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Vol. LXIII, No. 17
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
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Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton

SHARING KNOWLEDGE: “What I have enjoyed most about my work is the instant in the classroom when something becomes clear, or there is a new revelation of an old idea. It is very exciting to see that moment when students understand.” Cecelia B. Hodges, Ph.D. has had an enriching career helping students to understand and seize that moment.

Professor Cecelia B. Hodges, Ph.D. Has Influenced Students, Teachers and Colleagues Over a Long Career

“School was my passion! In our household, education was thought to be our salvation.”

Not only that, adds Cecelia Hodges, she was determined to be a teacher. “The first day I went to school, I knew I wanted to teach. I admired the way the teachers managed the class and managed the group. And I wanted to learn. Later, my teachers introduced me to formal debate, and I enjoyed that. It focuses your thinking.”

The only child of Olive and George Hodges, Cecelia was born in New York City. Her parents had met in New York after immigrating from the West Indies.

Growing up in Harlem and Washington Heights, Cecelia enjoyed a happy childhood. There were many activities, including jumping rope and roller skating, birthday parties and Christmas tree-trimming, movies, church and the library, and exploring the city.

“My mother and father wanted me to know the city,” recalls Dr. Hodges. “We scoured the city when I was young. Daddy took us to the museum and theaters. That started my interest in theater. On Mother’s Day, he would take us to a restaurant in midtown, and because my parents had such confidence in education, we moved to areas with better schools.

“I was very influenced by my parents,” she continues. “They were very hard-working people, and instilled in me the understanding that my job was school. From them, I learned a sense of responsibility. I was reared to be responsible for my actions. They also emphasized fair play, the importance of being decent to other people, to be honest with them. It was a lovely household.”

All Those Books

Cecelia loved to read, and going to the library, including the New York Public Library, was exciting. There were all those books!

“When I found an author I liked, such as Jane Austen, I’d read all her books,” remembers Dr. Hodges. “I liked mysteries when I was a girl — for example, the Nancy Drew stories. And, also, African-American literature and poets, including Langston Hughes.

“Later, Shakespeare was always an interest. Between the library and my parents’ books, I was able to pursue that interest. Macbeth and King Lear are my favorites. And my favorite play of all is Antigone by Sophocles.”

Listening to the radio, seeing movies on weekends, playing with friends, and participating in church activities, including appearing in church pageants, were important during her years in elementary and junior high school. “I also had the best birthday parties,” she adds. “My mother was very creative in baking and cooking, and all my friends wanted to come to my parties. And, we had wonderful times during the holidays. We’d all decorate the tree, and friends would come in.”

In the summer, there were outings to the beach and trips to Newburgh, N.Y. and Massachusetts to visit relatives

Cecelia attended the academically prestigious Hunter College High School for Girls, and she was often the only African-American student in a class. It was not uncomfortable for her, she recalls. “The instruction was so interesting and challenging that that was what I was paying attention to. And I don’t remember any overt examples of prejudice. Although I was aware that in those times in New York, there certainly were evidences and experiences of prejudice.”

In a Hurry

In the late 1940s, she attended Hunter College, majoring in English. “Four or five of us from our church went to Hunter,” she says. “We were close friends, and most of them went into medicine. I was studying liberal arts and also African-American literature. Hunter was a subway college, and I lived at home. And I was in a hurry. I finished in three years.”

After graduating, she began studying for a masters degree in the history of drama at Columbia University. Then, during this time, an opportunity to realize her dream of teaching came along, and she took a position at Talladega College in Alabama.

“I had especially wanted to be a college professor; this was an interracial college in the middle of Alabama, and I taught introductory communications. This was my first time in the south, and on the train trip down, African-Americans had to sit in segregated areas in the cars. In the dining car, the area for African-Americans was curtained off.

“Living on campus, though, there was no segregation, and I enjoyed the teaching. I was also very influenced by Professor Margaret L. Montgomery, who helped me in my teaching career. I was young and thought I knew everything! She was able to guide me in clarifying subject matter and in methods of engaging the classes’ enthusiasm.”

After a year, Cecelia returned to Columbia to finish her masters degree. “This was an extension of the studies I had done in college,” she explains. “The history of drama involves research, analysis, and performance. I was not pointed toward acting. I had always wanted to teach.”

After receiving her masters, she had a chance to teach English at the junior high school she had attended. While there, she also joined the Penthouse Dancing Drama Theatre in Harlem, where she appeared in plays and starred in a one-woman performance.

One-Woman Show

“It was called the Penthouse because it was on the top or fourth floor,” says Dr. Hodges, with a smile. “The director was an excellent person, whose goal always was perfection. We did Ibsen, and I appeared in Ghosts and Hedda Gabler, and then he suggested I do a one-woman show.”

