November 05, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story


To the Manner Born 

Three venerable Richmond women illustrate what can happen when prestige and social consciousness collide.

Mary Tyler Cheek McClenahan

When Mary Tyler Freeman was 4 years old, her father, Douglas Southall Freeman, recognized the spongelike quality of her young mind and coached his daughter to recite who certain government leaders were. It was 1921, and Freeman was, in addition to pursuing his life’s work as a historian and newspaper editor, training Eagle Scouts to earn their civics badges. On the morning of the exam, Freeman had Mary Tyler hide beneath the sofa. When four Scouts arrived, he asked them one by one to name the secretary of state and secretary of war. None of them could answer. So he called his daughter out from hiding. It’s easy to guess what happened next.

“I was old enough at 4 to realize what a pain I was to those boys,” she says, with laughter. “And what a cruel thing father was doing.”

Mary Tyler Freeman Cheek McClenahan recalled the incident nearly a year ago in an interview with her close friend and colleague, Carter Donnan McDowell. It was the first in a series of conversations the two would have, discussing a range of topics, from what it means to be cultivated and progressive, to social mores of Richmond life in the ’20s and ’30s, to women’s expanding roles in the community. Gingerly laced into a manuscript McClenahan had written decades ago, the discussions became part of her first book, “Southern Civility: Recollections of My Early Life.”

Reading the book and staring at the Dementi photograph on the cover of McClenahan at 16 is to realize you’re looking at a young woman in search of herself, her place in the world and her ability to affect the lives of others. In addition to providing a lens in which to view high society life in Richmond at a pivotal time between two world wars, the book reveals how early experiences and exposures do more than shape a life: They determine it.

Today, with more of her life behind her than in front of her, McClenahan talks about what it means to have a social conscience and respond to it, what it means to have privilege and use it judiciously, and what it means to possess convictions that endure.

A movie could, and perhaps should be made of McClenahan’s life. It is more illustrious than fiction, and far more provocative. Her social connections are nearly too many and famous to imagine. She could have remained a socialite, a woman who lunched. Instead, she willfully sank her heart and hands into the city.

Proof of this is everywhere. In her years spent as a civic leader, she’s left her mark on Richmond in her efforts to improve race relations, provide affordable housing and social services, preserve history and the arts, stimulate urban renewal and advance higher education. She was the first woman to serve on the board of Richmond Renaissance. She founded the Richmond Urban Forum and, along with McDowell, the Better Housing Coalition, which has grown from a staff of two to more than 40.

The eldest daughter of an accomplished pianist mother and Pulitizer-Prize winning father, McClenahan was graduated from St. Catherine’s School and Vassar College. In 1937, at 22, she married Leslie Cheek Jr., an architect who would become director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. They had four children and were married until he died in 1992. A year later, she married Dr. John McClenahan, a radiologist from Philadelphia. They have been married happily for 10 years. And, she says, they begin each day by reading to one another.

On a recent sunny morning at her home, she greets a visitor, a stranger, as an old friend — with compliments and smiles. She apologizes for not being on-hand immediately, saying she knew somewhere she had some rouge from Elizabeth Arden she should employ. She doesn’t appear to need it. Dressed stylishly in a brilliant cerulean sweater and black crepe skirt, she takes a seat in the loggia at a glass table topped with purple poppies and pansies. Dozens of thick books are stacked neatly on a table behind her. The glass-enclosed room overlooks gardens glinting in orange and gold. It is quiet and serene. Occasionally and almost imperceptibly a member of her staff emerges then disappears.

The difficult task in interviewing McClenahan is keeping the focus on her. Invariably, when asked about her accomplishments, she credits the company she keeps: family, for instance, or else, as is the case today, McDowell and McClenahan’s secretary of 35 years, Delores Owens. McDowell and Owens are both present. “I’m the flimsy person in the middle,” McClenahan insists. “They are my wings.”

But to spend time with her is to observe that her wings, her insight, are extensions of an incomparably independent and deliberate mind.

She begins by talking about her book and how exciting it is to see it complete, adding, “I still can’t believe anybody would be interested in what I have to say.” Quickly she moves on to discuss the problem of politics and why Richmond, indeed, Virginia, has the innate responsibility to govern itself better.

