By Carina Sorrentino
On Monday in Old Chapel, a garden tea party was held in honor of the famous Mrs. Perkins who tended to a multitude of plants on Union’s grounds in the mid-1800s.
After coming to Union with her husband, a chemistry professor, Perkins began turning the area next to Old Chapel into a vegetable garden in 1866, which, by the early 1900s, became home to tulips, lilies, cherry trees, a pear tree and trumpet vines.
Perkins, known to Union students as “The Duchess,” lived on campus for sixty years tending to her garden and the rest of the school’s landscape.
Dedicated to this work, she frequently took stock of the struggles of keeping beautiful vegetation alive in Upstate New York.
When winter came, Perkins would move many of the flowers into a room within her own home in order to keep them healthy and then replant them as spring came back around.
Not only an expert in plant life, Perkins was a published translator, educator, short-story writer and deeply involved in the Schenectady community.
Inspired by the house in her room where she preserved plants through the winter, Perkins eventually wrote and published a poem about her garden entitled “Paradise… In… Winter…”
Even after her husband’s death, Perkins continued to live on Union’s grounds and stayed highly active at the College, gaining herself a reputation as an everlasting figure of respect.
Her wide range of talents allowed her to offer literary lectures to students, teach classes on religion and open her home to read to students and faculty.
“The Duchess” was often compared to Queen Victoria by the students and was often asked by graduating students to sign their diplomas.
Once rivaling the now extensive Jackson’s Garden, Mrs. Perkins’ Garden spanned from Old Chapel to the end of Hale House in its heyday.
While today only a small area of Mrs. Perkins’ garden remains next to Old Chapel, it is marked by a commemorative entryway and plaque erected by her daughter in 1926.
The party in Old Chapel was set as Mrs. Perkins herself would have enjoyed — tables adorned with pink table cloths, flowers and displays of her works as well as biographical information.
Tea and finger foods were available for guests to enjoy as they walked around, learning not only about Mrs. Perkins, but also her ongoing legacy at Union through her garden.
A series of letters from Mrs. Perkins to her son sat in a display case that was donated to Union by a descendant in 2009.
Faculty, students and members of the community were in attendance. Even Mrs. Perkins’ own great-granddaughter was able to make an appearance and meet all of the local admirers of her ancestry.
In honor of a woman who touched on various aspects of life, it was not surprising to see that the event piqued the interest of scholars, historians, art professors and faculty members alike.
Vinita Kusupati ’16 and Mahrukh Badar ’16 remarked that they knew little about Mrs. Perkins before attending the event, but left feeling confident that they “learned something new about the history of Union and of Mrs. Perkins herself.”
After Perkins’ death, Edward Everett Hale, Jr., wrote a tribute to her in which he listed all of her influential activities on campus, noting her love of poetry, art, travel and her strong imagination.
Hale stated that Mrs. Perkins was “all in all a very remarkable woman, and one who will be long remembered by many.”
Perkins is revered for having such a deeply-rooted impact on Union College and its community at a time when women were not even admitted to the school.
Perkins paved the way for intellectual women in the campus community and left a strong example for her predecessors.
True to Hale’s words, Mrs. Perkins stands as a historical testament to the dedication of those Union students who seek to preserve aesthetically pleasing natural gems of Union and wish to watch them grow.