The Grande Dame of Believing in Sewanee: A Farewell

Phoebe Robins Strehlow Bates died on July 16, 2022, following a two-week illness. A mainstay of the community for almost 70 years, Phoebe was 96. A memorial service is set for Aug. 20, 2022, in Kennerly Hall at the Parish of St. Mark St. Paul (formerly Otey).

Phoebe was born on Sept. 25, 1925, into the upper crust of Peoria, Ill., society. Her father ran a noted construction company that built much of Bradley University. In this environment, she learned the importance of civility and creating social ties, which would serve her well in every community she joined. Rather than taking the role of a debutante, however, she chose to attend college and later marry a French professor.

She met her husband Scott Bates at Carleton College in 1946, immediately after he returned from World War II. She says she fell in love with his smile and his poetry. After six months of cooking school, mandated by her parents, she married and joined him at the University of Wisconsin, where he was pursuing his PhD. In 1951, they journeyed to France on one of the first Fulbright Fellowships. Phoebe studied motherhood with instruction from three-month-old Robin and further refined her cooking skills under the tutelage of her landlady. The family moved to Sewanee in 1954 when Scott was offered a one-year position in the French Department. They remained there for the rest of their lives.

Arriving in Sewanee with three-week-old Jonathan was a shock. Faculty wives at the time were expected to be gracious hostesses, even as they pushed baby carriages over gravel roads to the “Supply Store” in heels, stockings, pearls, and gloves. Phoebe quickly made friends with other mothers, especially Eileen Degan and Nita Goodstein. Remembering her own entry shock, she made it a point to reach out to new couples to make them feel at home. Sylviane Poe, arriving from France with French professor George, talks about the importance of Phoebe contacting her and speaking to her for an hour in French during her own first week in Sewanee.

Faculty wives were also expected to be unpaid volunteers responsible for maintaining Sewanee civic life. Phoebe helped to found the Sewanee Chorale and the Sewanee Crafts Fair and was an active participant in the Sewanee Woman’s Club, Otey Parish’s Thurmond Library, and the Hospitality Shop. She initiated the Sewanee Siren, predecessor to the Messenger, and was the editor for 16 years. Later she authored the newsletter for both the Friends of the Library and the EQB Club. Because of her participation in the latter endeavor, she insisted that the all-male academic clubs begin admitting women. She was also instrumental in the Sewanee Elementary School’s peace pole.

Thanks to her training in French cuisine, Phoebe became famous for her dinners and also for a yearly banquet at the French House. She and Scott also held a yearly “slump party” following graduation, which would attract more than 100 faculty and spouses to their house off Jump Off Road. Guests would play horseshoes, badminton, ping pong and other games or gather around the piano to sing while Phoebe played.

On behalf of her four sons, hers was one of the four White families—along with four Black families—participating in the NAACP’s civil rights case that desegregated Franklin County schools in 1962. To help raise funds for the local NAACP, she initiated a tradition of the organization providing chicken dinners at the crafts fair. At a time of racial tension, Phoebe showed the same respect for her Black acquaintances as her White ones, a core value that she passed along to her sons.

She also taught French in the Sewanee Public School for two years on a volunteer basis, and students from that time still remember replying, “Bonjour, Madame,” to her, “Bonjour, mes enfants.”

Arguably, her major contribution to the community was the Sewanee Siren, which she founded in 1967 and edited until 1984. At the time, the newsletter had to be typed on stencils, and every Wednesday night she would laboriously assemble the content and the ads, supervise the illustrating and otherwise prepare the paper for the mimeograph machine. Early on, she had to use a manual typewriter, and a single mistake could mean retyping the entire page.

Astute readers would sometimes pick up the humorous way she juxtaposed certain ads with certain articles. Some of the Siren’s features continue in today’s Messenger, including its weekly back page poem and “Nature Notes.”

In 1985, Phoebe was the recipient of the Sewanee Civic Association Citizen of the Year Award, a high honor from the SCA for her years of community service. She was the Sewanee Woman’s Club Honorary Member of the Year, 2004–2005, which is the highest award of the club, and rewards long-standing membership and service.

In recent years, especially after Scott died in 2013, Phoebe had to withdraw from many of her activities although she served as chair of the Sewanee Woman’s Club at age 90 and continued to run a book club. She was also swimming a mile a day and walking two miles up until her late 80s. Until the very end, she was a reliable source for Sewanee history, remembering names of faculty and community members and the houses where people once lived. Historians, especially those interested in Sewanee’s racial history, have journeyed to her house to interview her.

Phoebe not only contributed to civic life but helped Sewanee evolve into a vibrant, diverse community. Because she believed so deeply in the Sewanee community, many others came to believe as well.

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