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Nancy Leach Sweeten’s unique journeyBY: Dan Rottenberg 12.19.2005
She never achieved tenure at Penn, yet she exemplified what a great university is about.
‘To stand outside of the rest of the world’:
If you attended Penn in the early 1960s, the image doubtless sticks in your mind’s eye: A man and woman— he in his late 60s, with horn-rimmed glasses and a mane of white hair; she in her late 30s, with the legs of a fashion model— make their way across the College Hall green (as Blanche Levy Park was then known). The man is MacEdward Leach, professor of English, a nationally known folklore scholar and something of a folk figure himself: a charismatic raconteur whose vivid story-telling skills had captivated Penn students for 40 years. One such student, according to campus gossip, was the striking and slender woman beside him, whom the professor had swept her off her feet so completely that in no time Nancy Rafetto had become Mrs. Mac Leach.
If that lady with the self-assured gait had been simply another attractive coed, she would have been a prize catch indeed for a man twice her age. As one of Mac Leach’s colleagues recalled years later, “When Nancy dropped a glove, six male heads bumped in the effort at retrieval.” But in fact Nancy Leach was a good deal more: She was vice-dean of Penn’s (now defunct) College for Women, a lecturer in early American literature and a bona fide scholar in her own right who understood and actually liked Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Henry James and all those other 19th-century icons who seemed to have existed for no reason other than to torment 20th-Century undergraduate English students.
Nancy Rafetto had arrived at Penn in 1945, a coal broker’s daughter fresh out of Oberlin, and she had never left. She’d spent the next seven years at Penn acquiring her M.A. and her Ph.D. (topic: Edith Wharton). But contrary to campus legend, Nancy never took a course with Mac Leach. She met him in 1949 among a group of mutual friends; and following a four-month courtship (which consisted mostly of long drives to wintry Atlantic City, with Mac spinning stories all the way there and back), she married him the following February, when she was 26 and he 56.
To the romantic souls of my contemporaries— this was before Vietnam and the Kennedy and King assassinations, when romanticism still seemed a viable posture— Mac and Nancy Leach had found life’s holy grail: By successfully fusing intellect and emotion, they had bridged an age gap of 30 years. In the process, we imagined, they had reached a plateau where they could transcend life’s petty annoyances and grasp the cosmic truths that we undergrads hungered to discover. And so we flocked to their courses, hoping to learn their secret.
Their classes were unfailingly provocative and stimulating, and Nancy in particular possessed a flair for relating her antebellum authors to our own post-World War II lives. “I often wonder what characteristic makes one person succeed beyond all the others in his group,” she remarked to me years later. “I look for that in literature, and in my classes. It’s a special kind of relationship I feel with students. I’m not interested in their personal lives; the impersonal is more my style. But when I step into the classroom I expect something to happen.”
Thus for all their brilliance, inside the classroom Nancy and Mac never spoke about the subject that interested us most: themselves. That insight wasn’t divulged to me until much later. “The minute you do something unconventional,” she remarked over lunch, referring to that marriage, “you tend to stand outside of the rest of the world. You get a detached perspective that you keep for the rest of your life.”
After Mac died in 1967, widowed and cut off from her own contemporaries, Nancy felt a void in her life that teaching and counseling alone couldn’t fill. She remained at Penn but also taught a course for public TV and served on Mayor Rizzo’s City Charter Commission. One day at Penn after work she was taking her car out of the lot behind her office in Bennett Hall. A man in a suit and topcoat appeared and gallantly held open the chain at the entrance, locking the chain behind her so she wouldn’t have to get out of the car again. The man was E. Craig Sweeten, Penn’s vice president for development, as much of a legend in the academic fund-raising world as Mac Leach had been in the world of folklore.
To Nancy, this executive’s old-fashioned manners seemed every bit as charming and intriguing as Mac Leach’s seductive story-telling. After a few more such meetings, Sweeten invited Nancy to join a Penn faculty panel he was assembling to speak to alumni groups. And when he became her second husband in 1973, her status as a Penn campus legend was assured.
Nancy’s second husband struck many people as the antithesis of her first. Mac Leach was the ultimate academician; Craig Sweeten, by contrast, functioned throughout his career as Penn’s “Mr. Outside,” dealing with alumni and government but playing no role in the internal educational process. Mac Leach rejected much of “civilized” life as a sham and a fraud; Craig Sweeten personified civilized life. Where Mac Leach took Nancy to Nova Scotia to view a stone that had been passed down through generations of a family and was said to possess magical curative powers, Craig took her to theater parties at Annenberg, to receptions at the Faculty Club and to Hanover for the Penn-Dartmouth football game.
But as Nancy often observed to her literature classes and her counseling students alike, the important thing in any human relationship is to find the characteristic that matters. Mac Leach and Craig Sweeten shared at least one trait in common, and it was what Nancy wanted: “I need a man who takes charge of my life,” she explained. “I have no need to dominate, just a need to be appreciated.” Even at the first high tide of the feminist movement, this accomplished and thoroughly liberated woman readily assumed Craig Sweeten’s name and kept it for 31 years until her death last August.
I would suggest two other traits that Mac Leach and Craig Sweeten shared in common: Each (to use Nancy’s phrase) succeeded “beyond all the others in his group”; and both were passionately devoted to Penn. The life of Nancy Rafetto Leach Sweeten— who never achieved tenure and never rose above the lowly rank of lecturer— defied such easy categorization. Yet at the end of the day, what was said of Nancy’s two husbands applies to her as well. In the richness and variety of all that Penn gave to her and all that she in turn gave back to Penn over nearly half a century— in her instinctive ability to bridge gaps between young and old, past and present, fact and fiction, teachers and students and administrators— Nancy’s life exemplified what a great university is all about.
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