“I liked Miss Garner almost immediately,” Dixon remembers. “Her care and concern for her students was absolutely sincere … She was kind and charming, and we all enjoyed her Southern ways and accent.”
Garner began her 26-year term at Sweet Briar in 1957, eventually becoming the Wallace E. Rollins Professor of Religion. She died March 8, 2013, at the age of 92, in her native Liberty, N.C.
Sporting Peter Pan-collared shirts, knee-long dresses — “never pants” — and Keds in matching colors, along with a headband that was “perched on top, almost like a tiara,” Garner was as distinctive in appearance as she was in character.
Admired by her students, she fit in well with the young crowd. Dixon remembers that the professor was unfazed by the noise level on Randolph Hall’s first floor, where she lived.
Garner called her students “Friend” and made sure they mastered their grammar as well as their course material.
“She was a full-service educator,” Dixon says. “One of my favorite things she once said was: ‘Jesus was a good boy, but Paul spread the Word!’ I can still hear her say it now.”
Garner was so popular that the graduating class of 1983 made her an honorary member of their class, and the professor spoke at opening Convocation that fall.
Garner retired in 1984 and returned to Liberty, N.C.
Dixon had not seen her in years when, after field hockey coach Jennifer Crispen’s death in 2008, she decided to reach out to the professor emerita.
“I realized how quickly time passes, and that if she was still living I would enjoy reconnecting with her,” she says. “I got her number and just called out of the blue. She was delighted to hear from a former student, and after that I made a point of talking with her occasionally, especially on holidays and her birthday.”
Dixon visited her twice — the last time during Christmas last year. They talked about this and that, but mostly Sweet Briar.
“I asked her what she liked the most about teaching there, and she immediately said the students. She told me about how fine the faculty was and how many travel and professional development opportunities Sweet Briar provided to her. She especially commented on going to India.
“She mentioned to me often that she had a good life, very full and satisfying … but that she was ready to go.”
Born March 15, 1919, Garner graduated in 1939 from the Woman’s College at the University of North Carolina, where she edited the student newspaper and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. She later attended Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York, completing her master’s degree in 1946. From 1950 to 1952, she was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where she earned her Ph.D. Sweet Briar remained a constant in her life, even 30 years after she retired.
During Dixon’s last visit, the professor gave her a special photo she had received from former Sweet Briar President Harold Whiteman. It pictures the Fletcher Oak during all four seasons.
“It seemed to be such a relief to her to give the photo to someone she knew would appreciate it and value it as she did,” Dixon says. “I cherish it.”
Garner’s memory lives on in other ways, too. Dixon, now a chemistry teacher at Collegiate School in Richmond, Va., is glad Garner knew before she died that her former student had become a teacher as well — both Garner and Crispen had encouraged her to go that route, but it took 25 years for it to sink in.
“In homage to Miss Garner, I always grade with a green pen,” Dixon says. “[It’s] something she often did.”