The Michigan State University community is mourning the passing of Pauline Adams, who dedicated much of her life to education and taught at MSU for nearly 60 years. She also was a longtime supporter of the university and the wife of former MSU President Walter Adams. Pauline Adams died on Jan. 16 at the age of 101.
Pauline Adams began teaching at MSU in 1956 as an instructor in the newly formed Department of American Thought and Language, which is now the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Cultures. The first classes she taught focused on communication skills.
Described as a “larger-than-life educator,” Adams went on to teach many generations of students in courses that covered American history and American literature, from the colonial to the modern era, as well as expository writing. She co-wrote the book, “A Populist Assault: Sarah E. Van De Vort Emery on American Democracy 1862-1895,” with Emma Thornton that was published in 1982.
Pauline Adams officially retired from MSU in 1992 as an Associate Professor. However, she couldn’t stand the thought of not teaching and decided to “ease into retirement” by teaching a noncredit course in what was then known as MSU’s Evening College — a decision she discussed in a 2014 interview with WKAR’s Mark Bashore. She enjoyed teaching in the program, now known as Lifelong Education, so much that she continued for 22 more years before fully retiring in 2014 at the age of 92.
“Pauline Adams arrived at Michigan State, with her husband Walter, as it began to emerge as a respected and global university. She was an active part of its great story for many years, and I am privileged to have known her and to have spent wonderful time in her company.”Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D., Interim President of MSU
“Pauline Adams arrived at Michigan State, with her husband Walter, as it began to emerge as a respected and global university,” said MSU Interim President Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D. “She was an active part of its great story for many years, and I am privileged to have known her and to have spent wonderful time in her company.”
Denise Troutman, Associate Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Cultures, worked with Adams as a new hire in the Department of American Thought and Language. Her office was next to Adams’ office, and the two talked frequently.
“We called her Polly. She was one of the most sincere, honest, down-to-earth co-conspirators that I have worked with,” Troutman said. “Polly regularly gave me productive direction and guidance as I navigated a new space alongside familial responsibilities. She was a wise, gregarious human being who poured freely into others. Each time she visited campus, it was incumbent upon me to greet and chat with her. Polly is indubitably the type of person I will never forget.”
Life Before MSU
The daughter of Michael and Lillian Gordon, Pauline (Gordon) Adams was born in New York City and grew up in Brooklyn. Her love of teaching began when she was 12 years old and asked to teach a cousin how to play the piano. She had never taught piano lessons before but had taken many lessons herself. Never one to shy away from the opportunity to teach, she took on this responsibility and, when neighbors heard her cousin play, they wanted to know who had taught her. The word soon spread and by the time Pauline was 16 years old, she had 21 piano students. That marked the beginning of her decades-long teaching career.
Pauline went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Brooklyn College in 1942 and a Master of Arts in Economic History from Columbia University in 1944. She also took postgraduate courses in economic history at Yale University in 1946 and 1947.
As an undergraduate student, Pauline met Walter Adams, a fellow student at Brooklyn College, on a blind date. The two also graduated from the same high school, New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn. They married on Aug. 23, 1943, and later had one son, William James Adams, who grew up following in his parents’ footsteps and now serves as the Shorey Peterson Professor of Industrial Organization and Corporate Finance and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics at the University of Michigan.
After her postgraduate studies, Pauline taught at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn and briefly served as a substitute teacher at a high school in Michigan before taking the position at Michigan State University.
Helping Build MSU’s Academic Reputation
When Walter and Pauline Adams first came to East Lansing in August 1947, MSU was known as Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science. It took them two and a half days to travel by car from Connecticut to Michigan, taking an overnight ferry along the way from Buffalo, New York, to Detroit. Their son was just 6 months old at the time.
They made the move to Michigan State College at a time when the institution, under the leadership of President John A. Hannah, was working to expand and build upon its academic reputation. Walter and Pauline Adams were among many new faculty members who were recruited to come from prestigious institutions to boost MSU’s teaching, research, and national credibility. In 1955 — eight years after the Adamses arrived in East Lansing — the university’s name changed to Michigan State University of Agriculture and Applied Science and then became Michigan State University in 1964.
