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Also In This Issue:

New Directions for Weissman Center - Q&A with Lois Brown

Meet FP Scholar Nancy Doherty "05

Levin Discusses Women and Science at MHC

MHC Students Visit Senegal

MHC Receives Rare Book Collection from Alumna

Brad Leithauser Inducted into Iceland's Order of the Falcon

Dept of Public Safety Becomes First in State to Win Accreditation

Students Become Sailors in the Caribbean During January Term

Math Achievement-Gap Expert Busts Myths About Public Education and Standardized Tests

MHC Newsmakers

MHC Milestones


This Week at MHC

Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives
March 11, 2005

Meet Frances Perkins Scholar Nancy Doherty ’05

  Nancy Doherty
  Nancy Doherty ’05

This is the second profile in a yearlong series to celebrate the twenty-fifth year of the Frances Perkins Program. The FP Program provides nontraditional-aged students the opportunity to resume—or in some cases, embark upon—their college educations.

As a first-year English major at Mount Holyoke in 1966, Nancy Doherty FP ’05 had already made up her mind to be a writer. She studied with Elizabeth Green, the legendary professor for whom the Tower Room in Clapp Laboratory is named. “She inspired and championed me,” Doherty said. Although she won the Merrill Prize for Freshman English, her first-year experience was a mixed one, and a number of factors, including high tuition, conspired to prevent her return the following fall. “Mount Holyoke was the right place at the wrong time for me,” she said. “I was there before the ‘revolution.’ There were parietals, demerits; the dorms were locked every night. I’d been allowed so much freedom at home that these restrictions were hard to take.”

In 2000, after 34 years of writing, editing, traveling, marriage, and motherhood, Doherty came back to Mount Holyoke as a Frances Perkins scholar. Both she and the College have changed a lot since 1966, but Doherty’s passion for writing is stronger than ever. This spring she is working as a mentor in the Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Program at the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts, participating in Poetryfest, and completing an honors thesis, a book-length memoir titled The Writing on the Wall. In May she will graduate with a major in English and minor in Italian literature.

Doherty can hardly remember a time when her life did not revolve around writing. “Writing in my family came before cleanliness and godliness,” she said. Her parents fell in love while working on their high school newspaper together, and her grandfather, Eddie Doherty, was one of the leading journalists of his day. After leaving Mount Holyoke, she moved to New York City in hopes of pursuing a literary career. She landed a job at Simon and Schuster, where she worked for two years before moving to Atheneum Publishers. "It was a thrilling time to be living in New York,” she said. “As Bob Dylan put it, ‘there was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.’

Doherty met her eventual husband, the writer Joe McGinniss, at a celebrity-studded book party at the Warwick Hotel in January 1970. That connection gave her entrée to many places, including Vietnam, where she spent four weeks in 1971 working as a photographer, a deeply affecting experience. “We were ‘in country,’ not in immediate combat, but there was always a sense of danger from snipers and landmines,” she recalled. The wrongness of the war became obvious to her on a gut level. “I looked around, and everything American, from Coke cans to bomb craters, looked completely wrong and out of place.”

She and McGinniss settled in New Jersey in 1970. After a stint freelancing, she began writing features and taking accompanying photographs for the Philadelphia Bulletin. “I got to spend time with a lot of prominent folks—from Senators Bob Dole and Joe Biden to famed cook James Beard to humorist Art Buchwald. It was great fun.” When McGinniss got a contract to write about Alaska in 1976, they spent a year in Anchorage, where she wrote for the Anchorage Daily News. She won the American Bar Association Gavel Award and the American Trial Lawyer Association First Prize in 1977 for a series of pieces she wrote about an Alaskan pipeline worker who died in jail. Returning to New Jersey, the couple married, and Doherty took a job as managing editor for New Jersey Monthly. In 1980 they moved to Williamstown, Massachusetts. Doherty continued writing and editing, started a portrait photography business, read manuscripts for Book-of-the-Month Club, and did community work. But her own work took a backseat to her roles as mother of two boys and as wife to a controversial writer.

By 1999, Doherty’s personal life was becoming problematic, and she began to think about returning to school. “More than a degree, I needed a supportive community where I could get creative work done,” she recalled. “When a friend suggested I look into Smith College’s Ada Comstock program, I decided to see whether Mount Holyoke had a similar program. As soon as I walked onto campus here, I had a visceral feeling, the same one I’d had when I came for my interview in the ’60s. But this time, I knew it was the right place at the right time.”

The College has more than fulfilled her expectations. “When I started as an FP, I hadn’t anticipated all the upheavals in my life—my marriage breaking up, having to sell my home and leave my community and friends. I don’t know how I’d have gotten through it all without Mount Holyoke. It became the reason to get up in the morning and what held me together at night.” For Doherty, “the most valuable part has been the classroom experience itself, and the professors who’ve inspired me to work on my own projects outside the classroom.” She has found inspiration not only in English classes, but also in subjects such as cultural anthropology. “I discovered it’s not about remote tribes; it’s about the scales falling from your eyes so you can see your own culture afresh,” she said. She also developed a love for Italian literature, which has become her minor. “Writing a paper in another language is insanely time-consuming,” she said, “but you’re doubly amazed and relieved when you see the end result. And again, my teachers have made the struggle rewarding.” She has also taken drawing classes, and used some of her Vietnam photographs as the subject of her final drawing project.

Doherty has put her writing and editing experience to good use at the College. In addition to mentoring in the SAW program, she has worked as a writer and editor for a number of professors. But mostly she has poured her energies into course work. “Like a lot of FPs, especially the older ones, I want to squeeze all I can from every class. Unlike many traditional students, I’m doing this solely for myself, at my own expense, and I’m not about to skip class or take shortcuts.” She sees her age working mainly to her advantage. “I can’t help feeling the teachers are essentially my peers, so while they may dazzle me with their knowledge, they don’t intimidate me. I’m comfortable and unselfconscious expressing my views, and my ego can survive being wrong. In fact, I think my age is only really a drawback when it comes to recovering from all-nighters.

"As I see it now, that first year at Mount Holyoke, despite my youthful cynicism at the time, helped focus my ambition and kick-start my career in writing and publishing,” she said. More than 30 years later, she believes her FP experience has helped her reclaim a part of herself that got lost along the way. “Not only have I acquired a large body of knowledge, but my time here has helped me to believe in myself and my abilities again, and rekindled that old ambition. I’ve finally gotten the college education I just wasn’t ready for as a cocky, restless 18-year-old.”

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