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Remembering “Aunt Coll” – R. Anne Collison
Ned Groth, August, 2010


(Author’s note: This biographical remembrance is based largely on people’s 50-year old memories. I did not hear from Miss Collison after we left Darrow—she did not respond to solicitations for the Class Newsletter (we may not have had a valid address), and I never got any letters from her. But in preparing this memorial, I asked classmates and former faculty to share their memories, and got some wonderful material My goal is to create an honest and loving portrait of our former nurse, as we knew her. While I’ve striven for factual accuracy, I take full responsibility for any errors. This remembrance can be amended, if need to be, as others contribute their own further memories to it.  –NG)

aR. Anne Collison was listed in the 1958 school catalogue as “Nurse and Clerk,” and perhaps she did perform some secretarial duties. But we all knew her as the stern but kind school nurse, denizen of the Infirmary, who would care for us when we were ailing, administer a well-deserved kick in the pants when we were faking it, and could always tell which of those two we needed when we showed up at her door.

I was rarely sick at Darrow—I recall being in the infirmary overnight just twice in four years—and I didn’t know Miss Collison very well. I do recall that everyone referred to her as “Aunt Collie” or “Aunt Coll.” She preferred the latter (she signed my yearbook that way), and very much enjoyed playing the role of universal aunt. I never talked with Coll about how she came to be at Darrow, but fortunately, others did. She had quite a colorful life, which can be recounted here thanks to the good memories shared by several alumni (named below), and most especially by former Librarian and faculty wife Marie Sutherland. Marie and Don lived in the apartment atop the Meeting House, so Coll was their next door neighbor. They got to know her pretty well, were very fond of her, and have told me a great deal about her.

sThe aforementioned catalogue tells us that Coll was born in Baltimore, graduated from Eastern High School there, and then from the Roosevelt Hospital School of Nursing in New York City, in 1923. She worked in NYC, at Columbia Medical Center, and then back in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins, as a private-duty nurse. After moving to the Berkshires, she was a nurse at Bennington College and at Miss Porter’s School, then an assistant administrator at the Vermont State Tuberculosis Sanatorium. She also worked at the Pine Harbor School in Pascoag, Rhode Island.  Coll came to Darrow in 1954. According to Jonathan Horwitz ’60, she was the substitute nurse at first, while Audrey Dale was the full-time nurse. But Miss Dale was wooed away (literally) by a teacher, Anthony Gallambardo, who married Audrey and left for a job at another school, in 1958 or ’59. At that point Coll became the head nurse. (The Gallambardos returned to Darrow a few years after we graduated.)

But Coll’s early life was much more interesting than that bare employment history suggests. As Marie reports, Coll’s father was a sea captain, who owned his own merchant vessel and sailed the Atlantic, to Mexico and the West Indies, out of Baltimore. I somehow got the impression while at Darrow that the “R.” in Coll’s name stood for “Ruth,” and I thought of her as Ruth Anne for all these years. But Marie told me just recently that Coll was baptized Robert Anne Collison, apparently because her parents so much wanted and expected a baby boy that they couldn’t fully accept that she was a girl. That explains why she always used the initial! (Perhaps she also told people who asked that it stood for “Ruth”—at least if she didn’t know them well.)

Coll’s mother died when she was very young, and she was raised primarily by her aunts, at least while school was in session. But when summer came around, her father would take her with him on his schooner on long seafaring voyages. Although her aunts intensely disapproved of this lifestyle for a small girl, Coll loved it. She had a pet dog, whom she loved dearly, and her dad would bring him along on the ship as well. Coll spent her summers running around barefoot on deck, being pampered by the crew. When the seas got rough she’d either have to stay below, or be tethered to a stanchion with a strong rope. She enjoyed being with her father and he taught her lots of (at that time) “boy” skills, like navigation, astronomy, geography and math.

