Once upon a time, in the land of geeks and nerds known as RPI, there was a very important position occupied by a well-known and revered woman. Her name was Mrs. Warren a.k.a. Mrs. Walter Phelps Warren or Helen Liddle Warren. Her title was the Director of Social Activities. I don’t think I could sum up the significance of her job any better than this essay written in 1949:
The First Lady of R.P.I.
What type of engineer is in demand today? At once the images of radar, atomic fission, rocket projectiles, and the “never-never” aspects of the modern scientific age spring to mind, but the real answer has nothing to do with the laboratory or the cyclotron.
The engineer of today and tomorrow?
Perhaps the core of the answer to this question was expressed by Philip D. Reed, board chairman of the General Electric Company, in a recent letter to Mrs. Walter Phelps Warren, director of social activity among the 4,000 science and engineering students of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y. This year RPI celebrates it’s 125th anniversary as the nation’s oldest college of science and technology. Wrote Mr. Reed: “The ability to get along with one’s fellowman, to take one’s place effectively and cooperatively as a member of a business team is fully as important as technical competence.”
The personnel manager of a large industrial firm has said: “We want brilliant men, yes, but no one-sided scientists. We want able young technologists who can establish pleasant and productive relationships with the other people in our departments. We want young graduates who can get along with people and grow into positions of responsibility.” That is the special kind of engineer industry seeks today.
Accordingly, Rensselaer, through the capable hands of Mrs. Warren, has shaped and correlated a new, diversified span of social activities with the aim of developing the entire Rensselaer community into “a kind of laboratory for research in living.” From a small office located in the Student Center, in the heart of the campus, Mrs. Warren handles a variety of events designed to take the student’s mind off his engineering textbooks and focus it on a relaxing, healthful social diversion. Mrs. Warren invites the young ladies of Troy and of nearby Russell Sage, Skidmore, and Bennington Colleges to attend parties and college dances, and they welcome these invitations in droves. She arranges for some of these girls to teach classes where RPI students can learn the latest rumba steps. She organizes classes in bridge. She helps stage bridge tournaments. She even conducts her own class in social behavior and etiquette.
Whether it is a picnic, a tea dance, a musical jam session, or entertainment in the student lounge, Mrs. Warren dives in and helps the boys. They love it. They even bring their personal problems to her. She loves it. Student members of Phalanx, the honor society, and the musical clubs, fraternities, outing groups, and the student union have offered her an enthusiastic brand of cooperation, and as a result the social life of the campus has increased in tempo and variety by a thousand percent.
“An engineering school must necessarily be a hard taskmaster for any student,” Mrs. Warren points out, “but the boys are beginning to find that by plunging into an active campus social program they are stimulated and can go back to their books with an improved outlook and a greater intensity. The objective goes beyond thorough competence in a special field of work. We offer training in teamwork, a readiness to take the lead, an ability to play a constructive part in community life. The occasional trouble with all of us is that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that we are citizens first, and members of a profession second.”
Middle-aged but with an unmistakable look of youthfulness about her bright blue eyes, Mrs. Warren long has been identified with the social and cultural activities of the city of Troy, of which she is a native. This has meant a lot in enlisting the generous aid of townspeople and developing a full, gracious, and diversified social life at RPI.
As one RPI senior put it: “Mrs. Warren is as much a part of the campus as the football stadium.”
I’m not sure how Mrs. Warren felt about being compared to the football stadium, but it’s clear that she loved the students and they loved her. She directed the social activities of RPI students from 1947 to 1962. Upon her retirement, Phalanx honored her with a dinner dance and the Student Council presented her with a gold watch.