She was undaunted by such a challenge. “I was too young to be worried,” she explains. “I did scenes from Strange Interlude by O’Neill, also Shakespeare, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Amy Lowell.”

In the mid-1950s, Dr. Hodges obtained a position to teach English literature at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. Students there focus on drama, music, or dance, while taking a full slate of high school courses. “It was a very rigorous curriculum,” she reports.

That assessment is seconded by Linda Schreiber, now of Brooklyn, N.Y., who was in Dr. Hodges class. “I was a music student at the time, and I remember how incredibly well-prepared she was. I couldn’t understand how she’d return our papers the next day. She worked us hard, and herself just as hard. It was an extraordinarily enriching experience.

“Later, I went abroad to live in Israel, and I came across her name in Look Magazine. I continued to see her name in publications, and I decided the next time I saw it, I would call her. In 1975, I finally called, and we got together. I brought the notes I’d taken in her classes, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. She is just delightful to be around; she is so extremely bright and thoughtful.”

Also, while she was at the High School of Performing Arts , Cecelia married Henry Drewry, whom she had met at Talladega. The couple moved to Trenton, and she continued to commute to New York. After a few years, they moved to Glen Acres, off Alexander Road in West Windsor, just over the Princeton line.

No Fences

“This was a development focusing on an interracial community, which was started in 1958,” says Dr. Hodges. “A group of citizens, including former Princeton Township Mayor James Floyd in coooperation with Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and Nassau Presbyterian Church, had been working toward integration, and now with the help of developer Morris Milgrim, this was a culmination of those efforts.

“People came for a variety of reasons.” she continues. “For most of the African-Americans, it was an opportunity; for white families, it offered moderately-priced housing. It was very comfortable. There were many young children, and they all played together outside in each other’s yards. There were no fences.

“Last September, we celebrated the 50th anniversary, and we had a big tent and a party. Three of the original owners, including myself, are still here. Many, many of the ‘children’, now grown up, from those early days came. They said they thought while they were growing up that all of society was like their own neighborhood.”

After earning her masters degree, Cecelia had decided to work toward a Ph.D in oral interpretation of literature at Northwestern University, and she took a leave of absence from the High School of Performing Arts.

“The oral interpretation of literature is communicating to an audience a work of literary art in its intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic entirety,” she explains. “The guiding point is to present the philosophy and performance accurately. It demands the study of the literature of the time, the study of the life of the author, a close analysis of the material, and it also demands a study of who the audience might be.

“While I was preparing my dissertation at Northwestern, Professor Wallace Bacon had a great effect on me. He was a sensitive, thorough, and creative professor.”

Tenured Professor

After eight years at the High School of Performing Arts, Cecelia accepted a position teaching in the School of Dramatic Arts at Douglas College (then the women’s college associated with Rutgers University). Among other things, this made for an easier commute.

In addition to becoming a tenured professor in speech and drama at Douglas, she founded the African, Afro-American Studies program in the late 1960s, “This was a challenging civil rights period, with much agitation by African-American students for courses in African-American subjects,” she explains, “and as the only African-American on the faculty, I was recruited to found this program. I chaired the committee that planned and initiated the introductory course. I also ran the program, and I’d had no administrative experience. I had to school myself in it.

“In addition, I directed plays at Rutgers, and founded the Black Arts Group. We did plays and readings, and I enjoyed directing, but I liked acting more.”

During this time, students at Princeton University were also demanding courses in African-American literature, says Dr. Hodges, who had received her doctorate in the late 1960s. “12 African-American male seniors wanted a student-initiated seminar, and Princeton asked me if I would handle that course. I did that while I was still teaching at Douglas. Then I was invited to come to Princeton full-time, and I initiated a new course, Five Black Writers, and also oral interpretation of literature. I later became Assistant Dean of the College.”

This was in the early 1970s, and Dr. Hodges explains that she felt she had a double responsibility, as is true of other minority faculty. “It was not only to teach well, but I needed to be an advocate and caretaker for the small number of African-American students there, so I could translate their needs, desires, and injustices toward them.

“In teaching,” she adds, “you have to be absorbed in your study and work, but with an awareness of the special responsibility you have to your students.”

World of Ideas

Her years at the University are especially meaningful to Dr. Hodges, who retired in 1989. “At Princeton University, I had an opportunity to guide and open minds intellectually and emotionally to the world of ideas. While I was there, we went through several sets of changes. First, President Robert Goheen was trying to attract minority students and have them be comfortable on campus. He set the stage so they could come and be successful.

