaching students, even ones completely unfamiliar with the Great Books she knew intimately.
“You start on page one and you talk about that page,” she told Brother John O’Neill in a 2004 interview. “And, inevitably, if you do it with as much love as any teacher could throw into it, the students will come to love it, too.”
Outside the classroom, Professor Springer was a significant literary scholar with a reputation that went beyond the College. University of Chicago Press published her two books, Forms of the Modern Novella (1975) and A Rhetoric of Literary Character (1978). She penned several journal articles on topics ranging from the film adaptation of Tom Jones to Cleopatra.
Colleagues drew inspiration from Professor Springer’s range of intellectual interests and abiding passion for learning.
“Although she revered Aristotle, she also studied French poststructuralist feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva,” says English Department colleague Janice Doane.
“She wrote beautifully about Henry James and Wallace Stevens, but also loved and taught the audacious and irreverent poetry of Lucille Clifton, a contemporary African American poet.”
Saint Mary’s honored Professor Springer on multiple occasions. In 1983, she received the Signum Fidei Award for her commitment to higher education in the spirit of John Baptist de La Salle. She received the De La Salle Award in 1994 for “availability to the students outside of the classroom and commitment to professional excellence.”
She was also named Professor of the Year in 1994. In accepting the award, she challenged the College, then embarking on a major building campaign to expand administrative office space, to reaffirm its emphasis on students.
“The central College priority … belongs, or should belong, to the central process of education, the process that is carried out by faculty and students,” she said in April 1995.
Conscious of her position as the first tenured woman professor at a college that was an all-male institution when she arrived, Professor Springer frequently took opportunities to draw attention to gender equity. This perspective informed everything from her approach to Seminar texts to sustained efforts to recruit female students and faculty.
“My true idea of feminism is a movement that will ultimately cause women and men to work together for the aims that they have in common as human beings,” she wrote in the Saint Mary’s alumni magazine in 1987.
In honor of Professor Springer’s many contributions to promoting women’s successes at the College, the Women’s and Gender Studies Program created the Mary Doyle Springer Award in 2007, which is given to the best senior thesis.
“Mary certainly was an inspiration for many of us women at the College. She was a real pioneer,” says Carole Swain, dean of faculty development.
Professor Springer is survived by her husband, Professor Norman Springer, sons Mark and Joshua, daughters-in-law Marilena and Alice, and granddaughter Hannah.