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Detra Mac Dougall, a fixture on campus for 45 years, honored at Convocation

By Jason Peno ’10 M.Div.

The end of the 2007-08 school year brought with it the standard graduation of yet another class of Yale Divinity School students—but also the retirement of longtime registrar Detra Mac Dougall.

Mac Dougall was feted during Convocation and Reunions 2008 at the Oct. 14 Alumni Awards banquet along with the four alumni award honorees.

Detra and Allena“I always have to have the last word,” quipped Mac Dougall as she approached the banquet podium, tears in her eyes and a sly grin on her face. “Although I did not attend YDS, I am very much a product of this school,” she said, reflecting on her time with students, faculty, and staff over a career spanning 45 years.

Mac Dougall’s wide-ranging impact on the YDS community was made clear as colleagues and friends at the banquet took a moment to reflect on her steady presence on campus.

 “You have been the quiet, stubborn, warm, gifted heart at the center of YDS,” commented Kate Latimer ’85 M.Div.

Harold Attridge, dean of Yale Divinity School and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament, remarked, “We [the deans of YDS] could not have done our job without her.”

Amid champagne toasts and standing applause, the gathered throng dubbed MacDougal an honorary alumna.

 “You get to the point where you find out, really, that it is the right time to retire,” said Mac Dougall in an interview well before Convocation.  “Letty is no longer here. Margaret is no longer here, and those were my bonds, and so it feels ok to be going.”  Her reference was to two iconic figures in the field of feminist theology who both taught at Yale Divinity School for decades:  Letty Russell, who died in July 2007, and Margaret Farley, who retired from YDS at the end of the 2006-07 academic year.

Just as praise was showered upon the longtime registrar at the Awards Banquet, friends and colleagues were unstinting in their praise in a series of interviews conducted after Mac Dougall's retirement was announced.

David Bartlett ’67 B.D., ’72 Ph.D., the J. Edward Lanz and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication, began as a student the same year Mac Dougall became registrar and then worked with her when he was dean of academics for 11 years. “She kept the whole place in academic order while providing a kind, listening ear,” recalled Bartlett, who currently teaches at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.  “She was especially important in increasing the role and place of women in the student body.” He called Mac Dougall “a cherished friend and advisor.”

Jamie Holmes ‘86 M.Div. said Mac Dougall handled “challenges big and small with forbearance and objectivity.”

Current students have also been touched by Mac Dougall’s dedication and care.  “Her work as registrar and supervisor/advisor was not only characterized by a sustained commitment to bettering the operational heartbeat of YDS, but by a strong commitment to ensuring a spiritually and socially accessible community for all students and colleagues,” observed second-year M.A.R. student Rebecca Lenn.  “Her involvement in the initiation and the continuation of the Women's Center exemplified this commitment.”

Friend and colleague Margaret Farley, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics, described Mac Dougall as “a wonderful professional, a marvelous human being,” who brought “professional competence, deep faith, great personality, and commitment to the church” to her position.

Mac Dougall emphasizes the formative role the YDS community played in her life, especially in her relationships with students. “The most difficult thing to be a registrar is that you have to be fair and just and listen to students,” Mac Dougall said in the interview.  “There are policies, but there are times that policies need to be bent. But you have to do it in a manner that is fair to the rest of the student body.” Mac Dougall also had a knack for knowing when ‘time-outs’ were necessary, calling for morning tea breaks and Friday afternoon Sherry Time when it was clear she and her staff needed a breather. 

As Mac Dougall enters retirement, she still remains active at YDS as she helps Lisabeth Huck, the new YDS Registrar, transition into the position.

As for the long-term, Mac Dougall says she remains confident “that God will tell me what is next because I always felt that I was called to this position...I’m sure that God will find me something just as meaningful.”

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