There are many delightful, fortuitous twists – for her and for William & Mary – to the story of professor Jacquelyn McLendon. Add them up and they present compelling reasons why she is the 2014 Jefferson Award winner, presented annually to a member of the “university family for significant service through his or her personal activities, influence and leadership.”
Years ago, she was the professorial version of a rolling stone. She had taught three years at Amherst and three years at Hofstra. When a friend told her of an opening at W&M, McLendon remembers telling herself that it sounded like another good three-year gig, after which she’d “find where I really want to be.”
That was 21 years ago.
She liked and respected English professor Terry Meyers, and was pleased when he was named chairman of the department in 1995. Those emotions soon turned to “shock” when Meyers immediately asked her to become William & Mary’s first-ever associate chair of the department.
“We didn’t know each other that well and I didn’t know what I had done to make him decide that I would be a good associate chair,” she said. “He was really good to work with, and I still go to him when I need advice about some things.”
She laughed when recalling that when she left the position six years later, the school decided it needed two people to fill the responsibilities that she had handled alone.
McLendon will tell you that she is no fan of administrative duties yet she spent 1997-2007 as director of the black studies program – one she helped launch along with colleagues Joanne Braxton, Hermine Pinson and Joel Schwartz.
“We struggled those first years just to keep afloat," she said. "Most of us were doing it out of the goodness of our hearts. We wanted to see it succeed.”
The impact of that commitment was profound.
“It is easy now to walk around campus or to stroll through the university website and see names such as the Lemon Project, the Maggie Walker Project, the Center for Student Diversity and all of the other diversity-related initiatives on campus,” said Associate Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies Francis Tanglao-Aguas. “We would be remiss if we did not recognize the fact that in the early '90s, this was not the case.
“And while she may not have directly built all of these diversity initiatives, it is also easy to imagine what would have been the case had one Dr. Jacquelyn McLendon not chosen to focus her time and attention towards the establishment of the program of black studies when she did.”
In her “spare” time, McLendon managed to become one of the country’s foremost authorities on the Harlem Renaissance. Her 1995 book, The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen, is still considered authoritative in African-American studies, and has earned her invitations to lecture here and abroad.
“Back then, I was doing everything, serving on a lot of major committees, directing the black studies program, serving as an associate chair,” she said. “I felt very comfortable because I liked doing all of those things.”
Presently, she is finishing an edited volume of Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Nella Larsen for the Modern Language Association’s prestigious series Approaches to Teaching World Literature.
“In all respects,” writes former Department of English Chair Susan Donaldson, “she has been a pivotal figure in the massive changes the College has undergone in the last 20 years, and the success of the Africana studies program owes a very large debt – as does William & Mary – to her tireless work in the program, in the English department and throughout the College as a whole.”
In addition to her own considerable achievements, her supporters almost universally laud her unheralded contributions to the accomplishments of others.
“From the beginning of her career here at the College, students and younger professors have sought out McLendon’s advice, and she has gladly guided them,” Pinson said. “The same quality of wisdom, prudence, discretion and savvy that made her a good choice as associate chair of the department of English, as director of black studies and chair of committees at the department and college level make her an excellent mentor.
“I am proud to say that she has mentored me and made me a better scholar, teacher and colleague for her guidance.”
McLendon takes the compliments in stride, she said, for two reasons. First, she’d rather work behind the scenes or, as she put it, “I always wanted to be the playwright, not the actor.”
Her other reason?
“I was just doing my job,” she explained, “what I was hired to do.”
It’s time, said Chon Glover, chief diversity officer at the university, for the woman she calls “the silent leader” to receive her just due.
"I have learned much from what she's spoken, but even more by the example she provides through her actions," Glover said. "Both are priceless gifts that I don't take for granted."
Or as Leah Glenn, associate professor of dance, put it, "Professor McLendon is nothing short of a gem on this campus."