Rose Olver Becomes First Woman to Have Portrait in Johnson Chapel

Rose Olver poses next to her painted portrait

January 23, 2013

by Emily Gold Boutilier

Rose Olver came to Amherst in 1962 as the first woman to hold a tenure-track position on the faculty. More than 50 years later, she is the first woman to have her portrait hang in Johnson Chapel. Some 130 colleagues, friends and admirers attended the portrait’s unveiling at 4 p.m. on Jan. 22. Olver—the L. Stanton Williams ’41 Professor of Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies, Emerita—sat in the front row, next to the artist, Sarah Belchetz-Swenson.

The portrait hangs just to the left of the stage (when facing the stage). In opening the ceremony, President Biddy Martin explained why she chose such a prominent location: Olver’s portrait joins those of college presidents and alumni (including President Calvin Coolidge, Class of 1895). “But there is no portrait,” Martin said, “that tells the story of what is foundational to the college”—the faculty.

Until now. In the portrait, Olver is wearing a red academic gown and holding the faculty mace, a symbol of her longtime role as faculty marshal. “She represents the significance of faculty to the success of an academic institution,” Martin said.

Olver was the first woman to chair the psychology department at Amherst, and she served on the committees that guided the transition to coeducation. She also chaired the committee that created the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.

crowd in Johnson Chapel

Front row, left to right: Board chair Cullen Murphy ’74, Biddy Martin, Rose Olver, artist Sarah Belchetz-Swenson, and Gregory S. Call.

Other speakers at the unveiling included Cullen Murphy ’74, chairman of the college’s board of trustees, and Dean of the Faculty Gregory Call. “At Amherst, we are all linked to you in so many ways,” Call told Olver. Murphy remembered watching Olver, in her role as marshal, placing ceremonial hoods over the heads of honorary degree recipients—even the very tall ones—with “a flick of elegant athleticism.” He said, “She never broke a smile, and yet you could tell there was an undercurrent of amusement.”

Biddy Martin speaks in Johnson Chapel with Rose Olver portrait on the wall

The Rose Olver portrait hangs next to the stage in Johnson Chapel. 

Professor and Associate Dean of the Faculty Rick Griffiths gave his tribute in verse, while wearing a laurel wreath. (Among many other highlights, he rhymed “not surprising” with “gender theorizing.”) He thanked Olver for “so gently” leading the college’s transformation.  

Olver herself also spoke, describing Amherst in the early 1960s. “Back then, the idea of a portrait of a woman in this hall was unimaginable,” she said. As she recalled, her arrival put the Amherst College Faculty Club in a bind, as it had no official rule barring female professors. The club, she said, sent a senior colleague to “issue an invitation but request I decline.” Looking out at the crowd in the chapel, Olver said, “Well, I didn’t join that year, but I did join the following year.”

Rose Olver speaks at the podium

The crowd cheered for the portrait and gave a standing ovation to Olver. At the end of the ceremony, Marie Fowler, secretary and office manager to the dean of the faculty, presented the guest of honor with a bouquet of pink roses.

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Photos by Rob Mattson