The line of well wishers stretched out the door of the
ballroom and through the lobby of historic Sheldon Hall
Dec. 15, as the campus community said farewell to a
Sara Varhus, dean of arts and sciences, has resigned
her position to take a new role as vice president for
academic affairs at Nazareth College in Rochester.
It was mid-summer 1977 when Varhus, fresh out of the
doctoral program at University of Rochester, sat in
that same Sheldon Hall as English Department Chair Bill
Drake interviewed her for a temporary instructor position.
“I thought I was going to be here for one year,”
Varhus said with a laugh.
Twenty-nine years later, and after a career in which
she served as director of the Honors Program, professor
and dean, she is leaving the lakeside campus with fond
memories of the colleagues, students and friends she
met at Oswego.
The new instructor found Oswego’s English department
a “welcoming, congenial community.” Sheldon
Hall bustled with the young academics joining the faculty
at the same time, their names now familiar to many current
students and alumni: President Deborah F. Stanley and
Dean of Continuing Education Yvonne Petrella were hired
that same year to teach in the fledgling business administration
department, and Larry Spizman joined the economics department.
Fritz Messere ’71 and
Nola Heidlebaugh were young faculty members in the communication
studies department, located in the basement of Sheldon
Some of those students from the early years are now
colleagues, having returned to teach at their alma mater,
including Bob O’Connor
’82 and Steve Smith ’82.
Shortly after arriving at Oswego, Varhus married English
Professor David Hill. She had known him in Rochester
and he was also hired at Oswego to fill a vacancy.
That first winter, 1977-78, saw Oswego County hit by
terrible blizzards. It was the Minneapolis native’s
“trial by snow.”
Varhus grew up in Iowa and earned her bachelor’s
degree from Rockford College in Illinois, before going
on to complete her doctorate at Rochester in Restoration
and 18th century British literature.
She remembers those early years well. “Teaching
in Sheldon was wonderful. It’s a wonderful old
building,” Varhus said. While she remembered the
beautiful quality of light in the old building, she
also recalls snow drifting in under the windows. “It
was so chilly, and once I leaned up against a radiator
and melted my clothes,” she said.
Her fond memories of the college’s “Old
Main” include teaching a course on the steps of
Sheldon Hall on a “glorious, sunny fall day.”
As director of the Honors Program in the early and mid
1980s, Varhus remembers a sense of camaraderie with
the students. She remembers driving all around the state
“with terrified students in a 15-passenger van,”
taking students to art exhibits, concerts and other
intellectual activities, she said.
She has noticed a change in student attitudes during
her three decades on campus.
“At first, students were not terribly preoccupied
with their prospects for work after graduation,”
she said. “They’ve become increasingly concerned
about whether they would be able to make a living after
From very early on in her career, Varhus began to get
involved in administrative roles on campus while teaching
part-time. Dr. Virginia L. Radley was president then
and she was committed to advancing young women in the
ranks of the administration, Varhus explained.
Varhus was a part-time assistant dean when David King
was associate dean of arts and sciences, working on
student retention, advisement and implementing academic
She next joined the Honors Program, when then-director
Diana Balmori needed help in recruiting. That experience
would inspire her to continue in administration.
“What hooked me on administrative work in the
Honors Program was the chance to think about ways of
designing classes and activities that would engage students
in the fun of discovery and thinking about interesting
things,” she said.
She is most proud of her work in the Honors Program
to develop multidisciplinary courses. She was project
director on a Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary
Education grant to develop the first interdisciplinary
world civilizations course and hire lecturers to present
the Western Heritage Lecture Series.
“It was wonderful for students and it created
relationships and contacts for faculty that continue
to have an impact on campus,” she said.
As dean of arts and sciences, a position she has held
since 1993, she points to her work with the Student
Affairs Division to develop First Year Programs attending
to the needs of the whole student.
As dean she implemented the capstone curriculum. Now
every arts and sciences major program has a capstone
course, which links the college experience to what the
student will do after college.
It was on her watch that the interdisciplinary clusters
were developed: the Center for Communications and Information
Technology, the Molecular Biology Center, Language and
International Trade, and Cinema Studies.
She has overseen the hiring of more than half the faculty
and is looking forward to “standing back and seeing
the wonderful contributions they are making that will
change the college for the better with their new insights
She will take away these memories and many others: swimming
in the campus pools, walking her dog on its paths, taking
part in the “Beat the Deans” race, skating
on Glimmerglass Lagoon and the new ice in the Campus
Center, skiing to campus on snowy days.
But with her role as emeritus faculty member, Varhus
promises, she will still be a part of the campus community.
“I don’t feel that I’m going all that
far away,” she said.
To January 2007 E-Newsletter