Susan Frances Barrow Tate

(copyright retained by the author)

Mrs. Tate was widely, almost universally, known as SueFan, a nickname she disliked.  Later in life the nickname was perhaps useful by way of distinguishing her from a daughter-in-law also named Susan.  For me the matter was not a live issue, as she never could possibly be anything other than ‘Mrs. Tate’.

Mrs. Tate was a child of old Athens.  In a university town the old aristocracy was largely composed of descendants of presidents or chancellors of the University of Georgia.  Mrs. Tate was the granddaughter of David Crenshaw Barrow, and always said that the family still had a claim to parts of the campus where a family house once stood.  She herself as a child lived at times in the Taylor-Grady House on Prince Avenue and was connected with most of the other old families in town.  Taylors, Childses, Barrows, Smiths, and many others were cousins of more or less close degree.  In addition to such relationships of blood and marriage, Mrs. Tate also was a graduate of the Lucy Cobb Institute, which formed a connection to another group of distinguished older women in Athens:  older because Lucy Cobb closed as a school decades before I came to town.

Mrs. Tate worked for many years in the Hargrett Rare Book Room at the university.  A well-known criminal case after her retirement involved accusations of multiple thefts from the Hargrett collections by its then director.  The case was closely followed in town because it affected the library, included local people as witnesses or principals, and perhaps most of all because one witness was a rare book- and print-dealer who had had his surname name legally changed to Doodah and his first, if not Christian, name changed to ‘Zippety’.  I am told that the prosecution was not doing well until Mrs. Tate got on the stand.  Judge James Barrow, who presided in the Superior Court case, was a cousin of Mrs. Tate’s, but nobody seemed to think that was a problem.  What Mrs. Tate was able to do was identify particular books and prints by nicks and marks and other peculiarities as ones she was personally familiar with and could identify as having once been the property of the University.  Before her testimony the prosecution could prove that, say, a copy of a print of roses by Redouté had gone missing from the Hargrett and that the defendant had sold a copy of the same print, but could not positively identify the missing print with the sold print.  Mrs. Tate’s retentive memory and eye for detail connected stolen objects with sold objects, and so put the guilty behind bars.  While she was a mild woman, I think the idea of a librarian stealing from his library was quite appalling to her, and she was glad to help stop him.

Despite this moment of fame, in regard to public notice Mrs. Tate’s husband, the longtime dean of men at the university, William (‘Bill’) Tate, was much more prominent.  The student center on campus is named for Dean Tate, who was known as a raconteur, the possessor of a phenomenal memory for people, and a man with an excellent ability both to understand and to control undergraduates.

Two parishioners of mine illustrate the matter of Dean Tate’s memory.  Erwin Surrency, later law librarian at the University, was a boy from south Georgia who went to the university in the 1940s, obtained a law degree, but left the state in disgust at Jim Crow.  In due course Erwin taught law or ran law libraries on three continents.[1]  Erwin also learned that liberal Quakers on the Philadelphia Mainline could be racist too, but with much more hypocrisy than the Jim Crow folk.  When at Temple University in Philadelphia Erwin happened to see Dean Tate on the street.  He walked up to the dean and held out his hand.  As Erwin began, ‘Hello, Dean Tate, I’m…’, the dean capped the sentence with ‘Erwin Surrency from Jessup.  And how are you?’

A similar story came from another parishioner, Dunbar Harrison, a man from Savannah who came to Athens for university well after Erwin.  One weekend Dunbar and some friends went to a lake party where beer was consumed, contrary to the student code of the time.  Somehow Dean Tate got wind of the infraction and of the names of the boys involved.  On Monday they were all called to the dean’s office and individually interrogated about the beer.  They all shamelessly lied and denied consuming beer, and the dean had no proof.  Years later Dunbar returned to Athens, now as president of the Citizens & Southern Bank in Clarke County.  The considerably older banker met the dean and barely had begun his self-introduction (and apology) before the dean said, ‘You’re Dunbar Harrison, and you DID have beer.’

Dean Tate was a Methodist lay preacher, not an Anglican, and in any case he died shortly before I got to Athens.  His role in desegregating the University of Georgia and in raising a couple of generations of Georgia’s future leaders is notable.  President Jimmy Carter was only one of many who called to offer his condolences to Mrs. Tate after the dean’s death.  But for my purposes these facts are chiefly significant because of the contrast they strike with Mrs. Tate.  Where Dean Tate was very much a public figure, she was private.  He enjoyed talking to a crowd, while she enjoyed her friends and family.  One might think that she lived in her husband’s shadow, but she was very much a strong woman with her own interests and achievements.  While she loved and admired her husband, she also could take his wider circle of fans with a grain of salt.  At some point the (false) rumor got about that Dean Tate collected owls.[2]  Thereafter the Tates were showered with owl gifts.  Mrs. Tate was quite relieved to be able to get rid of the lot after his death, a number of them through Saint Stephen’s rummage sales.

