Students and professors of Lady Doak College are on a mission to document its 66-year-old history right from the time it was nothing more than a thatched enclosure to its current position as a centre of excellence
Half a dozen steel racks stacked with books, files, acid-free carton boxes and CDs occupy the rectangular hall adjacent to the J.X. Miller Library at Lady Doak College. The air inside is musty. Yellowing handwritten letters and smudged type-written documents lie on a table. Sitting inside a glass cubicle, Jim Helm pores over a heap of old papers and black-and-white photographs that are frayed at the edges. “This group photo is of the 1952 batch of students of the college -- probably one of the first set of graduates,” he says, pointing to a photo on the computer screen. “We have digitalised nearly 50 such photos. And there are 150 more.”
Jim Helm, a retired professor of Western Classics at Oberlin College and his wife Anne Helm, a social worker have been visiting the Lady Doak College in Madurai regularly for over a decade, ever since they took it upon themselves to gather, document and preserve the history of the college and it’s founder Miss Katie Wilcox, an American missionary who dedicated her life to the cause of women’s education and empowerment. The process of archiving started in 1998, when a small group comprising teachers, students and alumni was formed to develop an archives section at the college library. Under Jim Helm’s supervision, the group collected information and written documents stored in the various record rooms of the campus and organised them. “The story of Katie Wilcox and the history of the college are very interesting,” says Jim. “Each time I came here, I thought that it would be the last time. Yet, I found myself again at the library researching old records.”
The institution now has an exclusive collection of material and memorabilia related to the founder, donors and the growth of the college. Letters exchanged between missionaries in Madurai and their American contributors and documents of donations are the important findings apart from old time college newsletters, magazines, annual reports and newspaper clippings. An old wooden chair and a desk, an antique wall clock and a manual typewriter used by Miss Katie Wilcox also occupy a corner of the room, which will be thrown open to the public shortly. “The archives section will function as a resource centre for research students, professors and the general public,” says Shankara Nachiyar, the librarian. “We have also drafted retention policy and user guidelines. We will continue the documentation and the records will be added on to the existing archives. Some documents will be made available only on request.”
“It’s a fascinating tale, how Katie Wilcox set up the first women’s college in South Tamil Nadu at a time when women’s education was not encouraged. Her contribution to the women of Madurai is commendable. Apart from LDC, she also founded two girls’ schools,” says Anne Helm. There were many surprises in store for the students and professors as they archived information. Research has also revealed the history of a number of other important American missionaries who were actively involved in education and healthcare in this part of the country. “Lady Doak is one of them. But many are not even aware of her,” says Anne, who has also formed a circle of service-minded individuals in America called ‘Friends of Lady Doak College’.
Sir James and Lady Doak
Among the first donors to the college were Sir James and Lady Doak, the former Helen Gaylord. Helen was the daughter of a New England pastor who travelled with his family all over the world, visiting missions. When they visited India, she found that a teaching position was vacant at the Capron Hall School and readily accepted it. A few months later she met and fell in love with James Doak, a Scottish manager of the Madura Mills in Madurai, and they were married in the Capron Hall Church. Later James Doak was knighted for his service to India during World War II and Helen became Lady Doak. Because of her support to the College, Katie Wilcox decided to name the College after her.
Katie Wilcox came to India as a missionary from Connecticut in 1915. She joined as a member of faculty at Capron Hall School in Madurai, of which she later became the principal. Through years of hard work and fund-raising initiatives, she founded Orlinda Childs Pierce Memorial (OCPM) School for girls in 1937and later, the Noyes School. She quickly recognized the need for further education for the graduates of these institutions. Miss Wilcox ideated an exclusive women’s college in consultation with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions of the Congregational Churches in the U.S. After much hard work she was able to raise the necessary funds and founded LDC in 1948.
As the land for the College was purchased from several owners, it took years to acquire this property, as it was divided into about 50 small plots. LDC was started with 80 students under a thatched roof and was hence called ‘Thatti college’ in the past. From the beginnings the college has had Indian Principals. At one time there were open rice fields separated by tall palmyra trees, bordered by the Chokkikulam tank on the northern boundary. Today, the college has 25 buildings with 3,000 students.