Luella Clay Carson
What’s in a name? Many of us know Chuck Lillis, namesake of the Lillis Business Complex, but what about the academics, entrepreneurs, and advocates who inspired the names of the University of Oregon’s many other buildings? Behind familiar names on campus are legacies of outstanding stewardship and support of the university—and behind one name in particular is a story of perfect elocution and perfectly shined shoes.
Luella Clay Carson, the daughter of Oregon pioneers and a professor of rhetoric, was appointed as chair of English composition and elocution in 1888—the first-ever head of the English department—a mere decade after the university first opened its doors. She was later named dean of women, and served the UO for 21 years while simultaneously making her mark on students nationwide.
A scholar of English and elocution, Carson authored a widely-circulated textbook of English grammar rules and style tips, Handbook of English Composition: A Compilation of Standard Rules and Usage. In her preface she writes, “The aim of this handbook is to present under one cover the main requisites of good English, with the hope that it will be found a convenient code for accurate expression.”
Carson did not mince words in her handbook. Of excessive use of italics, Carson wrote that it "generally indicates a lack of definite thought and skill in composition;" pages later, she added that "the general intelligence of a writer is measured by his spelling."
And, yes, his spelling. Written four years before women gained the right to vote in Oregon, and more than a decade before the Nineteenth Amendment gave them the vote nationwide, Carson wrote in Handbook of English Composition that "When a number of persons, masculine and feminine, are spoken of distributively, the pronouns he and his are proper forms of reference (not their, not his or her)."
A 1953 Register Guard article detailed a presentation given by an Eldon Johnson on Carson’s legacy. "She was a woman of great force and dominating personality," said Johnson. "She insisted on recitations that were letter perfect. Her sophomore course in rhetoric was an outstanding experience with many students and her admonitions on morals and manners were long remembered." Johnson went on to recount that a turn of the century student of sophomore rhetoric remembered, “No course ever studied had been of more benefit to her and no professor more respected than Professor Carson.”
Johnson notes, “It was said of her that she was the dean of men as well as officially dean of women.” Carson notoriously reprimanded young men on campus for their manners and etiquette, reputedly once calling a student into her office to remind him to shine his shoes. It’s reported that on another occasion, after a student simulated tipping his hat to her, Carson recalled him to teach him the proper manner in which to tip one's hat.
In addition to her academic and administrative responsibilities, Carson also took on commitments as a patroness of various events in Eugene, from the University of Oregon Alumni Association’s ball—described as “one of the important events of the year in the varsity town” by The Sunday Oregonian—and the Festival of Friends, Companions, Oregonians, and Country-women, a gathering of university women across societies and sororities.
Remembered as a woman of immense intellect, focused energy, and
careful attention, Luella Clay Carson leaves a laudable legacy on
Carson Hall, home of hundreds of students each year in addition to a
delicious buffet known for hearth oven pizzas and late night whammies,
stands five stories tall at the heart of campus, next to the EMU. The
residence and dining hall, designed and built between 1945 and 1949 as a
part of a post-war construction effort on campus, was formally
dedicated to Carson in February 1950. Though it now houses co-ed students, when it first opened to
undergraduates Carson Hall was a women’s dormitory, honoring Carson’s
position as Dean of Women.
Additionally, in a fitting location for a textbook author, the Knight Library’s east stairwell is inscribed with a quote attributed to her: “Settle your beliefs and convictions… and then write from yourself… The thoughts which are your own—of your own creation and convictions—are those that burn and are full of interest to you and those who hear them.”
That is good advice in any era; just make sure your shoes are shined properly.