If a picture is worth a thousand words to an art historian, then Aileen “Ninie” Laing ’57 will surely appreciate the moment caught on camera Saturday morning.
The occasion was Sweet Briar College’s Reunion convocation in Murchison Lane Auditorium on June 3. She was on stage, having just heard her name announced as the 2017 Distinguished Alumna. It’s an honor she was not expecting, and her smile spoke volumes.
“This may come as a shock to many of my students, but I am without words,” Laing said when she reached the podium.
She is more than a distinguished alumna of the College. She’s also professor emerita of art history — and beloved by generations of majors and non-majors who took her classes from 1971 until she retired 30 years later.
Noting the good fortune of her long association with Sweet Briar, Laing said she still enjoys visits with former students.
“We just talk about the world, Sweet Briar — which is the same thing — and how wonderful the world of art history is for those young women who have gone on to great things,” she said.
“Someone said to me once the mark of a good teacher is when your students outshine you. I must have been one hell of a teacher. The young women I was privileged to work with for thirty years are still setting the world on fire. Thank you for this [award]. I cannot believe it.”
The Distinguished Alumna Award honors alumnae who have brought distinction to themselves and to Sweet Briar College through outstanding accomplishments in a volunteer or professional capacity. Laing has done both.
Carol McMurtry Fowler ’57 nominated her classmate, citing Laing’s extraordinary ability to connect with students.
“The person who can teach, instruct and captivate a student’s mind is a special human,” Fowler wrote. “Ninie has that gift. Lively, active and engaging today, Ninie lives close to Sweet Briar. She is forever young, is truly engaged in the world and its beauty.”
Students sang her praises, Fowler said, for her “her diligence, her knowledge, her honesty and her endearing and enduring sense of humor and sense of adventure.”
Laing’s gift is no secret: Students responded to her passion for teaching and for her subject. In 2012, Laing told a writer for the college magazine that among all her academic accomplishments, receiving the Student Government Association’s Excellence in Teaching Award meant the most.
“I fell into the thing that I absolutely adored,” Laing said. “I love art history and I love telling other people about it. I still love the discipline.”
Her words alluded to a path to teaching that was not a straight one. She studied chemistry at Sweet Briar, transferring after two years to George Washington University. But travels abroad had awakened her real calling. So, while working as a certified medical technologist at the GWU hospital, she earned a bachelor’s in art history.
Graduate school followed at Johns Hopkins, where she received two Woodrow Wilson Fellowships to support her doctoral studies and dissertation. A medievalist with a focus on manuscripts, she later studied the decorative arts and architecture of England and America.
Laing became a full professor at Sweet Briar in 1983. During her tenure, she received a National Endowment for the Humanities research grant for her scholarship, along with numerous honors and awards. In addition to teaching, she served on strategic planning and campaign leadership committees. An avid traveler, she also was a popular lecturer on alumnae tours abroad and spoke at alumnae club meetings across the United States.
In 2001, she curated and wrote the catalogue for the College’s Centennial exhibition, “Sweet Briar College and Ralph Adams Cram: Dreams and Reality.” She also designed and wrote the script for a walking tour of Sweet Briar’s National Historic District.
In 2012, an endowed professorship was created in her name, along with former professor Eleanor Barton, thanks to a donation from Winnie Leigh Hamlin ’58. The first Barton-Laing Professor in Art History was named in August that year.