“Second, women began to come, first in small numbers, and this had a big effect. Princeton is an intellectually stimulating place to be. The students for the most part are especially focused. Also, there were a number of people at the University with whom you could have interesting relationships. I remember the late Malcolm Diamond, Professor of Religion, with great affection.”

Former students remember Dr. Hodges with equal affection and gratitude. Obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Tiffany Scott Flanagan, who practices in North Carolina, recalls her time with Dr. Hodges as a learning experience in many ways. “I was a freshman at Princeton in 1983, and was in a work-study program in her office when she was assistant dean of the college, and I worked with her all of my four years at Princeton.

“I was a science major, and Dr. Hodges personally took it upon herself to further my education in African-American literature. I found myself assigned to read certain texts of classic African-American literature and ‘be prepared to discuss’.

“We later discovered that we had graduated from the same high school, and she was my parental influence away from home. Ceil was the adult I was held accountable to. If I did not do what I was supposed to do, I had to answer to her. And, as an African-American myself, it was reassuring to have a role model who looked like me, and the commonality of her coming from my home town, with the trickle of familiarity, was an additional connection.”

Dr. Flanagan also points out the influence of Dr. Hodges’ academic achievements. “Being able to see someone who had gone through the rungs of success in the academic world enabled me to realize that there was an avenue of choice I hadn’t been aware of, and it offered another possibility for me. She is a special person in my life.”

Astounding Choices

It is not only the University, but the Princeton community as a whole that Dr. Hodges admires. “There are so many opportunities to pursue, so many interests,” she points out. “There are astounding choices one has to make. I enjoy McCarter — I really admire Emily Mann and her vision that underlies all her productions. I was formerly an associate on the McCarter Board.

“There is an intellectual excitement in the community at large here. It keeps one on the cutting edge of politics and social attitudes. There is also much more diversity now in Princeton, which is invigorating. There used to be a single type of behavior representative of Princeton. Now, there are many different behaviors and attitudes.”

Dr. Hodges is a big fan of the Princeton Public Library, and she has been involved in “Readings Over Coffee” for many years. “For the past 10 years, each April, I’ve done a program on Paul Robeson. I read from his biography, or about his music, or the Friends of Paul Robeson, or Othello. We have a program coming up the second Wednesday in April at 10:30 a.m., which lasts an hour.”

Dr. Hodges also continues her one-woman performances which she does for clubs, organizations, and colleges, as well as appearing in ensemble plays. She most recently acted in A Lesson Before Dying with the Bridge Players Theatre Company in Burlington, which ran for three weekends.

“This was about a young black man accused of a crime he did not commit, and he was sentenced to be executed,” explains Dr. Hodges. “It takes place in a fictional town in Louisiana in the 1940s, and I played his Godmother who helps him to meet his fate with dignity.”

Princeton resident and long-time friend of Dr. Hodges, Nannette Gibson, who saw the play, gives her an excellent review. “Ceil had great command of her role, and equally impressive, she had driven down to Burlington for weeks in that heavy weather we had in January for the rehearsals. When reminded of that, she just brushed it off.

“Words like talented, energetic, kind, and thoughtful come to mind when I think of Ceil. Add the word ‘most’ before each of them, and that describes Ceil.”

Book Club

Dr. Hodges has also appeared with the Theatre Guild of New Jersey and the Players Company in Trenton. In 2007, she acted in a Princeton University student production, Flyin’ West. A few years ago, she was in the movie, Beloved, based on Toni Morrison’s book. “It was so gratifying to me, and came as a great surprise as well,” she recalls. “I was only in one scene, but it was quite an experience.”

Fittingly, in keeping with her love of literature, Dr. Hodges is the founder of a book club, “The 3rd Sunday Book Club.” “We meet the third Sunday of the month, and yes, we really discuss the books!” she says. “We started reading primarily African-American authors, and now we read other literature as well. We read a variety, including Amy Tan, Angela Davis, Chinua Achebe, Dickens, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Ann Patchett. Recently, author Robert Montrose Waite came to talk with us about his book, Haunted in Africa.

The Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church is especially meaningful to Dr. Hodges. She is an elder, serves on various committees, and is founder and director of the verse speaking choir. “We used to celebrate ‘Woman’s Day’ at the church, and the late Mrs. Susie Waxwood asked me to prepare a program for it. I was doing a lot of work in choral speaking with readings of the Bible at the time. It went over so well that people asked to join, and I then founded the choral speaking group. Every third Sunday, we have the People’s Verse Speaking Choir at church.

“On Good Friday, April 10, I’ll direct the speaking choir in Were You There?, a drama which is part of the Good Friday service at 7 p.m.”

