Judy Harvey Sahak ’64 moves with an easy familiarity around the Ella Strong Denison Library as she selects a few of her most beloved objects from the thousands contained in the rare book room. She admits that it is hard to pick favorites, as each piece of the collection carries a special meaning for her. As the College’s longest-serving librarian, Sahak knows the rare book room, and all of Denison’s holdings, intimately. Sahak has worked in Denison for the past 40 years, but her relationship with Scripps stretches further back than that, to the early 1960s, when she enrolled as an undergraduate. She chose Scripps because she enjoyed being a student at an all-girls high school and because her mother preferred that she attend college on the West Coast.
“At that time, when one’s mother said to go to college on the West Coast, one went to college on the West Coast,” recalls Sahak.
Sahak arrived at Scripps for her first semester without ever having seen the campus. She majored in European studies with an emphasis in history and comparative government, intending to work for the United Nations or as a diplomat. It wasn’t long before she felt a deep connection to the Scripps community, especially to her fellow students.
“I have to say that I enjoyed my classes, and I did,” she said. “But what I really loved at Scripps was residence hall life,” she remembers.
Back then, students lived in the same hall for all four years, allowing them to form close relationships with their neighbors. During the fall semester of her freshman year, before moving to Kimberly Hall, Sahak lived in Grace Scripps Clark Hall in the first-ever triple room at Scripps. As the residence halls were often busy social hubs (this was before Malott Commons and the Motley were built), she would often retreat to the quiet of Denison Library to study. “I appreciated Denison as a student, but I didn’t realize quite how special and beautiful the library was,” Sahak remembers.
After graduation, Sahak spent time at University of Washington pursuing her master’s degree in library science before working in the Library of Congress as a senior reference librarian, as well as at the University of California, Riverside, and at The Claremont Colleges’ Honnold Library. In 1976, Sahak returned to Scripps to become the librarian for Denison. She found the College considerably transformed—the evening curfew had been abolished, in each of the halls, the position of “head resident” was eliminated, and the student population had nearly doubled.
“It was a completely changed community,” says Sahak. “So it was very comforting to come back to Denison and find it pretty much unchanged.”
During her tenure at Denison, Sahak has worked diligently to preserve the traditional look and feel of the library, in part so that alumnae who return to campus may experience it as she still does—a unique and essential part of the Scripps experience. She has also carefully tended to the library’s vast collection, which includes thousands of volumes and rare objects such as Ellen Browning Scripps’ personal diaries, letters by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, and handwritten manuscripts from the 1400s.
“I love being librarian here,” says Sahak. “It’s probably the best job in the world. What’s not to like about working in a place that is so beautiful and has such simplicity?”
Sahak has also amassed a wealth of knowledge and stories about the College, including some unsolved mysteries that add to Scripps’ unique character. For example, she has observed for years that every day an anonymous person has placed a fresh flower into the hand of the Madonna depicted in the relief hanging in Margaret Fowler Garden’s small chapel. And she is acquainted with several sentimental spirits that reside in the residence halls.
“Most of the reported ghosts are in residence halls,” Sahak explained. “From time to time someone tells me about an experience she might have had in the corridors of Balch Hall after midnight, but most of the ghosts are in residence halls, and Dorsey has far more than anyplace else!”
In late July, Sahak will retire, but she will continue to be an active presence at Denison—she hopes to work on a project celebrating the College’s 90th anniversary this fall as well as a more detailed history in anticipation of the 100th. She has lived plenty of that history herself, including meeting all nine of Scripps’ past presidents. (Although she acknowledges that eight is the official number of presidents, Sahak steadfastly maintains that Mary Kimberly Shirk, acting president from 1942–1944, was the College’s first woman president).
“I have had such a wonderful experience working here,” she says, recalling her favorite memories as librarian. “My best memories are of the campus or the people. Whether I’m leading a wonderful, attentive class in the rare book room, or listening in on a faculty presentation that is fascinating and provocative, there has been an atmosphere of collegiality I will always remember. And of course there are other things, like the wisteria in the Margaret Fowler Garden or the orange blossoms each spring.”
Retirement will give Sahak a chance to determine her own schedule as well as to explore the greater Los Angeles area. However, she plans to remain in Claremont and will be a frequent visitor to campus.
“There’s always so much going on at Scripps.” she said. “Concerts, lectures, dance programs, theatrical productions, and on any given day you could go to three or four events at The Claremont Colleges. I think it’s a stimulating environment, and I intend to take advantage!”