Remembering the compassionate and humane Emily Pfitsch

On Emily’s birthday (she would have turned 98 today), Dr. Irma McClaurin ’73 writes a loving tribute 

Irma McClaurin ’73
  Dr. Irma McClaurin ’73

April 5, 2023 — There are some people in the world whose passing leaves a void, with only a faint glimmer visible of where their star once shone brightly. Emily Pfitsch was that kind of person.

I was saddened to hear of her passing. Sitting on my table was a belated holiday envelope addressed to her. The card — from IFAW [International Fund for Animal Welfare] — had elephants on it, but I was waiting to print out a photo we had taken together on my last visit to Grinnell in May 2019, for her to post on her refrigerator gallery.

That last occasion was my goddaughter’s 2019 Grinnell High School graduation and all the hotels were booked and overpriced. While pondering hotel options, on a hunch, I phoned Emily who immediately offered me lodging in the Pfitsch homestead. She had kept it for family and friends to stay whenever they visited, while she lived at the Mayflower. To Emily, I was family. And she was family to me as well.

While a student at Grinnell, I did not have occasion to see much of Coach (John) Pfitsch or Emily. After all, I was not an athlete, and so I rarely crossed paths with either of them.

But returning in 1991 as a CMSP (Consortium for a Stronger Minority Presence) Dissertation Fellow, I got to know John much better through water aerobics. Many in attendance were former professors, and they treated me like the prodigal daughter returned home.

I was diagnosed with a pinched nerve and advised to stop running and to swim. One problem, growing up Black in inner city Chicago, I had limited exposure to pools — whose access was often segregated. I didn’t know how to swim, and actually harbored a fear of water. The exception was the time I spent doing research in Belize, where I could sit and wear out my bathing suit in the warm Caribbean sea that sparkled like a piece of turquoise sea glass.

By the time I arrived in Grinnell in 1969, a member of the largest cohort of Black students (18 of us) admitted at one time up to that moment, the swimming requirement had been eliminated. I wished it had not; perhaps, I might have learned to swim — something I made sure my children could do, starting them at 3 months old.

Irma McClaurin ’73 and Emily Pfitsch
  Irma McClaurin and
  Emily Pfitsch in 2016

Coach Pfitsch learned of my desire to swim at age 39, as I had now returned to my alma mater as a late-life Ph.D. student in anthropology — the prodigal (Black) daughter. John accommodated me. He divided the class into two sections: first water aerobics and later swim lessons for those who so wanted to learn. I am still not a great swimmer, but I have much more confidence in water environments because of John. But back to Emily.

In accepting the offer to become the first Black faculty in anthropology at Grinnell, upon completion of my Ph.D. in 1993, I was able to buy my first home. 

As luck would have it, the Grinnell house address on 10th Avenue was the exact same house number as the Pfitsch’s on 9th Avenue. We were neighbors sharing the same house number, one block apart.

Once we discovered the connection, Emily and John became surrogate grandparents to my daughter. As I navigated the demands of a tenure-track job and other personal changes, they volunteered to watch Zena while I attended conferences for several days.

It was John who recommended tennis lessons for my daughter, after observing that she was ambidextrous playing table tennis. He had a theory that ambidextrous people might have “natural” athletic ability.

In May 1995, I resigned and departed Grinnell for the University of Florida, after staying for four years as the only Black faculty in anthropology, the first Black alum hired, and the first Black woman alum faculty. It was not always a comfortable space. But people like Emily and the other three Black & POC faculty, and the latest Black CSMP scholar on campus at that time (1993-1995) made it tolerable.  

I took the job at the University of Florida because it was more attuned to my desire to pass my knowledge on through graduate students, and continue to do research. The heavy teaching load at Grinnell made research a challenge.  However, I did return to the town for a campus wedding, class reunions, or to give an alumni talk, during which I often stayed with the Emily and John Pfitsch.

Regardless of where I stayed, I made time to call or visit Emily.  She also would come to hear me lecture, if she saw a notice posted. Seeing her familiar face in the crowd of unfamiliar students always made me smile. I was more connected to her than John.

On my last visit to Grinnell in May 2019, I met with Emily several times. We went to lunch, and I recorded her memories of the experiences she recalled of Black athletes at Grinnell in the 60s and 70s; this was related to research for Dr. Kesho Scott’s book on the experiences of Black men at Grinnell. 

Emily Pfitsch (left), Irma McClaurin ’73, and George Drake ’56 take a photo at Drake’s 2019 book signing.
Emily Pfitsch (left), Irma McClaurin ’73, and George Drake ’56 take a photo at Drake’s 2019 book signing.

Emily and I also attended the book signing for late Grinnell President emeriti George Drake ’56 at the Drake Community Library in Grinnell. 
One conversation I recall now with great fondness was Emily’s confession to me. It seems a women’s group to which she belonged had asked its members to select a woman they admired for a report to share. 
Emily confessed she had selected me and gathered all her information online. When I asked why, she said that she had learned so much from me about race and racism over the years — and I always spoke with honesty.
What an honor to be viewed in this thoughtful manner by such a loving and compassionate person.
Emily Pfitsch was the epitome of what it means to be truly human and humane across boundaries of difference that too often separate us. 

She left her mark of compassionate humanity upon this world — and upon me. I will sincerely miss her, but the memories of our times together make me smile.

— by Dr. Irma McClaurin

For your information:

Dr. Irma McClaurin ’73 is an activist anthropologist, consultant, and award-winning writer. Emily Pfitsch was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters at Grinnell College’s 2017 Commencement ceremony.  

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