After a number of those adventurous summers, the schooner, her father and a brother were all lost in a hurricane. Coll and her younger sister continued to live with their aunts. That sister eventually grew up to be a writer for the Baltimore Sun, and as Marie recalls, married and had a child, who was Coll’s only living relative while she was at Darrow. Harry Savage recalls that Coll once mentioned to him that she knew the Poe family, growing up. Beyond Edgar Allen, the Poes were an old, distinguished Baltimore family, who sent many of their sons to Princeton, where Harry grew up—hence the Poe reference by Coll. But by the time Coll herself was of college age, she was dying to get away from Baltimore and her aunts, as she confided to Marie. So off she went to New York City and nursing school.

rWe don’t have many details of the next 30 years or so. But while Coll was in New York, she met Rosalie Moore, who was working as an administrator at the Mercantile Library. In the fall of 1954, Rose became Lamb Heyniger’s secretary, and Coll left her job in New York and moved up to the Mountainside with Rose. I didn’t know it at the time, but Marie says Coll and Rose shared the apartment on the top floor of the Infirmary, aka Ministry House.

By all accounts, Coll enjoyed being a school nurse. As Marie puts it, “She loved the boys, understood them, once told me she sometimes overlooked it when a student would take the thermometer out of his mouth and hold it by the radiator to fake a fever. She said some kids just needed a time out, with a little love and understanding coming their way.”

Almost all of us recall experiencing that caring side of Coll. Carl Sharpe remembers being in the infirmary with tonsillitis or a strep throat twice in his two years, for several days each time. The treatment was bed rest and penicillin, which Coll would inject in his butt. He says she’d use what looked to him like an extra-large needle, come in and say matter-of-factly, “Time for your shot, drop your pants,” then (he swears), “stick that thing in like she was pithing a frog.” He says it wasn’t terribly painful, just humiliating. But he also remembers that after Coll learned from him that he played the piano, she shared her experience of having heard George Gershwin play the first public performance of “Rhapsody in Blue,” in 1924 in NYC, with the Paul Whitman Orchestra. What a great story, Carl marveled.

Carl also recalls going to the infirmary more than once right after last class, feigning illness, to try to get out of sports. Collie never bought it, he says, she was always firm about not letting kids off the hook. “Go enjoy your sport,” he says she’d tell him. After a while Carl quit trying, and says he was grateful for her firmness.  Howdy Davis recalls, in a similar vein, that Coll’s almost universal advice for typically exaggerated athletic “injuries” was “Run it off!” In student satires of the day, we’d parody her advice. “Aunt Coll, I have a sore foot.” “Soak it!” “Aunt Coll, I have a splitting headache.” “Soak it!!”  Others recall that she’d dispense two aspirin and recommend a hot shower or soaking bath for virtually every ailment.

I recall that Coll had a practical streak, and didn’t exactly gush sympathy. My junior year, I was in the Infirmary with the flu. Another kid who had the flu got up in the middle of the night to throw up, and after the retching was over, I heard him moaning and sobbing in the bathroom. I went in to see what was wrong. The poor kid wore false teeth, and his bridge had come out and was in the toilet with his puke. He couldn’t find it and was at wit’s end. About then Coll arrived from her apartment upstairs. She said something like, “Oh for God’s sake, stop moaning, wash your face and go back to bed,” fished his teeth out of the john, cleaned up, and restored calm.

My sophomore year, I was slammed to the mat during a wrestling practice and hit my head, lost consciousness and swallowed my tongue. Don Sutherland quickly jumped in, pulled open my jaw and cleared my throat. I was out cold, missed all the excitement. I woke up in bed in the Infirmary, surrounded by Coll, Don, and Chip Dismukes, who’d taken me down and was still pale around the gills about it. Coll told me what had happened, said they were going to keep me overnight to check for concussion. I felt OK, told Chip not to worry and Don thank you very much. I definitely felt in good hands with Coll, and spent a restful night in her care.

uJon Horwitz has some special memories of Coll. He was the Head Infirmary Waiter his senior year. Prior to taking on that role, Jon had observed Coll’s “veneer of gruffness.” But once he got to know her, he says, he realized it was a facade, and she became a mentor and confidante for him. His senior year, when his girlfriend back home broke up with him, he remembers that Coll was “the only one who really talked with me about it.” Jon wasn’t that eager to talk about it, but she could tell that something was bothering him, and drew him out. He recalls her telling him, “Girls grow up faster than boys,” which was both a medical fact and a useful bit of wisdom for a young man. He recalls many conversations with Coll over the course of that year, about other kids or faculty, and how her insights helped “open the callow eyes of who I was at the time.”

