Back Then

In 1985, when Kathy Hoke was interviewing for a mathematics faculty position, the University of Richmond stood out from the other universities she visited.

“How many people had female members in their departments? Not many. There was usually one or two, and often they were younger,” she recalls. “UR was very different. There were Marion Stokes and Libby Taylor, who were clearly senior members of the department. That was unusual, to have two women at that level.”

Taylor would retire soon after Hoke was hired. Stokes, who retired in 1994, became a mentor and friend over the years to Hoke, who is department chair today. Even after her retirement, Stokes (above right, in 1993) continued to go out for lunch with Hoke (above left) to offer an ear for commiseration and advice.

“Nothing ever flapped her,” Hoke said. “She’d seen it all.”

When Stokes joined Richmond’s mathematics department in 1950, she was a pioneer in a field that still struggles to recruit women in the same numbers as men. Hoke said that having Stokes as a sounding board was invaluable early in her career.

“‘Affirming,’ I guess, is the word,” Hoke said. “You can feel so inadequate as a young faculty member. There are so many places you need to be spending your time. When you’re at home, you feel like you should be at work. When you’re at work, you feel like you should be home. That she had been through it before and talked to me about it was enormously affirming.”

Mathematics professor Della Dumbaugh, who joined the department at the tail end of Stokes’ career, has studied the history of women in the profession.

“What [Stokes] didn’t know at the time — and research in the last 20 years has shown — is that when you have someone in the front of the classroom that looks like you, it’s a tremendous boost,” she said. “We now call it being a role model and mentor, but Marion didn’t have the luxury of knowing that — at least not officially, but I think she probably knew it on some level.”

Whatever she knew about what she was doing, it was working. Stokes was popular with students and remains one of those faculty members that alumni always ask about, according to Hoke.

“It was always the rumor that she failed more people than anybody else, but people still begged to get into her class,” Hoke said. “She was just enormously organized, could teach anything, and loved to teach.”

Another lasting gift Stokes gave the department was the Stokes Fund for Mathematics and Computer Science, which she and her husband established to provide discretionary funds to whomever was department chair.

“When somebody came in, if they had a fantastic idea, I never had to throw a wet blanket on it,” Hoke said, referring to managing the department budget as chair. “I could always say, ‘That sounds great. Keep going. Let’s see where it goes.’”