The Tates were Athens fixtures, but long before I knew them they had lived elsewhere.  As young-marrieds they went to Chicago where he took a degree.  On the drive north they stopped one night in a town in Indiana.  They checked into what proved to be a very unpleasant hotel.  To get a little air on the hot night they took a walk around the town square.  There in the middle was a statue:  of William Tecumseh Sherman.  Not a promising start to life in the north.  In Chicago they lived in an apartment building.  Mrs. Tate had always heard that Yankees were not very friendly, so she was surprised when the neighbor ladies began to show up with casseroles and cakes and other edibles.  The food would have been delightful if she had not eventually learned the reason for this unexpected hospitality:  her husband was telling all the ladies that he was newly married to a sweet girl from a grand Georgia family who couldn’t boil water and that he was about to starve to death.  It was quite untrue.  I believe the edibles stopped arriving soon after Mrs. Tate learned the truth.

Mrs. Tate was a young child at the outbreak of World War I.  She heard her father and other men talking about the outbreak of war, and of course she only knew of one war.  So she asked in some alarm, ‘Are the Yankees coming?’  She was assured they were not.  And they didn’t.  At least not to Georgia.  Maybe to France.

Mrs. Tate joined the parish as soon as it formed.  At that point her neighbor and friend, Professor Kenneth Coleman, was alive and well and driving.  Dr. Coleman would bring Mrs. Tate to church regularly.  Dr. Coleman and Mrs. Tate both lived in interesting old houses on Dearing Street and enjoyed talking about Georgia and Athens and Dearing Street and their inhabitants, living and dead.  Joint membership in the parish added a new field of common interest.

I would visit Mrs. Tate in the late afternoons:  ‘Never call SueFan before 3:30 p.m. for an afternoon visit,’ another parishioner warned me, ‘or you’ll interrupt her nap.’  Often on my arrival I would find Dr. Coleman already present as well.  Mrs. Tate was frequently his proofreader, manuscript critic, and general publication advisor.  It is likely that no one in the world knew more about Georgia history than Dr. Coleman.  But it seems equally likely that no one in the world knew more about Athens history than Mrs. Tate, and she had a good deal of knowledge in Dr. Coleman’s wider field as well, not least because of her years at the Hargrett.  After I interred one of the Hodgsons or Hart Shiver in Oconee Hill Cemetery, I recall seeing Dr. Coleman, Mrs. Tate, and Phinizy Spalding looking at and talking about graves.  Yet another historian, James Reap, said, ‘I would love to hear that conversation.’  The three represented a collection of knowledge about Georgia that would be hard to beat then or now.

I was privileged to have Dr. Coleman and Mrs. Tate serve as my tutors in things Athenian and Georgian.  I once mentioned reading Flannery O’Connor, and Mrs. Tate rather tartly said, ‘Mary Flannery was an unpleasant little girl, and her stories aren’t very pleasant either.’  Mrs. Tate more particularly could tell me about what some of my older parishioners were like as children.  Once I mentioned Chick Hodgson, and Mrs. Tate told me about Chick’s visit to Athens around age 16 for a dance at the sorority to which both Mrs. Tate and Chick’s sister, Anita Burke Sams, belonged:  Chick came down the stairs dressed as if she were a 28 year old sophisticate from New York.  She was sent back up the stairs by Anita to put on more clothes.  Another parishioner, Naomi Henson Farnham, was identified by Mrs. Tate as ‘the brain of our class’:  her father was the president of Rutgers University, ‘And, you know, she marched with Martin Luther King,’ Mrs. Tate said.  I did not know.  Again, Mrs. Tate told me that Julian Miller, a slightly Eyorish man, had been very glum from his childhood on, but seemed much more cheerful after having found Saint Stephen’s.  The news that the parish made a nice old man happier in turn cheered me.  That nice old man eventually left a large bequest to the parish that paid for the new parish hall and became the kernel of an endowment.