Once a year, at Friday night School Meeting, we’d have “Talent Night,” and a regular feature was a student skit satirizing the faculty. Jon played Aunt Coll in the skit his senior year, as the photo above reminds us. And who knew her better? As Jon recalls now, “Coll loved being the school nurse, and she wasn’t called Aunt Collie for nothing. Most of us knew we would be taken care of if we went to her. She could see when we were faking it, and would prescribe a harmless aspirin for a non-existent ‘terrible headache’ or a hot shower for that ‘dislocated shoulder,’ and she knew when we were touching the mercury end of the thermometer to the radiator while her back was turned. If there was something seriously wrong, she was on the phone in a flash to ‘Dr. Cris.’ [Editor’s Note: ‘Dr Cris’ was Modestino Criscitiello, MD, a Pittsfield-based surgeon who had known Lamb Heyniger at Princeton and served as the school’s physician.] She could also tell when someone needed a break, just a day or two away from everyone else, to lie in bed and look at the beautiful mountains in the distance.”

Of course, Coll did more than nurse ailing students (and occasional faculty; see the anecdote in the memorial for Charles Brodhead, about Coll’s role in persuading him to end his traditional May Day runs.) Coll had a life. One thing Marie remembers is that Coll was a big-time baseball fan. She rooted for the Red Sox, and Marie recalls when she, Rose and Coll accompanied the students on one of those “trip day” outings to a Sox game. Marie says Coll and Rose hardly acted like the gray-haired little old ladies one might take them for. “They really knew their baseball and were pretty articulate and loud in their comments, while eating peanuts like mad. We had a great time!” During the World Series each fall, the TV always seemed to be on (and downstairs) in the Infirmary, and students could drop by for an Ace bandage or a bit of “hot stuff” and linger for several innings. Coll understood.

kThis picture (from the Peg Board in December 1959) is one of very few showing Coll out of her standard starched whites, dressed up as a gypsy, at the school’s Halloween party. She chats with Richard Bethards (in blackface, as Othello, perhaps), Lamb Heyniger (as “The Boss”) and Ron Emery, sporting a derby, who the article says “organized the party.”

Marie recalls that “Dr. Cris was always on Coll’s case about the pack of cigarettes she smoked every day,” but amazingly, Coll never had any lung problems. She did, however, need to go into Albany to see a podiatrist regularly, and Marie would often accompany her. They’d spend the time gossiping, complaining, telling jokes and sharing life stories. After Coll’s appointment was done, they’d head for the best Jewish deli in Troy for a high-cholesterol lunch, then visit the two major department stores in Albany, before cruising on back to Darrow in time for dinner.

When Rose developed cancer (shortly after we graduated), Coll nursed her in their apartment in the Infirmary, until Rose died there. Marie recalls what a sad time that was for all at Darrow. The Sutherlands left Darrow soon after that, and they lost touch with Coll. Marie says she often has thought she should write a book about Coll, or at least a “most unforgettable character” piece for the Reader’s Digest, because she really was that. And also a very good friend.

According to the Peg Board, Coll left Darrow in 1964. She was the nurse at the Oldfields School in Maryland, from which she retired in 1970. After that, none of us kept in touch with Coll. But in 1992, the Peg Board carried an obituary (which stated her name as Ruth Anne, by the way). Coll had passed away the previous June, at the age of 89, at The Pines Nursing Home in Great Barrington. Marie recalls that Coll suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for a number of years, and the van Vorsts, who lived in Pittsfield, may have been the only Darrow folks to have seen her during this final phase of her life. The memorial writer in the Peg Board recalled that “Aunt Coll…had an uncanny knack of combining sternness and good humor in her running of the Infirmary. She sportingly matched work with wit, concern with comedy and duty with delight.”

All of us who knew her at Darrow appreciated those qualities, and were grateful for the care she cave us. Thank you, Aunt Coll, and rest in the warmth of our memories.




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