U.Va. Profiles: Legendary 'Dean Jean' Remains a Touchstone for Engineering Grads

Oct. 22, 2007 — Jean Malcolm Holliday is a proper lady who, like most women of her day, never expected to have to work. “It’s not the way I planned my life,” she said matter-of-factly in an oral history interview with Robert Baxter in 1980. “But sometimes we don’t get to do what we planned.”

As it turned out, Holliday enjoyed a career spanning 43 years as the force in the front office of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia.

Affectionately known as “Dean Jean” by students, faculty and administrators alike, Holliday served as administrative assistant to five Engineering School deans and, with decades of institutional memory, has served as advisor to that many more after her retirement. More important, she was an advisor, facilitator, comforter and loyal friend to hundreds of students who passed through the school between 1944 and 1981.

Born in Dover, N.J., in 1916, Holliday moved with her family to her father’s hometown of Staunton, Va., when she was 6. After graduating from high school, she spent one year studying at Duke University. With the passing of her father and grandmother, however, she felt obligated to return home to help her mother with family matters, including the care of her younger siblings. She attended Mary Baldwin College for three semesters, but eventually realized that she would need to make a living.

“In those days, women had little choice of a profession other than secretary, nursing or teaching,” Holliday recalled. So she left Mary Baldwin to attend King-Smith School in Washington, D.C., where she learned shorthand and typing.

Trolley tracks still ran through Charlottesville streets when, in 1938, Holliday found work as secretary to the dean of the U.Va. School of Architecture. The University was much smaller then, with a predominantly male student body. “I knew all the students and faculty,” she recalled in the Baxter interview, “I knew everybody.”

In the early years, Holliday was around the same age as many University students, some of whom were current or returning G.I.s. She often socialized with them, attending football games and big dance weekends in Memorial Gym, and entertaining in her home on Lewis Mountain Road. Later, she became something of a housemother for engineering students.

“The students were her life,” said engineering alumnus Lucien Bass (’63 BME, ’65 MBA). Referring to Holliday as a “consummate lady,” Bass said, “She took a real interest in everybody and expected ‘her’ students, as she would think of us, to behave as gentlemen. We wore coats and ties every day to class. If you showed up in anything else, you got a frown. You might not get anything else, but you got the frown. She didn’t tolerate anything that was improper.”

Holliday felt that an academic setting suited her better than did the corporate world and the anonymity she had felt as a member of the typing pool in her previous job at a large company. Still, as she confessed to Daily Progress reporter in 1981, she didn’t like the typewriter and hated shorthand. “I gradually got into the administrative part of it,” Holliday said.

During World War II, Holliday worked for one year as a secretary for the Army Air Force Technical Training Corps, which also based at U.Va. She then moved to the School of Engineering in 1944, where, for many years, she was the entire staff for the school.

“She was a commanding presence,” Bass remembered. “We used to joke that she was the only person in the Thornton Hall who called the dean by his first name.”

In her 37 years there, Holliday saw the Engineering School advance from a small department where reclusive, academically driven students were known as “the toolies on the other side of the bridge,” to a nationally respected, integral component of this modern research institution. 

“I’m a jack of all trades,” Holliday said in the Daily Progress article. “I’ve done everything here at the Engineering School,” including compiling the course catalog, interviewing prospective students, scheduling classes and determining graduation eligibility. She even served as a shoulder on which students in distress could cry.

At one time, Holliday organized everything for the school, including graduation exercises. And she could be counted on for her resourcefulness: in 1970, when the increasing number of graduates finally made it too cumbersome for the dean to sort through the dozens of neatly rolled diplomas during the schoolwide ceremony for the correct one to hand to each graduate, Holliday devised a memorable solution. Rather than receiving their diplomas, engineering students discovered they had been awarded a full-color poster of a popular new sports car. That year, and every year since, SEAS graduates are directed to their smaller department gatherings to collect their actual diplomas.

Holliday’s sense of humor, along with her congeniality, forthright manner and quick wit endeared her to generations of engineering alumni who seek her out like a favorite professor, even in her retirement. Living within walking distance of University Grounds until recently, Dean Jean’s door was always open to students and former students.

Such was the affection of engineering alumni for this grande dame that on the occasion of her 80th birthday in 1996, they surprised her with the gift of an endowed scholarship in her name. The Jean Holliday Scholarship, unique in its purpose, provides financial assistance for children of Engineering School faculty and staff who choose to attend the University as undergraduates.

Holliday has been acknowledged in a variety of other ways for her service to the University community. The Society of Purple Shadows and the Seven Society (both secret organizations at the University) cited Holliday for her service over the years. She was granted honorary membership in the engineering honor societies Trigon, Theta Tau and Tau Beta Pi. In 1980, a committee of faculty, staff and students awarded her the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award for character and service to humanity. The Engineering School has honored her with the Mac Wade Award, again for outstanding service. And the Virginia Engineering Foundation, for which she served as executive secretary for many years, honored her in 1990 with one of their first-ever Service Awards.

For more than half a century, Holliday’s benevolence extended beyond the University of Virginia as well. When she arrived in Charlottesville in 1939, World War II had just broken out in Europe. “I wanted to do something,” she said in a 1992 Red Cross publication, “so I joined our Red Cross Chapter to roll bandages for England.” After the United States entered the war in 1941, Holliday was among the volunteers who daily served coffee and doughnuts at Charlottesville’s train station to hundreds of wounded soldiers passing through town on their way to orthopedic hospitals in Staunton and West Virginia.

After 43 years of service to the University, Holliday retired in 1981. She became more active in volunteer work, serving on the boards of several area charities, including the Red Cross. She raised money at the University for United Way, volunteered in the medical records department at Martha Jefferson Hospital and was as an active member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. And, as a descendant of Benjamin Harrison IV, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses during the 18th-century, Holliday is most proud of her affiliation with the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.

Today, Jean Holliday lives at the Colonnades retirement community and enjoys reminiscing about her years at U.Va. She impresses her friends with her superb recall of details from years ago. Working as an administrative assistant to the dean at U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences may not have been the way she planned her life. But reflecting on life’s twists and turns, she said, “I’ve never regretted a minute of it.”

Written by Linda Kobert