Mary Hoppe: Just Being Me

“If the number of women’s restrooms is any indication, we are making great strides in the sciences at Norwich.”
– Mary Hoppe, Professor of Chemistry.

When Mary Hoppe arrived on the Hill 35 years ago as NU’s first woman tenure-track science professor, the math, science, and engineering complex had two bathroom stalls for women. “One stall was on the top floor of Tompkins near the math office … the secretary was, of course, a woman. And the other was downstairs near the science office, and those two secretaries were women.”

A fond moment with former student Shawn Healy ’88 (right) and his son, John Healy ’14. Mary Hoppe was the first woman in the history of Norwich to be tenured in the sciences and mathematics, and was also the first to chair the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. (Photo courtesy of Teresa Healy)

A fond moment with former student Shawn Healy ’88 (right) and his son, John Healy ’14. Mary Hoppe was the first woman in the history of Norwich to be tenured in the sciences and mathematics, and was also the first to chair the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. (Photo courtesy of Teresa Healy)

Mary and chemistry instructor Martha McBride ’83 had offices “as far as you could get from a women’s room.” Seated at her desk, she leans forward and winks. “But next to 295, there’s a restroom—it’s still there—that says ‘toilet’ on the door. It doesn’t say ‘men.’ It doesn’t say ‘women.’ Well guess what? We started using it.”

No thunder clap—just a small change. Mary doesn’t consider herself a crusader. “I was just going to be me.”

Long before it was fashionable, Mary and her sister were raised to believe they could go in whatever direction they chose. Her mother, a chemist who was also fluent in French and Latin, attended college on scholarship during the Great Depression. “My father was not at all intimidated that my mother was considered to be the smart one, the educated one in the family.”

Mary attended an all-girls Catholic high school in her hometown of Toledo, Ohio. “So during the time I was developing intellectually, I was around women who were in charge of everything.” It was a nun, Sister Lewellyn, who encouraged Mary’s love of chemistry. “She just had the clearest way of thinking—you don’t have to memorize very much if you can think.” She taps her temple. “Why memorize 14 formulas if by knowing two, you can derive the others?”

In her office, Mary fans out a stack of letters and selects a card that reads: “Thanks, not only for the big things but also for the thirty-two-million little things.” The note is from Kaitlyn Doolittle ’10, who landed a position at DuPont, in part as a result of Mary’s letter of recommendation. “Words cannot express how thankful I am to have had you as a teacher and mentor,” Kaitlyn wrote.

“My mom—there was a mentor.” When Mary was considering colleges, her mother, an alumna of the College of Saint Teresa, urged her to visit the campus. A city girl who couldn’t imagine living in a town the size of Winona, Minn.—“26,000 people seemed so small to me!”—she reluctantly went, and the moment she stepped onto the rolling green campus, she was in love. “Mom had the wisdom to recognize that all she had to do was get me there and I’d probably do the rest. Norwich works the same way!”

Mary admits that she might not have set foot on the Hill were it not for Professor Joe Byrne, who told her during the telephone pre-interview that Norwich was a military college. “Remember this was pre-web. I had no idea! I couldn’t imagine myself at a military college.” Joe persisted, telling her, “We’d like you to come and meet us.” His persuasion won out. Mary’s face lights up as she recalls the first day of her interview, during which Joe had invited her to watch the Corps of Cadets march down to second mess. “It was the day the seniors were turning over command of the Corps to the next class,” Hoppe recalls. “The band was playing the Mickey Mouse Club song, and all of a sudden, the seniors come marching out, and they’ve shredded their trousers into hula skirts. There was a guy on the wagon with snowballs—which they had frozen in the winter—and he was throwing them!”

In that moment, just like at Saint Teresa’s, she felt right at home. Throughout the interview, everything clicked. “The faculty, the students—they were wonderful. I fell in love.”

Norwich, as it turned out, exceeded all expectations.

This was the early 1980s, and there was still much work ahead to push up the glass ceiling. Mary acknowledges that she did witness gender bias in graduate school, and she saw how women struggled to gain credibility in academia.

“But you know, I did not experience that here at Norwich,” she says in reflection. “I never felt discrimination. I never felt that I was treated differently. My colleagues treated me as one of them. I think that Norwich has followed Partridge’s legacy that way, which was always progressive. He was always a step ahead.” –J.E.D.


Check back soon for a complete list of Mary’s accomplishments and firsts.

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