Mrs. Tate helped, as I’ve mentioned, with several of Kenneth Coleman’s books.  She also had a hand in other books by other people.  She herself wrote and published one book, thanks to the help of her friend, Charlotte Marshall.  Remembering Athens is full of anecdote and history.  She told me she had two other books in mind, which did not get written.  One was to be called, The Day I Almost Met….   One chapter was to be titled ‘The Day I Almost Met Mrs. Herbert Hoover’.  Another chapter was to be ‘The Day I Almost Met the Duchess of Windsor’ – or perhaps ‘The Day I Almost Met the Duchess of Windsor but Am Not Sorry that I Didn’t’.  The stories about not meeting Mrs. Herbert Hoover and Wallis Simpson were both interesting, but I think the potential material for the book did not extend much beyond the two incidents.[3]  The other book Mrs. Tate had in mind was to be called Early Women Drivers in Athens.  I think that might actually have been a more adequate subject.  There were sisters who drove down the middle of Milledge Avenue, with everyone else sufficiently aware to get far away.  There were the vases of flowers in the interiors of cars, a lady who only knew two gears (reverse and third), and another with a fused neck who was a great hazard.  I heard from Mrs. Tate, among others, of the poor driving of Julian Miller’s mother, Mary Miller, and of the two categories of pedestrians around Mrs. Miller, namely the quick and the dead.  In any case, Early Women Drivers in Athens also went unwritten.

I once came upon Mrs. Tate and Dr. Coleman discussing vandalism of a family mausoleum in Oconee Hill Cemetery.  As I recall, an angel’s wing had been knocked off.  I said, ‘I just don’t understand such senseless vandalism.’  Dr. Coleman replied, ‘Oh….  I thought it was your job to understand such things.’  And right he was, of course.

For most of the years I knew her, Mrs. Tate lived in an ample apartment in the rambling family house on Dearing Street.  Later, when difficulty walking made that arrangement impractical, she moved for her two or three final years into a nursing home.  There really was no alternative.  At one point her son, Jeff, thought she was depressed and asked a psychiatrist to evaluate her.  Mrs. Tate’s report of the encounter was that a doctor had come to talk to her and introduced himself as, we’ll say, Dr. Smith.  Mrs. Tate and Dr. Smith had a pleasant chat, then the doctor got up to leave.  Mrs. Tate said, ‘Dr. Smith, you haven’t told me why you’ve come to see me.’  He told her that her son thought she was depressed.  To that she replied, ‘Look, Doctor.  I am an old lady who cannot afford to live at home anymore and I cannot really afford to live in this high class looney bin.  Don’t you think it is perfectly reasonable for me to be depressed?’  He told her that it was perfectly reasonable, and presumably he told Jeff that also.

The nursing home had at the time therapy animals – dogs and cats roaming the halls and birds and rabbits in cages.  Once I saw a rabbit there for the first time when wheeling Mrs. Tate about the halls and asked her if she wanted to have a closer look.  ‘What is it?’, she asked.  ‘A rabbit,’ I replied.  ‘A WABBIT!  A bunny WABBIT!  Yes, I’d WUVE to see it.’  Later Jeff told me that she affected such baby talk with him as well.  He said, ‘Cut it out, Mother.’  And she did.  Instantly.

After her death Mrs. Tate came up in a conversation with Miss Susan West, daughter of Robert and Conn West (concerning whom, see more below).  Susan was Mrs. Tate’s namesake.  Mrs. Tate also was Susan’s godmother and a great friend of her mother, Conn.  Susan said to me,

After you moved here Mother said to me, ‘Mark is a nice young man, and we are fortunate to have him.  It’s such a shame he is a Yankee.’  Aunt SueFan was much too nice a person to say such a thing, but you can be sure she thought it also!

Yankee though I be, I appreciated fully the privilege of knowing Mrs. Tate.  She was a very grand lady and a most interesting woman.

[1] One of Erwin’s teaching stints was as a lecturer at Queen’s, Belfast, in Northern Ireland in the early 1960s.  At the time the head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was a man named Kennedy.  One day the Surrencys heard a neighbor woman on her front stoop shout to another woman across the way:  ‘They’ve shot Kennedy!’  The other woman shouted back, ‘I always knew they’d git him!’

[2] An article about Dean Tate appeared in a major Georgia newspaper shortly after he had been given an owl sculpture.  The article included a picture that included the owl.  I am told that was the origin of the rumor.

[3] On the matter of good but insufficient material, I am reminded of Ann Hammond Dure’s desire to write a story about the day of her birth.  Ann was born on December 30, 1939, in Maryland, when she was supposed to be born the next month in Washington, D.C., where her father was a White House correspondent.  The story was to be titled, ‘I was born on the wrong day, in the wrong week, in the wrong month, in the wrong year, in the wrong decade, in the wrong city, in the wrong state, in the wrong hospital.’  About which, Ann observed:  ‘It’s a great title but I have nowhere to go from there.’

One thought on “Susan Frances Barrow Tate

  1. Great to see you publishing these stories, along with the other more spiritual writings. I am enjoying them.

    Connie Herringdine



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