By Susan Shinn, Catawba College News Service
At age 3, Dr. Bethany Sinnott was introduced to William Shakespeare. It's a love affair that continues to this day.
In May, Sinnott retires from Catawba College after 42 years of teaching English — most notably Shakespeare. To encapsulate a career that's touched so many lives, we'll have to ignore this quote from "Hamlet": "Brevity is the soul of wit."
As a little girl, Sinnott loved to memorize nursery rhymes. Her father — quite the jokester, she says — decided to teach her Hamlet's well-known soliloquy, "To be or not to be."
"I didn't understand what the words meant, but I loved the rhythm," Sinnott says.
She spent her early years in Mississippi, and often played with an older cousin, who taught the younger girl everything she was learning at school. When it came time for Sinnott to enroll, school officials recommended she go right to second grade. When Sinnott was tested, she read the newspaper to her parents.
"My parents were absolutely amazed," Sinnott remembers. "They did not know I could read."
She and cousin Carol read Shakespeare plays aloud. Sinnott's grandfather, a Baptist preacher, had won a three-volume set of plays in an oratorical contest.
Every time young Sinnott came to "hell" or "damn," she'd substitute "heck" or "darn."
Her cousin always laughed at her.
"She didn't think I was very sophisticated," Sinnott says. "So I've never been very far away from Shakespeare."
As she continued in school, however, she was "dead set" on a career in science. She planned to be a nuclear physicist.
Sinnott won a potentially full scholarship to Duke University but because her parents had saved enough money to send their only child to college, she could receive only the minimum amount of aid. Yet there was a trip to Europe that Sinnott very much wanted to take — and the scholarship money would pay for the trip.
"My parents indulged me," Sinnott says, a bit of guilt still tingeing her voice. That trip — 13 countries in 8 weeks — sparked a love of travel that continues today. "I just fell in love with Europe."
Sinnott arrived at Duke in the fall of 1958, a science major. But since she had been editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper, she became a freshman reporter for the "Duke Chronicle."
"I discovered I really enjoyed hanging out with the English and history majors on the newspaper staff more than the science majors," she says.
It wasn't long before Sinnott was spending more and more of her time working with the "Chronicle." She insisted on the title "news editor" her sophomore year rather than the traditional "coed news editor" that females were usually assigned. She was named editor-in-chief her senior year.
By then, she'd switched to English, and took a wonderful Shakespeare course her senior year. Fred Chappell was a classmate.
She planned to go on to graduate school, she says, "because I could think of nothing else to do."
She wanted to see a different part of the country, and chose Northwestern University. After enduring winters where the temperature was -20, she decided she never wanted to live in the Midwest.
At the end of the summer after she received an M.A. in English, Sinnott decided she'd live in Europe for a semester. She ended up staying until the following May.
It was, she says, the most educational year she's ever had. She spent time traveling with classmates — an art historian and a poet — and she traveled on her own, too. She was in England for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth. She went to the opera in Paris, alone.
Sinnott's Colleagues and Students Speak on the Advent of Her Retirement
After 42 years, Dr. Bethany Sinnott has become a beloved fixture in the English Department at Catawba. Here's what faculty members, students and alumni have to say about her:
"I've never met a scholar and teacher more in love with her subject matter than Dr. Sinnott. Even after 40 years, she still is clearly delighted to walk into a classroom and share her knowledge of Shakespeare and early British literature. Dr. Sinnott has been the cornerstone of our department. We will never replace the magic she shared with so many students."
- Dr. Gordon Grant, English Department chairman
"Dr. Bethany Sinnott has been my most important mentor and role model in my 30 years of teaching at Catawba. It never ceases to astonish me that one person can be a nationally known scholar in her field (Shakespeare) and still manage to have the generosity, energy, and humility it takes to be an exceptional teacher and loving colleague. Her retirement marks the end of an era for Catawba's English Department and for the College itself. It's hard to think about carrying on in my professional life without her."