When Hannah resigned on April 1, 1969, to become administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C., Walter Adams, a Professor of Economics, was asked by the Board of Trustees to serve as Interim President. Popular with faculty, students, and the Board of Trustees, Walter Adams always maintained that he did not wish to be considered for the permanent presidency and stepped down from the position on Jan. 1, 1970. Clifton R. Wharton then became MSU’s 14th president and the first African American president of any major university in the United States.
After serving as MSU’s 13th president, Walter Adams resumed his former position as Professor of Economics, which he held until his retirement on Dec. 31, 1992. He died of pancreatic cancer on Sept. 8, 1998.
A Lasting Legacy
The Adams name now can be found on an MSU building. In 2022, MSU Trustee Randall L. Pittman and his wife, Mary E. Pittman, gifted the university $6 million for the rehabilitation of Marshall Hall, which serves as the home of the Department of Economics. As part of this gift, the Pittmans requested the hall be renamed Marshall-Adams Hall to honor Walter Adams, who was a friend and mentor of Randall Pittman.
Pauline Adams also established the Walter Adams Memorial Endowed Scholarship in honor of her husband’s memory. The scholarship supports MSU Marching Band members who demonstrate excellence academically and within the band program. For years, Walter Adams would join the marching band for Saturday football pregame warm-ups and then lead the band into Spartan Stadium. To commemorate Walter Adams’ contributions to MSU, the field west of Cowles House, long used as a practice area by the MSU Marching Band, was renamed in his honor.
“We called her Polly. She was one of the most sincere, honest, down-to-earth co-conspirators that I have worked with…She was a wise, gregarious human being who poured freely into others…Polly is indubitably the type of person I will never forget.”Denise Troutman, Associate Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Cultures
The Walter and Pauline Adams Scholarship also was created to assist MSU Honors College students with strong academic records and leadership ability who are planning careers in public service or the law. Additionally, the Walter and Pauline Adams Academy Fellowship was established during the 2008-09 academic year. This fellowship, named in honor of the couple for their commitment to excellence in teaching throughout their careers, provides a cross-disciplinary cohort of faculty and academic staff the opportunity to further their development as teachers, to explore the scholarship on effective practices on university teaching and learning, and to participate in a community of teacher-scholars.
A strong supporter of WKAR TV and Radio, Pauline Adams also established the Walter Adams Endowment for WKAR in honor of her late husband. She enjoyed the fact that she was as old as WKAR and celebrated her 100th birthday in 2022 when WKAR celebrated its centennial. She also shared in an interview with WKAR that when her husband died, she was alone for the first time, and what kept her company was WKAR. When she was home alone, the WKAR radio station became her companion. She kept it on whenever she was home and it provided for her a connection, another human voice, making her feel not so alone.
In that same WKAR interview, Mark Bashore asked Pauline Adams: “Looking back, what do you think matters most in this life?” Adams responded by saying, “A sense of contentment, of satisfaction, moderation. I don’t believe in extremes in any direction. I think they can lead to fateful events that are destructive. I think in old age, the aim should be to find the line where you don’t forget the past. You have all those memories, and those memories are what make up your life. But also, you’re not crippled by the memories so that you don’t live in the present and so that you are not aware of the future.”
And when asked if she wished she had spent more time on any particular thing, she said: “I had a great life. I enjoyed it very much, even though it was difficult at times. But when I look back on it, I just say I was so lucky. I was very fortunate that Walter’s first job was at Michigan State College. That when he told his classmates at Yale ‘I have a job at Michigan State College,’ they said, ‘Oh, you’ll like Ann Arbor.’ They had not heard of Michigan State College, but we showed them!”
The MSU community wishes to express its heartfelt condolences to the Adams family and friends. The family is being served by Gorsline Runciman Funeral Homes.
Those who wish to honor Adams’ legacy can donate to the Walter and Pauline Adams Scholarship Endowment Fund, which was established to assist MSU Honors College students with strong academic records and leadership ability who are planning careers in public service or the law.
For more information on Pauline Adams or to share your condolences, please see Pauline Adams’ obituary.
Written by Kim Popiolek