Elsbeth Melville Percy, 1904-1997
The melodious, modulated and mannerly voice of Elsbeth Melville Percy commanded respect in Old South Church in her service as Moderator, Trustee, Chair of the Old South Fund and Chair of the Trustees. That voice was listened to and heard at Old South from 1945 to 1950, and again from 1972 until her death on June 26, 1997 at the age of 93.
Her voice, her ability to plan, her rosy complexion and silver hair, her solid stature, persistent determination, and the wisdom of her years gave her a commanding presence as "Elsbeth Percy" at Old South, and also as "Dean Melville" at Boston University, where she ruled as Dean of Women from 1945 to 1970 and as dedicated alumna from 1970 to the end.
Her presence was evident even in small ways, as her grandson Paul Whitworth pointed out at her September 12 memorial service. "She had a way of backing up and dropping, literally dropping, into a chair," he said, as the audience of 200 smiled with immediate recognition.
It was the body language of a grande dame who was in charge of things, even the memorial service that occurred 11 weeks after her death. The service featured seven of the women leaders she had mentored and included the words of four men in three bodies. This latter mystical feat was accomplished because Dr. John Silber, the president emeritus of Boston University whom she so admired, was unable to be there, and his tribute to Dean Melville was read by the baritone voice of Dr. Jon Westling, president of Boston University.
Elsbeth Melville grew up in Hyde Park, Massachusetts and received her AB in classics from Boston University in 1925 and her MA in student personnel administration from New York University in 1939. She taught Latin at a girls' school for three years and then, beginning in 1928, taught at Westbrook College in Portland, Maine.
She became Dean of the College at Westbrook in 1936 and moved in 1945 to Boston University as Dean of Women. At that time, she was in charge of 347 women students; when she retired in 1970 as Associate Dean of Students and Dean of Women, there were 43,000 students, 39 dining halls and a dean's staff of 150. At BU, she initiated student government; organized faculty women and faculty wives into the Women's Council to raise funds; and was, first and foremost, an advocate for students.
Justice Paul Liacos, a BU law school graduate in 1947, wrote of her in 1985: "Elsbeth Melville is Boston University in a sense . . . There was always Elsbeth. She never wavered in her compassion and help to the students."
She became a member of Old South Church in 1945 and stayed until 1950, when she left to attend services at Boston University. She married Atlee Percy, the Dean of the University, in 1948 and they had a devoted marriage until his death in 1971.
She returned to Old South in 1972 and was immediately elected to the Council. She served as Chair of the Stewardship Committee in 1973; chair in 1974 of a planning committee resulting in the first workshop; Moderator in 1976-79; founder in 1978 of the Advice and Support Committee, which she served through 1991; trustee for 10 years from 1982 through 1991 and Chair of the Board of Trustees for four years beginning in 1988; first chair of the Old South Fund & Extended Ministry, 1984 through 1986; formulator, 1987, of the FCSLM (Folding, Collating, Stuffing, Labelling, Mailing society); and Vice Moderator for five years (1988-90, 1994-95).
Jim Crawford, in a June 29 tribute after her death, told the congregation, "In her mid-seventies, from 1976 to (February) 1980, with vigor, imagination, and a great love for this congregation and its mission, she served as our Moderator." He described her many roles at Old South and then paid tribute to her role at Boston University. "Her unstinting devotion to BU, her singular efforts as teacher and administrator to enhance the social and professional status, the recognition, the leadership opportunities, the pay and power of women in university and other institutional settings has few peers in this city or anywhere--as hundreds of women she personally mentored and fought for over the years will testify . . . We can be grateful and encouraged by the memory of her enthusiasm, her humor, her wisdom and her radiant hope."
Elsbeth told BU's Bostonia magazine in 1985, "My motto remains, `Disco ut Servem' --I learn to serve. I hope I'll be remembered with the epithet, `She made a difference.’" . . . She certainly did. +
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Revised -- 10/22/97