Scripps’ Own First Lady

Seventy-six years ago, on June 30, 1926, a 17-year-old girl applied to a college few people had ever heard of, and for good reason. It was Scripps College—the future Scripps College. The young girl lived on the corner of Harvard Avenue and 11th Street, in Claremont. Her mother, Hortense Pattee Watkins, worked as the manager of the student dining room at Pomona College and would become President Blaisdell’s social secretary. She told her daughter about a college for women soon to be built nearby.

The young girl knew the site of the college well—it was less than a mile from her home. Even though newspapers wrote romantically that at Scripps College “there would be perfumes into the rooms from the flowers,” in 1926 this required a powerful imagination. Where a college would one day stand, there was only a parcel of open, dusty land—no buildings, no classrooms, and scant vegetation. Certainly no hint or smell of flowers.

Imagine yourself at age 17. Would you have been brave enough to put yourself into such a situation? Not knowing who your teachers, let alone your classmates, would be, and exactly where and how you would live—would you have been as courageous, as pioneering?

One young woman certainly was. Her name was Ada Watkins—now Ada Watkins Hatch. She later reported that she was intrigued by the idea of being the first to apply in the first class and not bothered a bit that it wasn’t an established institution. “It sounded like something different,” she said. Now, that’s an understatement!

We are honored that Ada is with us here today with her family to be part of this special convocation celebrating the College’s 75th anniversary. Before I ask her to come forward for a special award, I want to share some of Ada’s history during the first years of the College.

The following stories are taken from a conversation in 1990 between Ada and Enid Hart Douglass, as part of the Scripps Oral History Project.

Let’s revisit Ada’s first interview for admission to Scripps, in 1927. She was called to Pomona (there was nowhere else to meet!) to be questioned by President Jaqua, Dr. Hartley Burr Alexander, Miss Mary B. Eyre, Dr. Henry Eames, and others.

Ada admitted: “I was scared to death. Later, as I got to know them and love them, I found out that they were at a complete loss as to what to ask me. They had interviewed only Ph.D. candidates. Here was this little thing from Claremont High School.”

Mary B. Eyre broke the ice. She asked Ada if she had “a collection.” Ada said: “Well, I remembered that all normal children had collections sometime during their adolescence. So I said, ‘Yes, I collect butterflies,’ sending up a silent prayer to heaven that none of them would ever see the one solitary swallowtail with its tail a tad bit torn that I had pinned to my magazine board above my desk.”

Ada recalls that Dr. Alexander said next, “If you had 24 hours to do anything you wanted to do, what would it be?”

I said, ‘I would get out of here.’ I think that’s what got me in.”

She vividly recalls the first day she entered Toll, one in a class of 50 women. “There was red clay all around. It had rained and there were no carpets. I remember the red clay in the hallways.” She had been asked to greet the entering students at the door, and obviously did it well, as shortly thereafter, she became chairman of the hospitality committee.

Ada remembers meeting Miss Scripps, on April 23, 1928, when her entire class was bussed to see to Miss Scripps at her home in La Jolla. As many of you know, Miss Scripps was never able to visit the College.

“It was a memorable day,” said Ada. “We all got in line to meet her. She was a very frail, delicate little woman who stood up the entire time. And she remembered every girl’s name. She had been given pictures of us. When I got to her, she said, ‘Oh, Ada Watkins. You were the first one.’ I will never get over that. What a joy it was. What a privilege!”

And was our Miss Watkins intimidated by the founding president of Scripps College, Dr. Jaqua? “Well, no,” she admitted. “Our family used to get milk from the Jaqua’s cow. Mrs. Jaqua would deliver it to our house.”

On the day of Dr. Jaqua’s inauguration, in 1928, he happened to walk past her room. Ada noticed that he had a tear in his robe. She said, “For heaven’s sake, you can’t go like that.” He stopped, and she quickly sewed up his hem.

Ada’s memory of early academic life at Scripps is best summed up by this story: During the end of her senior year, she faced Dr. Alexander’s final exam. He reassured his students: “You may bring any book you want.”

Ada said, “You should see what we took. The Bible. Classic Myths. History of the Restoration. Four years of notes. Everything we could think of —and carry. We got there and sat down. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I would like to have every one of you write your first experience of right or wrong.'”

Ada continued, “You can imagine what value the books were. Wasn’t that good? We had to think!”

Beyond academics, Ada had a lively social life at Scripps. “Once,” said Ada, “I was asked out with another girl by two Pomona boys. I remember this because I had a black and while skunk coat that I wore on the date.”

The boys parked on Indian Hill, and brought out a bottle of gin. “This was a no-no for me,” said Ada. “The boys started in and wanted us to try it. I was just horrified. I was able to get the bottle of gin and hide it in my skunk coat. The boys looked around for it and couldn’t find it. By that time, they had decided we were not the dates they might be interested in. They couldn’t get us home fast enough.”

When they arrived back at Toll, there was Dr. Jaqua to greet them. “Well, Ada, how are you?” he inquired. “I’m fine,” I said and fled to my room up the stairs and emptied the gin down the drain. I would have been kicked out if I had been caught with that bottle.”

After Scripps, to no one’s surprise, Ada continued to be a pioneer. She went on to Columbia University for her master’s in nursery school education, a new field. She returned to Claremont for her 5th reunion and reconnected with Bill Hatch, a Caltech engineer. They married and were homesteaders in rustic Twentynine Palms, raising three daughters.

Ada has remained close to Scripps, regularly attends reunions, and organized, with Carlotta Welles, class of 1939, annual alumnae campouts in Joshua Tree National Monument. The friendships with her original Scripps classmates have been lifelong, and well nurtured by Ada. She was appointed to the Board of Trustees for a five-year term in 1961, and, in her community, she helped found Cooper Mountain College in the High Desert.

Today we present Scripps’ first Honorary Distinguished Alumna Award to Ada Watkins Hatch, alumna extraordinaire. I welcome also her daughters, Martha Hatch Reich ’71, Ada T. Hatch, and Elizabeth Hatch Meyer; and her granddaughter, Angela L. Meyer ’91. Three generations of wonderful women—with a Scripps alumna in each!

I want to read one more quote, this time from the 1931 yearbook, La Semeuse. These words are found under Ada’s graduation picture: “An energetic worker at all times, her generosity and graciousness have won her the love and esteem of her classmates.”

I couldn’t say it any better today. Ada, you are Scripps’ treasure. You are Scripps’ original pioneer. You have our love and our esteem, now and always.