Historical Corner: Ada B. Nisbet ’24

Ada B. Nisbet ’24: The Woman Behind Our Beloved Alma Mater

By Dr. Melinda Blade, Director of Mission Integration and OLP Historian

6th in a series about OLP’s history. Read the previous installment here.

“Set on a hill over valley royal,
Mountain and sea afar,
Built with a love and devotion loyal,
Stands Villa Montemar…”

Each freshman class is taught our alma mater before their first day of classes begin. At the conclusion of major assemblies and OLP events, the student body, faculty and staff stand and sing the alma mater. Reunion classes who have not been on campus for decades still remember the words. On written documents and the banner in the Event Center, the author’s name is given: Ada B. Nisbet ’24. But who is she?

Ada Blanche Nisbet graduated 83 years ago from OLP. She was born to Bessie Kelley Nisbet and James Robert Nisbet on May 7, 1907 in DeKalb County, Indiana. Her father was the manager of a surgical instrument business in Chicago. A quick genealogy study indicates that both Ada and Blanche were family names. She was the younger sister of Robert Kelley (born 1905), who visited OLP many years ago to see where his sister attended and taught school.

Following her graduation from OLP, Ada attended Dominican College in San Rafael. After her matriculation, Ada became a faculty member at OLP. She was an English teacher and the moderator of the school plays, serving as OLP’s first drama teacher.

In 1946, she received her doctorate in English Literature from UCLA. Dr. Nisbet began teaching in UCLA’s English Department, remaining a member of UCLA’s faculty until she retired in 1974.

Dr. Nisbet was a well-respected member of the UCLA faculty and served in various capacities during her tenure. She was a member of the English Department’s Executive Committee, a vice-chair of graduate studies for four years, and a member of several Faculty Senate committees. She also was the Secretary of the Faculty Senate, the President of the Faculty Women’s Association, and the President of the University’s Phi Beta Kappa Chapter. Further, she was the dissertation adviser for 10 students. She was named a Professor Emerita upon her retirement.

In 1948 and again in 1954, Dr. Nisbet was designated as a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient in the field of English Literature. This prestigious award is granted to scholars who have demonstrated excellence in their field and whose studies are designed to foster international understanding. She also was the recipient of two fellowships from the Ford Foundation. The Foundation looks for people who are “invested in innovative ideas, visionary individuals, and frontline institutions advancing human dignity around the world.” Dr. Nisbet also garnered two awards from the Humanities Institute and received two American Council of Learned Societies fellowships.

During her years at UCLA, Dr. Nisbet penned a variety of books and articles relating to Charles Dickens and Victorian Literature, which was her specialty. A few notable books and articles include Dickens and Ellen Ternan (1952), “War and Smog Irked Dickens, Too” (1970), and the Bibliography of British Comment on America, which consisted of over 3,000 entries.

Dr. Nisbet was also a member of the editorial staff of the University of California Press, the associate editor for 14 years at the Journal of Nineteenth Century Fiction, and an advisory editor for The Letters of Charles Dickens, published in 1965 by the Oxford University Press. She was considered, at one time, to the be “world’s best known Dickens biographer,” and gave frequent lectures on the subject.

Her vast Dickens library, which included first editions of Dickens’ novels, was donated to the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1971. The Ada B. Nisbet Dickens Project Library allows scholars to further their research on Dickens. Colleagues and students remembered Dr. Nisbet as a woman of “Dickensian eccentricities” with a warm hospitality, wit and wisdom.

Dr. Nisbet died on September 16, 1994 in Oakland, California. One of her colleagues, Professor Blake Nevius, said upon her death that he would remember the “Ada Nisbet who never forgot a birthday and the Ada Nisbet who terrorized the Los Angeles Freeways by the abandon with which she drove her sporty MG.” Dickens, it was said, would have loved Ada. Dr. Ada B. Nisbet is buried next to her mother in the Waterloo Memorial Cemetery in DeKalb County, her headstone simply inscribed, “Loving daughter of Bessie Nisbet.”

The next time we all sing the alma mater, remember how Ada B. Nisbet ’24 is linked to OLP. This woman, who at one time was considered to be the “world’s greatest Dickensian scholar,” shared her writing skills with her classmates in 1924 and wrote for them an alma mater, one that we still sing and respect at each assembly, convocation and graduation.

“Stand and cheer, loyal daughter,
For your alma mater,
With a hail, hail, hail.”

Fun fact: Alma Mater is Latin for “kind or nurturing mother” and its use pertaining to a university dates back to the eleventh century and the University of Bologna.

This is the last installment for the 2016-17 school year. Check back in August!