“My father’s belief was that opportunity should be extended to everyone and dignity in government should provide it,” she says. “Virginia has this inheritance like an underground river. We have the finest piece of real estate in the world. We should have the highest standards of government. And it’s my belief that good government needs good people developing the laws.”

She rebukes a recent newspaper headline she found disturbing and thought sent a dangerous message to criminals: that Richmond is an easy place to illegally purchase guns. She blames herself for not immediately writing a letter to the editor to criticize the wording.

McClenahan’s coming-of-age in the ’30s coincided with a time when Richmond was slow to change in a rapidly evolving world, when custom was predicated on politeness. At times, it eclipsed progress, she says. But people often confuse what it means to possess good manners with something superficial, she points out. By her definition, good manners are, simply, good citizenship — “concern for other people, being aware of their feelings,” she explains. She illustrates this by telling the story of T.K. Sommanath, director of Better Housing Coalition, and how his family’s journey from India to Richmond and his community work should set an example for everyone.

When asked how she gets interested in an issue to the point of action, she unfolds a piece of paper she brought home from a forum held days before at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. She’s been thinking about her life, she says, in relationship to her calling as a person of faith. “What is the joy in baptismal living? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” she asks, reading from the paper. “I will, with God’s help,” she responds. She pauses for a moment, looks up above her reading glasses and exclaims: “There you go!”

McClenahan recognizes that not all of her efforts have produced the kind of results she expected. Like Richmond Renaissance’s push to build 6th Street Marketplace as symbolic of racial unity. Or her exhaustive attempts to get City Council and the state legislature actively engaged in the Richmond Urban Forum, a 15-yearlong project she started to get blacks and whites to socialize. For a while it flourished, but in the end, “nobody showed up,” she says, of the dinners she planned for the group or the acclaimed speakers she routinely scheduled. In a tangible sense, the forum failed. It dissolved because of lack of participation. But who knows how it may have kindled a subtler impact, McDowell and Owens point out. McClenahan smiles and shrugs.

“I thinks it’s very important to recognize it’s a great mistake to keep something going that doesn’t grow wings,” she says.

At 87, in the twilight of her life, McClenahan’s wings seem to expand and soar above a confinement she emerged from years ago. She views herself and her place in the world peacefully.

“In my old age I think I’m drawn more to poetry than prose,” the writer confides. She recites a verse from Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” her voice gliding across the familiar cadence of syllables she’s committed to heart: “The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends. ’Tis not too late to seek a newer world. ...” — Brandon Walters

Cleiland Donnan

Cleiland Donnan doesn’t sit inside her apartment at Westminster-Canterbury waiting for visitors to come; she’s out on the sidewalk in a bright purple suit preparing to catch them by surprise. Hers is an immediate welcome, and she laughs while surging down the hall toward her new retirement quarters.

Donnan’s apartment door is flung wide open, her ginger cookies laid out on porcelain at a table in the corner. Chairs in soft tweedy fabrics (“I wouldn’t have brought them here if they weren’t comfortable,” she says) circle the room like old friends. There’s a sense, right at the threshold, that this is a place of solace for Donnan, 82, and her visitors. But something bolder stirs here, too — a desire to right wrongs, to take risks that would have some Richmonders holding tight to their prejudices.

She’s not the likeliest crusader against racism and injustice. A petite, well-coiffed woman, almost deaf from a bout with scarlet fever, she is best known in Richmond for leading a teenage cotillion dance program for 44 years. But she has spent an equal amount of time grappling with the chasm that often separates black from white in this city. This cause was first motivated by a radical change in her family’s circumstances.

Donnan’s childhood careened from country-club and private-school privilege into something far simpler during the Depression. “Father said we would get on the street cars and go to public schools,” she recalls, “and that’s what saved us. That’s when I learned to get along with all kinds of people.” That was the beginning of her dual calling.

After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School, Donnan was encouraged to follow her mother’s path and teach teenagers how to dance and behave in polite society. In all, she has instructed at least 10,000 children from a dozen different schools, assisted by older teenagers. “I learned a lot through them,” she says, “and I’ve always had hope for them. I’ve had such confidence in their good qualities, and they seem to give it back to me.”

