College Mourns Loss of Professor Emerita, College Historian, Civic Leader
By Liesel Nowak Crosier
Update 7/23/12: A memorial service for Dr. Patricia Holbert Menk will be held at 11 a.m. Monday, July 30, at Covenant Presbyterian Church. Covenant is located at 2001 North Coalter Street in Staunton.
Patricia H. Menk’s research and writing skills bring us stories about Mary Baldwin College through the ages. Tales of the 1930s “Club House,” on the corner of New and Frederick streets, where “sandwiches, Coca-Cola, and desserts” were served and where “one could play bridge, read magazines, smoke, and listen to the radio.”
Or slices of life from her own years at MBC as a young professor in the 1950s, "the era of the 'poodle' haircut, LP and 45 RPM records, and students going in large numbers to Morgan's Music Store to see 'TV' sets or to the Checkerboard for candy and stationery from Mr. Lewis. Florida and Texas girls posed in bathing suits beside a snowman they had built."
Although Menk's words live on in the 520-page To Live in Time: The Sesquicentennial History of Mary Baldwin College, the professor emerita of history and college historian passed away July 8 at the age of 91.
“It seemed like a good idea,” Menk told The News Virginian in 1992 when the college history was published. “However, a big problem I saw was writing about something I had been a part of for so long. It was important as a historian that I remain objective.”
“Patricia Menk was a dear friend whom I had the privilege of assisting with research when she wrote two books about the college,” said College Archivist William Pollard. “It was inspiring to witness her dedication and her love for the school she had served for many years. Dr. Menk personified the highest ideals of Mary Baldwin College.”
While relative newcomers to the MBC community, without benefit of far-reaching institutional knowledge, may recognize Menk mostly as a professor from 1952 to 1981 and author of books that chronicle MBC history, many others remember her as the first woman to be elected mayor of Staunton, a job she held in addition to raising three children and working in the history department at MBC.
“Attractive Dr. Mrs. Patricia D. [sic] Menk manages both jobs with aplomb, and is also mayor of this Shenandoah Valley city. What’s more, she is considered to be one of the best mayors Staunton ever had,” recounted The Richmond Times-Dispatch upon her election.
Menk held other elected positions in city government, including member of the Staunton City Council and the city’s School Board. She was also active in the Presbyterian Church and numerous other civic organizations. She encouraged others, especially women, to become involved as well.
While mayor, Menk told members of the Staunton Junior Women’s Club, “in the United States, where women outnumber men, only 55 percent of the eligible women vote as compared with 75 percent of the eligible men. Women could control the government.” She went on to advise attendees: “vote, attend Council meetings, serve, if asked, and run for office.”
“She came [to MBC] soon before I graduated,” said Ethel Smeak ’53, who eventually returned to her alma mater to teach British literature. “I kept saying to myself ‘if Pat Menk would have been here [earlier] when I was a student, I would have majored in history.’ From everything that I have heard from students, she was superior. When students came back [to campus], one of the first people they wanted to see was Pat Menk. She just was well-loved by students and faculty.”
“I loved her wit and her passion for history,” Kirsten Berg ’83 contributed to the college’s Facebook page. “Particularly I recall a visit to Monticello where we were escorted up a narrow staircase to the dome of Monticello which wasn’t open to tourists. She also taught at our sister school in Korea and sailed the Chesapeake with her husband. Sadly, he died soon after her retirement. While giving credit to Bismarck, she used to say, with a smile and a twinkle in her eye, ‘God watches over fools, drunkards, and MBC students.’ Amen.”
Menk was also a respected educator outside of the classroom. In 1970, The Staunton Leader published, as a series, a lecture Menk delivered at MBC incident to then-president Richard Nixon’s bombing in Cambodia, noting “the address is so historically accurate and scholarly that it should be of wide general interest.”
“She was a well-rounded person who knew how to get things done,” Smeak noted, adding that after her time as mayor, Menk also served as interim MBC president in 1976, following the resignation of William W. Kelly. “She was quite a leader — very much a leader at the college — and probably served on every important committee.”
Upon her retirement in May 1981, the College Board of Trustees lauded Menk, who had “been a continuing inspiration to her students whose universal respect she has enjoyed” and who was “admired by students, faculty, and staff alike.”
In 2006, Menk published an addendum to To Live in Time, with Retrospect; The Tyson Years, 1985-2003, to record the transformational presidency of Cynthia Haldenby Tyson.
Through the years, Menk remained a loyal and generous donor to Mary Baldwin. The Menk Award is offered annually to help support a faculty member on sabbatical and is made possible by an endowed fund honoring Patricia Menk and her late husband, Dr. Karl F. Menk, associate professor of microbiology (1959-81), director of laboratories at King’s Daughters’ Hospital, and founder of the MBC’s Medical Technology Program.
The Rutherford, New Jersey, native earned her undergraduate degree at Florida State College for Women (now Florida State University in Tallahassee) and master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Virginia. Menk lived in Staunton and visited with alumnae in April, attending a luncheon for the Grafton Society. Menk appeared at a regular book club meeting as recently as last month, and, according to Smeak, her mind remained sharp.
Her contributions to the college and the wider community will endure — in the stories from her students and in the pages of the college’s history.
“Thank you, Dr. Menk,” said Erin Tabscott Staebell ’05. “You have touched the lives of many who will never meet you, but will benefit from your wisdom, strength, and vision.”