It is 1952 in Kampala, Uganda, and a slight young student with a leg brace left from a bout of polio walks haltingly up to the main building of Makerere College. She is about to earn her third master’s degree in a place with few whites and fewer women. By 1958, she will have her doctorate from Oxford.
In 1971, Dr. Margaret Bates will join the New College faculty and teach political science until she retires in 1995. During the tenuous years of 1989 to 1992, she accepts the role of interim provost of the college.
I wish I had inquired of her which of these times in her life she felt required the most courage.
Those are the thoughts that come to mind for Mary Ruiz ’73 when asked for her impressions of Professor Bates – best known as Peggy. Despite her international reputation as a scholar of African history and politics, and international relations, Bates was best known and beloved for her commitment to her students, colleagues and to New College.
Throughout her career, she combined compassion with exacting standards for scholarship. “Our professor was both formidable and familiar. Without exception, we all knew when we should call her ‘Dr. Bates’ and when we could call her ‘Peggy,’” Ruiz said.
Her commitment went beyond the classroom, to her eagerness to live in the Pei Dorms – “with a set of ear plugs and a stack of romance novels at her bedside,” Ruiz said.
She would open her apartment, both every Tuesday night to students, and to host a seminar, complete with continental breakfast, for her senior political science students. It felt like a home away from home, Ruiz said. “Looking back now, I feel perhaps we gave Peggy, who never married or had children of her own, the same sense of family she gave to us.
Professor Bob Benedetti, who taught the seminar with her, said her warmth extended to her fellow faculty members as well. “She accepted students and colleagues alike as a community of scholars,” he said. “Everyone was welcome at Peggy’s apartment.”
He arrived at New College a year before Bates, and the two new political scientists formed a close bond.
“Peggy adopted my wife, Susan, and me from the beginning,” he recalled. They learned to enjoy her Indian dishes and Pimm’s No. 1 Cup on the weekends, and she introduced them to opera, which became a passion. When their daughter Beth was born in 1977, Bates was an easy choice as her godmother.
“Each of us has our stories of how she gave us personal support as well as academic discipline,” Ruiz said. “Truthfully, Peggy was tougher on the women. I think Dr. Bates well knew the world for which she was trying to prepare us.”
In the end, her lessons lasted far longer than what she taught in the classroom or shared over meals in her apartment.
“I wish I had inquired of Peggy which of the times in her life she felt required the most courage, because she was courageous in everything she did,” Ruiz said. “I still use her example of a woman’s brand of courage as a touchstone in my life.”
The Benedettis stayed in touch with Bates after they left New College in 1989, often talking on the phone for hours as she kept them updated her beloved New College and colleagues and students.
“A few days before she died, I called to find her reading a favorite book, Garrett Mattingly’s The Spanish Armada,” Benedetti said. “She told me that she had read it many times; it was an old friend, but it was now time to say good-bye.”