Travel has been important in Dr. Hodges’ life, and her trips to Ghana were especially meaningful. “I’ve traveled to Ghana two or three times, including to study at the University of Ghana, where I received a certificate in theater in the 1960s. Theater there involves a plethora of activities, including dance, acting, and music.

“It was exciting to go to Africa. It was the first time I was in a totally black society, and it was an exhilarating experience to see the people in charge of their lives and country.”

Big Apple

Trips to Morocco and Paris were also memorable, and in England, she took a course in Shakespeare at Stratford on Avon, and received a certificate in Shakespeare from the University of Birmingham.

And for a born and bred New Yorker, of course, there is no city like the Big Apple, and she frequently finds herself there.

In the course of her life and career, civil rights and race relations have always been a focus. And not only from an intellectual standpoint, but hands-on, direct participation. Dr. Hodges marched with Martin Luther King in Alabama in the 1960s, and also was part of the memorable March on Washington.

“I admired Martin Luther King, and my experiences with him were a searing point in my life. I went to march in Alabama, and that was both a memorable event and a frightening moment. We didn’t know if we would have to face police dogs and fire hoses. I was also at the March on Washington in 1963. That was exciting, and fortunately, there was no trouble.”

Dr. Hodges also expresses respect for Malcolm X. “I admired Malcolm because of the extraordinary changes he made in his short life — from family to imprisonment to religious discovery to leader and activist.”

While progress has been made in race relations, Dr. Hodges believes there is still much work to be done, and she wants to be part of it. “I’d like to reach a point at which I feel I have had an important impact toward the improvement of race relations in America. We all try one-on-one, and give donations to organizations, etc., but I want to do more and to feel I have truly had an impact.

Involved Citizenry

“I try in the work that I do in my one-woman shows,” she continues. “It’s not mere entertainment, but an extension of my calling to educate and enlighten. So, I choose very carefully what I perform and read, to whom I read it, and why.

“We feel a bit encouraged by President Obama’s election, and I very much admire Michelle Obama (who was a Princeton graduate, by the way). But there must be support of his policies and extension of those policies. The citizenry has to be involved.”

And in this area, as in others, Dr. Hodges believes in the need for personal responsibility and ongoing determination. “To be successful, you should identify what your goal is. And you have to consider ways of pursuing it. You need strong perseverance that will lead to accomplishment. My old adage of being responsible to yourself and to your constituents is so important.”

Her own list of accomplishments is long and distinguished. In addition to her years at Douglas and Princeton, Dr. Hodges has been visiting professor at Columbia University, Swarthmore College, and Haverford College. Her writings have included books and articles on African-American history and theater, and she has served on the boards of Cedar Crest College and Channel 13, is a life member of NAACP, and has been member, president, and served on many committees of Central NJ LINKS, Inc.

Awards and honors include recognition from Community House, Princeton University for service; the Progressive Women’s Fellowship at First Baptist Church in Princeton; from Central NJ LINKS, Inc. for her role in strengthening African-American relations; for service in the program of African-American Studies at Princeton University; and the Distinguished Women Award from the Delaware-Raritan Girl Scouts.

Recognition such as this and her acknowledged academic and professional success are undeniably important. Yet, it is her many acts of kindness on so many levels that continue to impress those who know her.

Bouquet of Flowers

“Ceil will stop by very early in the morning to leave a card or note on a birthday or other special occasion,” points out Nannette Gibson. “My husband and I will ask ‘how did she remember?’ But she always does.”

Adds former student Linda Schreiber: “She never forgets to send cards for significant birthdays, Hanukkah, even Valentine cards. When I was in the hospital, she sent a bouquet of flowers. And she always makes sure to thank me for our friendship and what it has meant to her. She is extremely conscious of others.”

Her friend and neighbor of 22 years, Sooni Johnson speaks to Dr. Hodges willingness to listen. “She has been such a close friend to me and is someone I can always talk to. I feel I can share things with her, and she’s a very good listener. She is truly a good person, and she has made a difference in my life.”

Dr. Hodges enjoys spending time with friends, former students, and her God-daughters. “I have two beloved God-daughters, Dr. Pamela Spearman and Marion Olive Cunningham,” she notes. “I am so blessed because ‘Godmotherhood’ does not always continue into the Godchild’s adult years. We keep in close touch, and they are wonderful people, each carrying professional and family responsibilities. They both have great common sense and caring which I admire.

“I am also surprised and overwhelmed by the number of people whom I’ve taught in the past, who come forth with recollections of what we had done in class years ago. I still have connections with the students and teachers I worked with, and it is a joy. Teaching has been my life’s work and one of my greatest rewards.”

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