Though the timeless traditions — the cha-cha, the rumba, the white gloves and blue blazers — continued, Miss Donnan watched the community lose its complacence. Integration and busing threw the city’s schools into turmoil and created wariness among neighbors. She seized on the idea of getting people, black and white, to confront their fears in a social setting.

“She took great risks at a time when it really was a risk to bring people together,” says Cricket White, program director of the nonprofit organization Hope in the Cities. “During the early years of busing, she was willing to come forward to meet with people, ask them to come to her home and talk about it. She lives in a certain way and uses her home in a way to bring people together.”

Donnan broke ground by inviting racially mixed groups to picnics, tea parties and other gatherings on her screened porch, in her back yard and living room. She broke ice by finding common areas of concern. “When you’re interested in people,” she says, “you can always find something to talk about.” Soon she found herself speaking before various groups and immersed in discussions of race and change. She straddled circles that rarely intersected, bringing together people of many backgrounds to share the same room, the same conversations.

In the 1990s, she helped begin Hope in the Cities, serving on its board and participating in all of its community-building activities. One of its events was particularly potent for Miss Donnan. “I was asked to speak in the middle of the Manchester docks,” she recalls — “a woman like me, a descendant of the Randolphs who owned all these plantations. It’s kind of shocking to realize what your ancestors have been. More slaves were brought through there than anywhere in the whole country. I can’t change that history, but I can be responsible for the healing between races in Richmond, Virginia. In a way that’s what I took on. I had a longing for the healing to take place because I knew Richmond could be an example for the rest of the nation.”

When she stood on those docks at Manchester, calling out for harmony, Miss Donnan reconciled her desires and her capabilities: She would encourage the dialogues that are hardest to have. And, as in her teaching years, she would watch small steps slowly build upon each other. — Deveron Timberlake

Marjorie Fay Underhill

Marjorie Fay Underhill opens the door to her cozy, sunlit apartment at Westminster-Canterbury wearing a handsome burgundy wool suit, a serpentine gold necklace and brooch, black heels and, on her index finger, a tiny hand-knit puppet of a giraffe. She smiles cheerily, wiggling the finger puppet in hello.

Underhill loves giraffes. (She would don her favorite giraffe pin if it matched her necklace, she says.) In one corner of her bedroom, a large stuffed giraffe-marionette dangles from the ceiling. A yet-to-be-framed painting of a giraffe rests on buff carpet against an exquisite dentist’s cabinet that once belonged to her father. Above the piece is her beloved Christmas wreath. It hangs year-round and is the focal point of the room. And nesting amid hundreds of glass and porcelain trimmings she’s collected from exotic places like Czechoslovakia, Russia and France, there are, of course, giraffes.

If her affection for the long-necked mammals borders on giddy, it’s understandable. Her first book — a children’s Christmas book titled “Jeremiah” — has just been published. It’s the story of a giraffe that struggles to fit in with the other young giraffes until he witnesses a miracle and faith transforms him. It is a parable Underhill has developed since she was a child and read Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories.”

At 80, Underhill is assuming a new role, another in a long series of avocations that have kept her active and engaged, and looking decidedly younger than her years. She appears a natural at promoting the book. Since her book debuted in early October, she’s been the subject of press releases, photo shoots and newspaper articles. She’s done readings and book signings too.

“People ask, ‘Isn’t it exciting?’” she remarks, her hair as smooth and white as the chenille that covers her bed. Laid out on the bed are items for today’s consideration. On one side, a slew of tiny finger puppets are lined up or paired, not all of them giraffes. Underhill has just purchased the novelties from a boutique at Short Pump Town Center. And she’ll soon decide who she’ll give them to — children, mostly. The lion and lamb duo she’ll keep for herself, she says, because she was born in March.

“Jeremiah” became a viable project for Underhill after she took a class for seniors at Virginia Commonwealth University on how to publish and promote children’s books, and after an anonymous gift made it possible. The book is a collaboration of Underhill and North Carolina illustrator Caroline S. Garrett. Proceeds will benefit the Child Development Center at the North Side retirement community Westminster-Canterbury.

