Today’s post is from Beth Harris, Special Collections Librarian and Archivist at Hollins University.
October 9th marks the birthday for an important Hollins University persona: Martha Louisa Cocke, known by all as “Miss Matty,” (1855-1938). Miss Matty is also recognized as the first woman college president in the state of Virginia. As the daughter of Hollins founder Charles Lewis Cocke, she was intimately acquainted with every aspect of Hollins: she was born on campus, received her education at Hollins, and served in many roles throughout her lifetime. She passed out candles to students as a child, and served as faculty (mathematics and English), librarian, and registrar as an adult. She also became her father’s secretary in his advanced years, corresponding with parents, alumnae, and others. Although her brother Charles H. Cocke was being groomed to succeed his father, his untimely demise in 1900 caused Charles Lewis Cocke to leave the decision of the next successor to his children. After her father’s death in 1901, the family selected Matty as the new president, recognizing she was perfect candidate for the job.
As a proper southern woman, she was reluctant to take on such a leadership role, yet for the sake of her father’s dream of making a Hollins education equal to that afforded to young men, she agreed to the position. Serving from 1901-1933 as president, Matty oversaw numerous changes and allowed students freedom to shape Hollins Institute as well as their own college experiences. Student initiatives included establishing a student government, a newspaper, and fund raising for buildings (The Little Theatre and Tayloe Gymnasium) and the endowment, necessary for accreditation. She maintained a serious, scholarly atmosphere, upholding the high academic ideals her father endeavored to create at Hollins. She was an imposing figure on campus, always wearing full-length black dresses, even when the current styles were shorter, according to Fonnie Strang, Class of 1928. She also was guardian of lady-like behavior, and would often point out in chapel services breaches of etiquette she had witnessed among the girls. Strang remembered Miss Matty saying “I have noticed girls holding hands. Hollins girls don’t do that. I have also noticed girls talking to boys from their [dormitory] windows. Hollins girls don’t do that.
Miss Matty is remembered as being conservative and strict, but also serene and motherly, with a passion to carry on her father’s dream. Despite her strictness, she was beloved by the students and fondly remembered by hundreds of alumnae. Beginning in 1930, she was sung to on her birthday each year (a tradition which continues today). Hymns, songs, and poems were written in tribute to her, and the preparatory students literary society was named after her (The Matty L. Cocke Literary Society). Numerous letters congratulating her on her 25th anniversary as president, as well as those of condolence upon the death of her mother, exist in the university archives, testifying to the alumnae affection for her.
Upon her retirement, she lived in a house on campus, built especially for her. Upon Miss Matty’s death in 1938, the entire Hollins community mourned her passing. Local and state newspapers were filled with articles about her, giving testimony to her many contributions to Hollins. Miss Matty’s obituary even appeared in The New York Times. Susanna Pleasants Turner, Class of 1935 and great niece of Miss Matty, gave a fitting tribute in the Hollins Alumnae Quarterly (Fall 1938): “So closely was she identified with the school that as the years went by she was to become for Hollins girls all over the country, the living symbol of their Alma Mater and the personal actuality of their ideas for educated womanhood.”
Happy Birthday, Miss Matty!
To learn more about Miss Matty, Hollins history, and Special Collections at the Wyndham Robertson Library, please visit “Special Collections” in the Hollins Digital Commons. http://digitalcommons.hollins.edu/special/.
Additional images: All images are from the Martha L. Cocke Papers, University Archives, Wyndham Robertson Library, Hollins University, Roanoke, Virginia