- Dr. Janice Fuller, professor of English and writer-in-residence
"I fondly recall the joy that Aidan and you, a budding power couple, brought to the Department, then chaired by Francis B. Dedmond. I believe that I was in the first class taught by the dynamic Sinnott duo in your inaugural year. Since your arrival at Catawba, we have gone from the Age of Aquarius to the Age of Obama, a testimony to this "grand experiment called America" and its constant ability to reinvent itself. Our relationship has gone from one of teacher-student to colleague-friend. The training I received at Catawba prepared me to compete at the highest level of the Academy. Thanks for the role you played in it. I treasure the occasional visits we have had during my tenure as a member of the Board of Trustees, or at Homecoming. I am eternally grateful that I had the opportunity to study with and learn from you, a Master Teacher. For many of us, you are one of the 24-carat faces of Fair Catawba. Thanks for a labor of love well done. You stand proudly in the tradition of Chaucer's Clerk of Oxford, for gladly would you learn and gladly would you teach."
- Dolan Hubbard ('71), Professor and Chairperson, Morgan State University, Baltimore, Md., in a congratulatory letter to Dr. Sinnott
"In two months, I will turn 60 years of age. How did that happen? It was just a little while ago that I stood as an 18-year-old in the receiving line at President Shotzberger's house. There was a young lady in line ahead of me. I believe she was sporting a ponytail. Not sure now. Anyway, suddenly that young lady turned to me and said, "I believe I'm in the wrong line," and then disappeared from sight. I thought, "Girl, there's only one line here tonight." Lo and behold, when I started through the line of professors, there that girl stood. She was a professor? She was you! I don't think you ever had a "bad day" in the four years I attended Catawba. I'm truly sorry that my children and countless others will not experience your infectious personality. You leave big shoes to fill. Bethany, thank you so much for being my professor, my mentor, my friend. I love you."
- Crystal Rambo Kaczmarczyk, '73
"Dr. Sinnott valued what her students brought to a discussion of Shakespeare's plays. She encouraged us to ask questions and share our own responses to the literature. It was my first exposure to reader response and I loved it. I still remember questions and observations that Candace Nolan had about Ophelia, and Carol Houghton asked about Gloucester from "King Lear," and Bobbie Godwin queried about Iago. These questions were asked and these observations presented because Dr. Sinnott valued what we brought to our study of Shakespeare. I marveled at this new approach (at least to me) to the study of literature. I tried hard in my own English classes to emulate this teaching style of Dr. Sinnott. I feel if I have had any successes in teaching English they are due to Dr. Sinnott's model. She taught me that I needed to know my stuff —as she did so well, that I didn't have to be the expert and know all the answers, and that I should value what all my students brought to the literature. And because of her philosophy of teaching, I have had a happy and wonderful career as an English teacher for 36 years. And for that Dr. Sinnott, I can only say, "Thank you."
- Danny Lawrence '72
"Dr. Sinnott is a refreshing soul. For all these years, she has brought a level of energy and expertise to the English Department that can never be replaced. I will always be in awe of the amount of love that Dr. Sinnott gives to both her work and her students. She has been nothing short of a blessing in my life, and no doubt an absolute blessing to Catawba College for 42 years. I will always be thankful to her."
- Lizzle Davis, English major, class of 2013
"I was fearless," she says. "That trip did a lot for me."
She arrived home that spring with 20 cents in her pocket, and spent the summer in New Haven, Conn., living with college friends and helping to care for their new baby.
She figured there might be a job for her at the University of Bridgeport nearby. There was.
"I'd had no instruction in teaching," Sinnott says. "After two or three weeks, I thought, I love doing this!"
She decided she'd need a Ph.D. to teach, and applied to Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spent four years at UNC as a teaching assistant.
She met her husband, Aidan, in a course called "Caroline Erotic Poetry."
"It was just Renaissance poetry," Sinnott hastens to clarify.
The seminar took place at a professor's house, and Sinnott gave her new friend a ride to class.
"We became great friends," she says. "We never ran out of things to talk about."
A year later, she says, he went with her to the airport to pick up a friend of hers. He told her that, because of her, he was beginning to doubt his commitment to the priesthood.