As soon as she had a hard copy of “Jeremiah” in her hands, Underhill took it to her instructor, who teaches at Binford Elementary School. He was delighted and told her she was the first student to use the course to actually get a book published, she recalls.

But for those who know Underhill, it came as no surprise. Underhill is accustomed to firsts, to turning visions into realities. Especially when it comes to children. For half a century, Underhill taught children in Richmond disciplines that ranged — in scope and space — from the classroom to the ballet studio to the piano bench.

Underhill grew up in Ginter Park and in 1938 moved to the West End, to a neighborhood being developed called Windsor Farms. Her family’s house was among the first built there. At the time, she recalls: “Mother and daddy thought it was wise to move, and I just thought I’d die if I had to live in the country.”

But she immediately felt at home. Because she was the youngest among her peers — she was 16 — and her mother thought she was too young to go to college, she spent a second senior year at Thomas Jefferson High School. She studied French extensively and hoped to travel there and spend her junior year in college studying abroad. But the war prevented it. She wouldn’t go to France until 1991.

Underhill attended Hollins College and majored in science. Her love of the arts and letters, her experience as a writer at T.J.’s newspaper with famed columnist Guy Friddell and her time as a youth correspondent with the daily newspaper led her to edit the newspaper at Hollins.

“I’ve had so many careers that have interlocked,” she says, and at a time when it wasn’t easy or necessarily desired, even, for a woman to be independent and progressive. “People have often remarked, ‘You were a career woman in Richmond, Virginia, in the 20th century! What was it like, how’d you do it?’” She credits her upbringing and education, but more specifically, being motivated by passion and discipline. Her loves are dance, writing, science and music. And she’s incorporated each into a career she’s mastered until she decides it’s time to move on. “The Bible says there is a time and a season for everything,” she says, peering over her black-rimmed glasses with a smile.

After Hollins, she returned to Richmond and worked at the Medical College of Virginia and then as a feature writer for the Richmond News Leader. But she longed to be around children, to become a teacher. So when she was offered a position teaching at Collegiate School, she accepted. Soon that role would take her out of the classroom and into the dance studio.

Underhill began ballet at age 3. (She began piano lessons at 9.) Accomplished at both, she never thought of them as a career. “My feeling is, I’m not a performer,” she says. “Music is my first love, but I think I express it best through choreography.” Those words manifested themselves in what would become a prodigious undertaking. Naturally, having spent 13 summers in New York studying ballet, she was aware of how few opportunities in classical dance existed at the time for children in Richmond. “I was sort of pushed into it,” she says, of how she began instructing girls from schools like Miss Talcott’s, St. Catherine’s, Marymount and others. Before she knew it, she had a studio on Grove Avenue filled with students. With a colleague she founded Ballet Impromptu, a community dance company that aimed to train, keep and provide its dancers the opportunity to perform high-caliber productions locally. It eventually would become the Richmond Ballet.

Through the years she choreographed numerous ballets, many of them original. One of her fondest memories was of 1973 when a group of 600 dancers from across the country came to the John Marshall Hotel for a dance program she organized. “They all came to my studio,” she recalls with delight. But when the company began experiencing growing pains and its direction began to shift into what Underhill felt digressed from her strictly community-based vision for it, she got out. Seamlessly, she changed careers and spent the next few decades as one of Richmond’s most notable piano teachers.

She has turned much of her collection of dance memorabilia over to the Virginia Historical Society and the Valentine Richmond History Center. They requested it. But the most precious remembrances she keeps close. Young girls who once sought her attention at the barre would likely not be surprised to learn they hold it still, in the pages of her scrapbooks. She opens one and turns each page, pointing to wedding announcements, career achievements, family photos. There are notes from former students and pictures of parties held in her honor — reunions, she says.

Underhill’s charming residence is perfectly organized, a condensed display of her life’s work, some might say. But evidence of her devotion and commitment to the community reaches beyond the four walls of her apartment and spans a space and time impossible to measure. When asked what she’ll do next, she doesn’t hesitate. The writing bug has bitten her, so to speak, and she plans to pass it on by writing a book about her family history. The love in what she does is interconnected, she says. “I’ve always been interested in the transformation of discipline from one art form to another,” she says. “And teaching people about what they love is the most rewarding position anyone can have.” — Brandon Walters



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