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Catherine Stratton, 100; promoted art, humanities at MIT

Catherine N. Stratton launched a lecture circuit at MIT but was most known for holding engaging gatherings.
Catherine N. Stratton launched a lecture circuit at MIT but was most known for holding engaging gatherings.(Morse Photography)

Nearly 80 years ago, Catherine N. Stratton arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, newly wed to a rising professor 13 years her senior, whom she had married after a brief, joyful courtship.

"I was frightened to death," she said in a 2007 interview for the Infinite History Project that was part of MIT's 150th anniversary. "I was 21. Everybody was older. Everybody had children. Everyone knew what to do. I was absolutely a greenhorn."

At MIT in 1935, faculty wives attended tea every month at the president's residence. "We wore hats, white gloves, spoke softly, quietly, and at 5 o'clock went home," she recalled. Such a gathering would have seemed unimaginable a year earlier, when she was living on a farm outside Charlottesville, Va., where she had grown up an orphan living with reluctant relatives.

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In the decades that followed, her husband, Julius Stratton, was named MIT's 11th president and Mrs. Stratton became a leading force for the humanities, bringing art onto the campus, launching a lecture series, and holding court each week at her Memorial Drive residence in what those invited came to think of as an elegant salon. Quiet no longer, Mrs. Stratton enlivened the gatherings with her sharp questions and keen wit.

"Her intelligence was so honed, and she was so broad-ranging in her interests, and she was so much fun," said Kathryn Willmore, former vice president and secretary of the MIT Corporation. "There was probably no topic that she wasn't interested in and informed on, which is amazing. I — and I know I'm not the only one — wanted to be Kay Stratton when I grew up."

Mrs. Stratton was 100 when she died of pneumonia on Sept. 10 at her rural summer residence in South Newfane, Vt. Her loyalties were equally divided between the life of the mind she lived with friends she hosted at her Cambridge home and the life of the land she had in Vermont, where woodchucks and porcupines who dared raid Mrs. Stratton's garden learned to fear her sharp shooting with a .22. With a rifle or repartee, her aim was true.

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"Kay was a memorable person," said Lawrence Bacow, president emeritus of Tufts University, who met Mrs. Stratton when he was chancellor of MIT.

At the salons she hosted in her residence overlooking the Charles River, "Kay would draw people out," he said. "The conversation would be fascinating, and it would not only be about the topical issues of the day. Kay had an opinion about everything and everyone, and she was not afraid to share it. That's part of what made her so lively, so interesting, so young at heart."

In 1960, partway into her husband's presidency from 1959 to 1966, Mrs. Stratton helped found an arts committee that was a predecessor of today's Council for the Arts. Under her leadership, MIT acquired the work of artists including Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Louise Nevelson, Henry Moore, and Robert Motherwell.

Through a student loan art collection program she established in 1966, those who attend MIT can borrow certain pieces for extended periods and keep them in their dorm rooms.

"She had an incredible impact in the area of the arts," Willmore said. "MIT has an extraordinary collection of contemporary art, and it all began with her, as far as I'm concerned."

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Mrs. Stratton also lobbied her husband to make the humanities a more significant part of MIT's curriculum. "I would say that we needed more emphasis on the arts. It's the only thing that counterbalances the rest of the institute," she said in the MIT interview. A student could become an excellent engineer, Mrs. Stratton said, but if you wanted to build a "beautiful bridge, you had to have a background in the arts and humanities."

Born in Los Angeles, Catherine Coffman was the third of four daughters whose mother died of fever days after her youngest was born. Their father sent the two younger daughters to live with his sister in Ivy, Va., a hamlet of fewer than 1,000 people just west of Charlottesville. Her father died when she was 10.

"I had a very rural life," Mrs. Stratton recalled in the MIT interview. "My education was very spotty, shall I say."

At 18, she attended what was then Fredericksburg State Teachers College "and took what I called an enriched secretarial course," she said. "I became a dreadful secretary, but it was wonderful to get away from a farm and really experience college."

Julius Stratton was a friend of an older sister, and he had visited the Virginia farm when Catherine was 14. She met him again when she was 21 and traveled to New York City in 1935 to live with a friend. He asked her to dinner.

"It was this fairy tale," said their daughter Cary S. Boyd of Newbury. "They fell in love, were engaged within six weeks, and married in four months."

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The Strattons had been married 59 years when he died in 1994 at 93.

She continued her education at Wellesley College after moving to Massachusetts, but left when she became pregnant with their son, John, who died at 4.

Mrs. Stratton was a longtime trustee at Lesley University, which awarded her a degree in 2004.

"When she was given the honorary doctorate at Lesley it was so incredibly meaningful for her," her daughter said. "She never had a degree before and she was very self-conscious about it. She felt she was lacking."

In addition to her daughter Cary, Mrs. Stratton leaves two other daughters, Cay of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Laura Thoresby of Kent, England; a granddaughter; and a great-granddaughter.

Mrs. Stratton, who had approached Bacow when he was chancellor to discuss creating senior housing for MIT retirees, launched the Aging Successfully seminar in 1988. When she turned 80, MIT's Lecture on Critical Issues series was established in her honor. She took a personal hand in assembling top speakers.

"She was the type of person you could not say 'no' to," Bacow said. "If you got a call from Kay asking you to speak at MIT, your answer was 'yes.' "

And yet "she maintained her balance and her perspective and her sense of humor," Cay said. "None of this went to her head. In whatever context she operated, she was a natural convener, because she was an enormously good listener."

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That was partly due to Mrs. Stratton's allegiance to all parts of her life. Newly arrived at MIT, she looked down from her seventh-floor apartment at plants growing far below and told her husband: "I've just got to get my hands in the dirt." They moved to Belmont until his promotions brought them back to live on campus, and they bought the place in South Newfane, where she created an expansive garden.

"Vermont was sort of the respite, the haven for her," Cay said. "She felt very rooted to the earth. Maybe this was the return of the farm girl. On an annual basis there was a war with porcupines and woodchucks, and she was very handy with a .22. On at least two occasions that I know, she skinned a woodchuck, and on one occasion served a liver pate to unsuspecting guests."


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.