A Visit With Ellen

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

Ellen Clark Revelle, a great-niece of Ellen Browning Scripps, was one of 52 women in Scripps’ first entering class. She joined the board in 1938 as an alumna trustee and has served continuously since 1947 as a trustee and now an emerita trustee. Her many contributions to the College through the years have been thoughtful and far-reaching. Among them is the James E. Scripps Scholarship fund she and her late husband, Roger, established in 1985 to provide merit scholarships each year to undergraduates. This fund, which allows Scripps to attract and enroll some of the most academically superior students in the nation, has literally changed the face of Scripps. Twenty years after it was started, the fund enabled the College, in 2005, to award half-tuition scholarships to 139 outstanding Scripps students.

At 95, Ellen has only recently given up her lifelong habit of a daily swim (in the ocean in summer). Her ready wit and sharp intellect have not waned. I joined her for lunch in January at her home in La Jolla to reminisce about Scripps and find out how she views the College today from her singular vantage point.

MSB: Scripps now has almost 900 students. Does the College’s size surprise or concern you?

ECR: I assumed it would stay around 200, with 50 or so in each class. Certainly, we all assumed it would never be more than 250. As long as the quality stays the same, it doesn’t worry me.

MSB: The College has evolved in many other ways. Your thoughts?

ECR: Some of my classmates were distressed when the Core changed. But one of the early trustees, Mary Routt (she was very elderly—probably about my age now), believed change was good. I thought, “If she thinks change is good, it must be all right.” So, I wasn’t shocked when change happened. I think what Nancy Bekavac is doing is wonderful.

And I’m so proud of Scripps for remaining a single-sex college.

MSB: Aside from the family connection, why did you choose Scripps?

ECR: Classes on campus were just women. I was extremely shy. I wouldn’t even read for honors because I would have had to take an oral exam. This didn’t go away at Scripps—I was always shy.

I almost didn’t go to Scripps its first year. I was just 17. Mother suggested we might travel to Europe instead and then I would enroll the next year. Two weeks before school started, Mother and I were taking a trip by train to Michigan. I had time to think about what I wanted to do. I realized that five friends from high school would be in that first class; they’d be sophomores when I was just starting out. I said,”Mother, would you mind terribly if I went to Scripps this year?” I had already been accepted, but with delayed entry. So, we wired the College at the next stop.

Not until after Mother died did I find a letter from Aunt Ellen to her, saying she was very glad that I went the first year—that it would be a very interesting experience to be in that first class. And that perhaps after a year away my interest in education might not be as great.

The date on the letter was after I had made the decision on my own to go to Scripps. I made the decision on the train.

If I had waited a year, I probably wouldn’t have married Roger because when I met him he was already a junior at Pomona and I was only a freshman.

MSB: You certainly have gotten over your shyness.

ECR: My big breakthrough in speaking in public was when Mark Curtis [then-president] persuaded me to give a talk at convocation about Aunt Ellen. I was one of the first persons who met Curtis before he became president; we had a special relationship. I thought, “I can’t let him down.”

So I practiced and practiced giving the talk into a tape recorder. I could be in plays, so that’s what I imagined I was doing; it was almost as if I were someone else. When I stood up to give it, I realized right away they [students, faculty, staff] were a wonderful audience. Roger had said, ” If they don’t laugh, don’t wait, just go on.”They laughed at the right places,and I kept going, but my left leg started going like this [Ellen shakes her hand back and forth]. I said to myself,”Silly leg, I’m not afraid, why are you?”

After that, you couldn’t keep me quiet.

MSB: When Revelle House [the former President’s House that is now home to Alumnae Relations] was dedicated in 2000, you said that you realized that your relationship to Ellen Browning Scripps, one that you cherished, came with some problems. Would you talk about that?

ECR: I had been teased about being Ellen Browning Scripps’s great-niece. President Jaqua brought it up too often. I even thought of transferring to UCLA to get away from that. Dr. Stevenson, my adviser, talked me out of transferring. “That’s ridiculous,” he said.”You’re not getting by on your aunt.” I was so grateful to him.

MSB: Do you visit Revelle House often?

ECR: I stay there with my daughter [trustee Carolyn Revelle] when we come up for Board meetings. I stay in the downstairs room now, which is very handy. I wish I had more chances to see the campus.

MSB: What are some of your more memorable moments at Scripps?

ECR: Construction of new buildings was constantly going on at the campus. The grounds were gradually being landscaped.

We had candles at supper, every night. And we always changed for dinner.

One of the things we had then, that students don’t have today, is that on rainy days, professors would come to us. Rather than 52 students going across campus in the mud, the professor would come to the residence hall.

When we were students, we led tours of campus. We were always asked,”How can you possibly study in such beautiful surroundings?” Well, you just do.

MSB: Will you be at your 75th reunion this spring?

ECR: Yes, I certainly hope so.

I wish that reunion classes were four years apart, so that you could be with more people who were at college the same time you were. I always knew others outside of my own class. We could start a new tradition. Just because you’ve always done something one way, doesn’t mean you can’t do it another way.

MSB: What holds your interest now?

ECR: My extended family—four children, 12 grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren. They come to me now that I am “grounded.” I belong to the Over 80 Gracious Aging Group. We meet the first Monday of the month, at my home. There are about eight women; one member is 100. We talk about whatever we want: travels, retirement homes, health problems, what we’re reading, and, of course, show pictures of our great-grandchildren.

[Ellen also enjoys a playreading group, a memoir-writing class, Tai Chi lessons, a University of California-San Diego women’s group, and five cultural series: opera, symphony, chamber music, and two theater series.]

MSB: Do you ever get used to this view? [The dining and living room windows in Ellen’s beachfront home offer an almost 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean, complete with surfers.]

ECR: Never. I love to see the sunsets from the deck, with the reflection of the sun on the clouds, from east to west. I don’t see much of the sunrises; they’re at such an early hour.