Have you ever played a game of “telephone?” One person will whisper something to the person sitting next to her and then that person “passes” along the phrase; often by the time it gets to the last person, the message has been garbled. That sometimes happens in history. At one point, someone uses a quote or image and then it is picked up by others, passes from year to year, and becomes what many see as “real,” especially if it something that sounds or looks like it could be accurate.
One of the great joys of my job as project archivist is to read the writings of our founders. There are not many—nothing for Bettie Tipton, only one item from Alice Allen, several writings by Hannah Fitch. We have the most from Bettie Locke Hamilton, but even then, it is not much. A skill that one develops as an archivist is getting to know the writing style of a particular individual as one works with their writings, in this case Bettie Locke. As I have worked with the collections, I have read the items we have by Bettie several times, and still look for new sources of quotes.
A popular quote, often credited to Bettie is “I dream of the endless possibilities …” A few years ago, this particular quote started getting used a lot, and when I read it, I wasn’t sure but it did not sound quite right for her particular style, formed from the time she lived and her own personality. Therefore, I went on a search to find out where it really came from, wanting to prove even if it was just for myself that it was a real Bettie quote. I can tell you it is a challenge to find a specific group of words! One day, I happened to be skimming over some pages in the history We Who Wear Kites (1956) and there it was. And the source. And the fact that it was not written by Bettie. The author, Carol Green Wilson, writes:
“some imaginative playwrite [sic] penned a little skit which brings the sense of sharing those first dreams and ambitions. It represents two girls rummaging in an old trunk found in a Greencastle attic. Among the quaint clothes of the ‘70s, they find a bundle of yellowed letters, presumably written by Bettie Locke to a school chum who had gone to Vassar instead of Asbury. The one dated January 27, 1870 …. I dream of the possibilities …. The writer of this fictitious letter never knew Bettie Locke Hamilton, but she had a spiritual kinship that brings the twenty-year-old idealist warmly alive for those who look at the steady flame of the candle lighted in her memory.”
While a wonderful thought, it is not something Bettie ever said. Sad, but true.
Sometimes it can be hard to change what is familiar, and in this case, a lovely sentiment that even sounds as if she might have said it. Nevertheless, as a historian, it is my task to make sure what we credit to an individual is accurate, to make sure what is shared with our membership and the larger community is real. That is part of learning, of being a good scholar. However, I take comfort in that Bettie did say in a letter dated February 24, 1925, to a young friend, “and try above all things to keep up a high standard of Scholarship nothing will elevate KAΘ like wonderful Scholarship!”