At a certain point in your life mentors start to die off. I define mentors loosely here: those who took you in hand, told you to grow up and take responsibility, did you small and large favours, challenged you to do better, and many more things. When I worked in libraries I had the good fortune to get some of these things from Warren Horton, Lesley Payne, and Lynn Pollack, all now gone. All three had their shortcomings and strengths and I benefited greatly from knowing them. In becoming a historian I had a great set of teachers and mentors. And then there was Val Street the principal of Women’s College at the University of Sydney from 1981-1989 who gave me a job as a Resident History Tutor and Librarian (I was one of a team of Resident Advisors/Tutors) there from 1986-1987.
Val died last month. The obit in the Sydney Morning Herald described her as Fearless and Fun. Val was a bit of a rough diamond. The girls, and yes the women of the College called themselves girls, referred to her as the short round mound of sound. As Rosemary Annable’s obit states Val was no academic. I remember some of us arriving at the opinion that Val had no depth of knowledge or complexity of thought. Some of the girls found her a tad uncouth. She was certainly an outsider among the many big end of town types at Women’s. Some of this may seem a harsh judgment and arrogant. That Val was where she was simply amazed many folks and it was a tribute to her character that she arrived at the position and made things work. Val was wonderfully generous hosting a Friday evening drinks session on the Principal’s balcony just before dinner. Once when absent over the long weekend she gave some of us the run of her apartment in the College. She worked hard to improve the scholarships the College could offer and a good number of residents would otherwise not have found a place at College.
Male residents at Women’s College and the system of Resident Advisors was upsetting to many traditionalist at the College. The first Val justified on the grounds of trying to have some male presence in the College to thwart the bad behaviour of some boys who habitually wandered in from St Andrew’s and St Paul’s Colleges. Frankly in retrospect I doubt that it worked. The system of Resident Advisors Val borrowed from US Colleges. Traditionally the House Committee comprised of students had been the key body in shaping College life so the Advisors were seen as something of an imposition. Collegiality though reigned with only Val taking the heat for her innovations. I think Val regarded her innovations as necessary to shaping College life and her charges’ futures. She certainly tried to have the girls take responsibility for their own actions, but wanted safeguards in place for when they did not.
I have mixed feelings about Val and my time at Women’s College, but I certainly benefited from living and working there and I have Val to thank.