Honouring Mary Thoits – an inspirational alumna

We are proud to have awarded former student Mary Thoits with the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters, celebrating her as the very embodiment of our ethos ‘inspiring the extraordinary’.

Adventurous spirit

Mary came to Durham in 1946, boldly travelling alone from the USA, after insisting on taking the highly unusual step of a year abroad during her degree studies at De Pauw University in Indiana.

Mary was also part of the US Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS), having learned to fly planes at the age of 16 in response to being told that driving cars was not for women!

She later spent 15 years in Europe as a Recreation Director for the Special Services brand of the US Military.

Love for life and learning

Mary went on to become Director of the Senior Studies Program at Long Beach City College, California, championing senior citizen learning, noting that ‘curiosity keeps you young’.

In later life Mary made generous donations towards the acquisition of rare books by Palace Green Library and in support of student fellowships and bursaries.

Sadly Mary died before the ceremony could take place but, with the help of her family, we are carrying out the ceremony posthumously, a first in our 189-year history.

Speaking about Mary’s legacy and honorary doctorate, Robert Garcia, Mayor of Long Beach, California, said: " Mary Elizabeth Thoits was a passionate and outstanding educator in Long Beach.

?She was dedicated to helping others and Long Beach couldn’t be more proud of her legacy. This is the perfect way to recognize her achievements and life.’

Transatlantic educational and cultural relationships

Mary’s legacy joins a fascinating and rarely celebrated group of individuals who have developed educational and cultural understanding between Southern California and our University.

These include Joseph Scott who left Durham in 1888 and went on to gain national fame for his eloquent courtroom pursuit of Charlie Chaplin, a fellow Durham University (honorary) graduate.

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