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At home at Yale: Daily life in a master’s house (Feb. 1994)

Caring for undergraduates outside the classroom these days may mean visits to the emergency room, but, as the wife of Trumbull College Master Harry Adams attests, the job can also still include “babysitting” students’ fish over the holidays.

Ever since Yale adopted its residential college system, the role of the people who occupy the masters’ houses has been a critical one in the lives of undergraduates. But even the students themselves rarely know the full scope of their stewards’ contributions to the educational process. And outsiders rarely know anything at all about the subject. I was reminded of how mysterious the mastership can be by several questions recently put to me in rapid succession. Reading the Trumbull College inscription by High Street’s Yellin gate, a visitor taking a tour of the campus asked, “What is a ‘master’s house’?” A newly arrived sophomore, standing in our hall, asked with obvious disbelief, “Do you live here?” And a returning Trumbullian from the Class of 1938 inquired, “Are you still providing housing for dates?”

So what exactly is the function of the master’s house? Isn’t it expensive to maintain, a luxury Yale should have shed long ago? What is it like to live in one? I asked these questions, too, when my husband and I moved into the Trumbull master’s house on High Street six years ago.

Since then, as a “maître de maison,” I have gradually come to what I hope is a full understanding of the part the master’s house and its occupants are supposed to play. Obviously, the master of a college needs to live in the midst of the students. However, the master’s house—with its spacious rooms and huge kitchen—does not exist solely for the enjoyment of the master and family. The house is rather a center of hospitality for undergraduates, for the Yale community as a whole, and to some extent for the city. From August through May we welcome students, parents, faculty members, neighborhood groups, neighborhood children, and even strangers. People come for discussions, for fellowship, and, of course, for food.

Helping undergraduates feel welcome and at home at Yale is the first priority. Each year there are three important regular events: a reception for parents of first-year students, the parents’ weekend reception in October, and the graduation reception in May. Beyond fulfilling these responsibilities, residents of each master’s house determine their particular ways of making themselves accessible to the students.

At Trumbull, we have developed a number of traditions. Each year, for example, we host a Halloween party, a home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner, and a farewell party for Trumbull’s retiring employees. And we break the news of each year’s elections to Phi Beta Kappa by summoning the designated scholars for a surprise toast to their high achievement. My journal reveals a wide variety of other comings and goings in this house: students downing pizza during a study break; neighborhood children making Toll House cookies in the kitchen; a group of first-year students coming in for a welcoming dinner; members of the Duke’s Men auditioning in the living room; four freshmen camping out in our second-floor guest rooms for three nights after a flood in the Welsh Hall basement.

The house also serves the Trumbull College Fellows as a comfortable setting for socializing and exchanging ideas. Although most fellows’ meetings are held in the fellows’ lounge, a number of gatherings take place in the house, where the fellows have a chance to meet the current students. With the support of funds from the Mellon Senior Forum program, about 20 seniors meet every other week for dinner at the master’s house to discuss their senior essays. Several times a year Women of Trumbull—a group made up of fellows as well as students—meet at the house over coffee to talk about a variety of topics, such as how women balance career and family. On a regular basis, a group of fellows and students meets in the master’s kitchen to cook for a downtown soup kitchen.

Hospitality in the master’s house is by no means limited to Trumbull affiliates. Assorted University organizations—including the Yale Corporation, the Association of Yale Alumni, and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions—have used our house for breakfasts or luncheons. Some Master’s teas are open to the public, and for many years we have hosted the reception following the town-wide Rosh Hashannah services held in Battell Chapel.

Security warnings notwithstanding, I confess I have, on occasion, invited visitors into the master’s house to hear about Yale’s residential colleges and answer questions they might have. My husband heard of this habit of mine in an unlikely place—a hospital waiting room while he was visiting an ailing Trumbull student!

The doctor, whom Harry had never met, approached and said, “Are you the Master of Trumbull College?” She assured him that the student was recovering. Then she said, “If you have a moment I want to tell you a story: Four years ago, on a very cold afternoon I was looking over New Haven and Yale in particular. I had been offered a position at the hospital here. As I stood on a corner looking at a map of Yale, a woman stopped and asked if she could help me. After a brief conversation, she invited me to come into her house where we could be warmer. We drank tea as she told me about New Haven and Yale and what I must see before leaving town. I left thinking that if all New Haven was this friendly I’d be wise to take the job. And that was your wife!”

And what is it like, living in the midst of the campus? It is surely different from the suburbs where we lived for 32 years! Our neighborhood here includes a supportive staff, friendly workers, and 400 creative, energetic, bright students. They welcome us to their tables in the dining hall as we welcome them to our home. Their plans, their ambitions, and their concern for others give us faith in the future. We share with them the stimulating drama, art, and music available in the Yale community. Each May we sadly say goodbye to the seniors, thinking the campus will never be the same, yet knowing the Trumbull family will be renewed by fall.

Are we deprived of privacy? No, because the house is spacious and students are very considerate. Noise? Sometimes. Mostly on Saturday nights. (My husband has closed down parties only twice in six years.) True, there are interruptions one doesn’t have living in other parts of the city. Although they are magnificent, the buildings are old, so workmen seem to be in and out at all hours for tasks large and small. New students in search of Sterling Library sometimes try our front door by mistake. The ring of the back doorbell may be followed by a request to store something temporarily. A student might ask us to take in a UPS package or a flower delivery when the office is closed. Before holidays a few students are likely to bring their plants to us to be watered while they are away. (Once I had 25.) One fifth-floor resident asked me to feed his fish during the December break. “The tank is too large to bring down,” he explained. “You’ll have to come up.”

Not all the interruptions are so benign. Several times a year a call awakens us to report that a student has been admitted to the hospital. On several occasions students who lived on the fourth or fifth floors have stayed in our house while a broken bone healed. In times of crisis parents have stayed here, too.

But what of the expense of maintaining the masters’ houses? Could the University make better use of its resources? Isn’t the essential educational mission of a university possible without the luxury of these elegant places of meeting with their Persian carpets and silver tea pots? Perhaps. But the master’s house adds a dimension that is uniquely Yale. The varied activities that take place here contribute to the sense of family and sociability which are the core of residential living. Here students are afforded the opportunity to socialize in an atmosphere different from dorm and dining hall, to learn to be comfortable talking with faculty, with mentors, and with persons distinguished in their fields. Who can evaluate the importance of a stimulating conversation over tea? Through the years, the master’s house has been a place of hospitality, an integral part of the residential system.

Manette Fishwick Adams ’49MA and her husband, a professor of pastoral theology at the Divinity School, have been living in the Trumbull Master’s House since 1987.

Filed under residential colleges, 1990s
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