In 1934 an author named James Hilton wrote a novel that within weeks of publication became a runaway bestseller. Hilton called the book “Good-bye, Mr. Chips,” sobriquet of his principal character, Chipping, a venerated and aging English schoolmaster whose career is the heart of the story.
Unabashedly sentimental, Hilton’s book is nevertheless a splendid yarn. I am now in my third reading in as many years and the tale suddenly reminds me, as I write these lines on a day in June, of another late spring day — this one a watershed of sorts in the life of Alfred University.
For it was then, half a century ago, that a close but inexact approximation of Mr. Chips bade a perfunctory farewell to her students, some adoring, some not, and returned home to throw out what she called “an unbelievable amount of accumulated junk.”
Although the distance from campus to apartment was no more than a few steps, the journey in time spanned 43 years of uninterrupted service to the school.
Indeed, for Lelia Evelyn Tupper it was her second retirement. She had attempted once before to step down but almost immediately reversed course, simply adding “emeritus” to her title of associate professor of English. That was in 1960.
“This time,” she said in 1969, “I’m going for good.” And go she did.
Lelia Tupper was a frail, birdlike woman with a cloud of white hair. Her characteristic pose was one of pursed-lip concentration over the variant spellings of a freshman theme. Hunched over her desk, she wrote painstakingly in the margins, cajoling, explaining; leading her often-reluctant students through the mysteries of English composition.
As her former colleagues would have told you, she had a strong affection for complete sentences. She abhorred constructions lacking a subject, verb or object, or an idea.
And she could be imperious. A student once questioned her interpretation of a Coleridge poem and was rewarded with the testy rejoinder that Miss Tupper knew she was right “because Coleridge told me so.” The questioner’s acceptance of the response without a murmur only served to increase Miss Tupper’s annoyance.
Born in Kentucky but raised in Northfield, Vermont, Lelia Tupper was New England to the core. Her father was a Congregational preacher. In the 1630s Miss Tupper’s English ancestors settled the town of Sandwich, on the north shore of Cape Cod. The first Tupper born in this country married the Martha whose dowry later became known to summer vacationers as Martha’s Vineyard. In the words of a former associate, Miss Tupper cultivated her classroom like a vineyard, “diligently and honorably.” And her canons of good taste in writing and literature, he added, applied in equal measure to her talent for baking “delicious and respectable tarts.”
Miss Tupper was brought up on Dickens and educated formally at Cornell University, where she earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English. Between 1917 and 1924 she taught in high schools in New York and Vermont. Alfred was a drowsy college town when she arrived in 1926, and the students, she once said, “were far less serious about learning” than would be their counterparts four decades later.
But they were also less contentious. And Miss Tupper, who had high regard for what she called the “questioning” young minds of the turbulent 1960s, was at a loss to understand fully the phenomenon of student unrest at the time of the Vietnam War. She was distressed by campus disorders. When pressed, however, she would say only that she was “too busy correcting freshman papers to talk about politics.”
She was, as would be expected, an Alfred University landmark. Letters misaddressed to “Telia Zipper” found their way to her door. With stopwatch round her neck she became the mascot of the track team. She drove a green 1950 Plymouth, almost hidden from sight behind the wheel. Seeing the car for the first time and thinking it driverless, newcomers to Alfred had been known to flee to safety.
To catch up on sleep, read, cook, and cultivate her African violets were the immediate goals of Miss Tupper’s second retirement. Although, like Mr. Chips, she was unquestionably committed to her school and to the young people in her charge, she scoffed at the notion she had dedicated her life to teaching; and she derided as sentimental poppycock any suggestion of influence on two generations of Alfred students.
Still, her legacy persists. It is one of fidelity to an ideal of letters, and of herself as the uncompromising master of the English language that, in fact, she was.
Lelia Evelyn Tupper, who never married, died in Hornell in 1981. She was 88.
Alan Littell is former travel editor of The Sunday Spectator. He lives in Alfred.