2022 Distinguished Alumna honoree encourages students to consider their place in Harpeth Hall's history
When she was on the faculty at Harpeth Hall, Merrie Morrissey Clark Alexander Ph.D. ’69 was known for teaching U.S. History in a dynamic and approachable manner.
In May, Dr. Alexander returned to Harpeth Hall and again stood in front of students — this time in an assembly honoring her at Harpeth Hall’s 2022 Distinguished Alumna. She began, as she does so well, with a history lesson.
Five months after the Civil War, and decades before women had the right to vote, she told students, Ward Seminary — a school for young women — opened in Nashville.
The year was 1865, and only a handful of institutions in the country existed to provide a serious education to prepare women for college. Ward Seminary’s founding came before both Montgomery Bell Academy and Vanderbilt University were established, making the women’s school a pace setter in education. Nashville itself was just establishing its reputation as the Athens of the South.
From Ward Seminary school came Ward-Belmont College in 1913. And, when Ward-Belmont closed in 1951, Harpeth Hall became Nashville’s leading location for an all-girls education.
In the first years, Souby Hall and the Senior House were the two original buildings on campus. The school would grow, and so would its legacy, as it developed leaders who would go on to excel as CEOs, Olympians, court justices, authors, surgeons, and community difference makers of all kinds.
Dr. Alexander is among them. She has devoted her life and career to education and the improvement of the educational experience for students at Harpeth Hall, in the Metro Nashville school system, and beyond.
When she was a student at Harpeth Hall more than 50 years ago, Dr. Alexander went to classes in Souby Hall, played intramural volleyball in Bullard Gym (third string for the Angkors), and traveled to MBA to take physics.
“Some things have changed,” she said. “Great teaching, solid friendships, and encouragement to be bold have been here all along. From the beginning, Ward Seminary, Ward-Belmont, and Harpeth Hall figured out how, in an all-girls setting, to teach girls most effectively, produce confident leaders, and prepare students for future roles.”
A graduate of Vanderbilt University with a Bachelor of Arts in history and a master’s degree in social studies education, Dr. Alexander returned to her Harpeth Hall alma mater in 1975. She was known as a kind and inspirational 7th grade U.S. History teacher. She also served as the history and social sciences department chair and helped develop, launch, and direct the Scholars Engaged in Extending Knowledge (SEEK) independent study program in the middle school. She served on the Harpeth Hall faculty from 1975 to 1986 and again from 1992 to 2009.
'The next chapter in Harpeth Hall's history'
After her 30 years at Harpeth Hall, Dr. Alexander broadened her educational focus on local, state, and national levels. She completed her doctorate in Educational Leadership in Policy (2008) at Vanderbilt University, and the State Department of Education recruited Dr. Alexander to serve as data and research manager in the Office of Federal Programs. There, she led Tennessee in securing $500 million in federal funding for the Race to the Top and served as chair for three projects focused on educational equity and grant funding. Priorities she continued when she joined Metro Nashville Public
Schools as the grants management coordinator in 2010.
As Dr. Alexander addressed Harpeth Hall students in the spring 2022 assembly, a decade after her retirement from Metro Schools, she spoke about the Harpeth Hall alumnae of the past who have shaped the future. She recognized women such as Ward Seminary graduate and renowned suffragette Anne Dallas Dudley, Ward Belmont alumna, actress and cancer activist Sarah Colley Cannon '32, and modern-day leaders including author and entrepreneur Reese Witherspoon ‘94 and corporate public policy manager Michelle Gaskin Brown '01.
“Confident leaders, clear thinkers, honorable women, these Harpeth Hall alumna are among the thousands who have come before you,” she said.
Then, she asked students to reflect on their own place in Harpeth Hall’s timeline.
“You are the part of the legacy of all these accomplished alums. Sitting here in the present, consider your place in this history,” she said. “... You are learning, collaborating, making friends, and contributing to what Harpeth Hall will become. At the same time, your education at Harpeth Hall continues to evolve to prepare you for future roles — new and changing roles.”
Dr. Alexander pointed to the Bullard Bright IDEA Lab as a cutting-edge learning space and part of Harpeth Hall’s bold vision to provide “an education of the highest caliber to ensure you are equipped when you leave here to make a difference in the world as leaders, innovators, creators.” She encouraged students to stay nimble, be open to new opportunities, stay curious, and combine their passions to move them forward.
“You can’t anticipate what you may be called to do,” she said. “You can be confident you will be able to adjust to new roles and be a leader because Harpeth Hall has prepared you, instilled a sense of confidence, and modeled lifelong learning.
“You are the present, but you are also part of tomorrow. You will write the next chapter in Harpeth Hall’s history.”