Until that moment, they'd never had a conversation like that.
Aidan Sinnott was an ordained priest and monk. He asked her to wait for him to get out of those commitments. He warned her that it could be several years.
Sinnott thought to herself, "I'd rather wait for Aidan than marry anybody else, ever."
It only took a year before they could be together.
Aidan Sinnott got out a map and looked within 100 miles of Boone — where he had just been hired — to find a job for her.
He found Catawba College.
Sinnott found herself on campus in the summer of 1969, being interviewed by the college president.
She got the job and she and Aidan Sinnott were married over Christmas break in the Omwake-Dearborn Chapel on campus. He later got a job at Catawba, too.
The summer of 1975 marked a turning point in their marriage. Sinnott got tenure; her husband did not. She was pregnant with their first son, Devin, who was born in June. Son Christopher followed in 1978.
Aidan Sinnott had always had an expertise in repairing foreign cars. He eventually opened the Shakespeare Garage, and found a new career. In 1979, he and Sinnott built a charming cabin, Shantavney, named for his mother's homeplace in Ireland. Sinnott still lives there today, on 46 acres.
Sinnott's career at Catawba was fulfilling. She was Catawba's first female division director when she became head of the Hurley School of Humanities in 1984. She was affiliated with Catawba's chapter of Alpha Chi honor society for 32 years, serving as either faculty advisor or faculty sponsor. In addition, she formed long-lived and binding ties with many of her colleagues from a variety of academic disciplines.
The Sinnotts shared a love of travel and, in 2004, commemorated the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark journey, with a cross-country camping adventure that ended in Oregon. That's where the nation's number-one Shakespeare festival is located, by the way.
Soon after the trip, Aidan Sinnott was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died the following May.
During a videotaping, he was asked about his secret of their 35-year marriage.
"He said that we shared common interests, we traveled well together, we respected each other and we shared a sense of humor," Sinnott recalls.
She adds, "There was no sense of rivalry. Aidan was always incredibly supportive of me."
He was able to see her first lecture for the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, where she's been a presenter since 2003.
Her husband was given three to six months to live. He survived for eight months following diagnosis.
"He really lived those months," she says. "It was about using the time we had instead of bemoaning what was to come."
Sinnott says that her Catawba family was supportive during this time. When Aidan Sinnott said he'd like to see the ocean one more time during fall break, then-President Robert Knott gave the Sinnotts the use of his home at Hilton Head Island, S.C.
The Catawba faculty donated a cash gift for extra spending money, and the Sinnotts decided to have a party. They used the Cloninger Guest House.
"It was a festive occasion, a real celebration," Sinnott says.
Before Aidan Sinnott died, the couple also hosted a love feast and anointing of the sick at their beloved Shantavney.
Following Dr. Raymond Jenkins, whose tenure lasted from 1926 to 1966, Sinnott is only Catawba's second long-term Shakespeare professor.
One professional relationship she relishes is the one she created with Dr. James Parker, Catawba's longtime theater professor. From him, Sinnott learned all about staging plays. They even created the Parker-Sinnott Vanity Productions for the purpose of faculty readings, and well, so Parker could play King Lear. "The Tempest" was their second faculty staged reading.
The team of Parker-Sinnott-Kesler (that's Linda Kesler, an associate professor in the Theatre Arts Department) staged "Twelfth Night."
This summer, Sinnott has committed to be the production manager for the St. Thomas Players' staging of "Pinocchio's Sister," by Jennifer Hubbard. It will be the world premiere, Sinnott notes. She's also serving on the Salisbury Symphony's Festival of Summer Gardens committee. And she plans to help with Catawba's Youth Environmental Summit in July.
So she'll be doing volunteer work — to a point.
"I can see myself working harder than when I was teaching," she says.
She'll likely see many people she knows.
"I have taught so many students, I can hardly go out in Salisbury without running into a former student," she notes.
It's also a safe bet that, whenever she can, she'll be attending a production by a noted British playwright.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn is a full-time student at Catawba College.
PHOTOS: Dr. Bethany Sinnott