In June 1951, Charles E. Johnson earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial management from Georgia Tech. It was a proud moment for the young man from Charleston, S.C., but he wasn’t the only member of his family to be honored that day. His wife, Colleen, though not a student, was also awarded a Tech degree: “mistress of patience in husband engineering.”
“It was quite a nice thing to do,” Colleen Johnson recalls, admiring the document, now framed on the wall of her and Charles’ kitchen in James Island, S.C. “I felt very proud to receive it.”
Tech began awarding the honorary “mistress of patience” degree around 1946 to recognize the efforts of women who provided support—financial, academic, emotional—to their enrolled husbands. For a time, it was one of very few degrees women could obtain from the Institute: Although female students had first been admitted to the Evening School of Commerce in the late 1910s, women weren’t allowed to officially enroll at the Institute until 1952, and some programs held out on matriculating female students until 1968.
According to Marilyn Somers, Director of the Alumni Association’s Living History program, male students could apply through the dean of students’ office to see that their wives received the mistress of patience degree. Incomplete records were kept as to how many were given and to whom, though it’s known that Blake R. Van Leer was the first president to confer the honors. “President Harrison apparently signed some, too,” Somers says, “but the demand for them faded and they stopped being available.”
From afar, the mistress of patience degree resembles a normal Tech diploma, but up close, key differences are clear. The bottom left-hand corner bears not the Institute’s official seal but the symbol of two rolling pins crossed over an early (very pre-Buzz) rendering of a yellow jacket.
And in lieu of the standard copy, a mistress of patience diploma declares that its recipient has “successfully persevered for many months despite the necessity of encouraging and supporting a husband, the endless unintelligible conversations concerning formulae and point averages, the excuses, the blame placed on the imaginary injustice of professors, and the long hours of burning midnight oil, and has at last accomplished the graduation of aforesaid husband.”
In a way, Colleen Johnson entered into her degree program before her husband began his. The day after she and Charles arrived in Atlanta, she picked up a copy of the Atlanta Journal and promptly found a secretarial job.
“I was able to get a little bonus right at first and so we used that and lived in the officers quarters of the Naval air station,” she remembers. “I’d come home, get out of the car, and he’d jump in the car and go down to his night studies at Georgia Tech, and that was our routine.”
During that first summer, Colleen cooked her and Charles’ meals on a one-burner hot plate in their one-bedroom apartment, where they shared a dormitory bathroom with other families on the airbase. Drawing on her secretarial experience with the U.S. Army ground forces (she’d previously worked on a weaponry project at Ft. Bragg that was so top-secret she had to remove her typewriter ribbon and stash supplies in a vault every night), she worked for the Atlanta Journal for a time, then for Coca-Cola.
“It was tight—we just had to do what we had to do,” Johnson says. “We would go to Piedmont Park and I would coach him in all of the things he needed to learn, like chemical equations, all kinds of math and English questions. I’d go over the studies with him and he remembered them by rote after two or three months of just drilling.”
It wasn’t all work, though. Charles joined Alpha Tau Omega, which “took care of the social activities.” During the couple’s first year in Atlanta, Colleen won the Blueprint’s annual “beauties of Tech” contest, that year judged by Li’l Abner creator Al Capp, and appeared in the yearbook. And she found some time to take classes herself, enrolling in music and art courses at Emory University.
After Charles’ graduation, the couple moved to Florida, where he was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base. Johnson spent the next few years raising children and doing volunteer work. And though she took a few more art and music classes, she never earned a “real” college diploma.
Still, she’s as proud of her mistress of patience degree as any official Yellow Jacket. “The Tech experience helped me tremendously,” she says. “It gave me a place where I fit in, where I could sit in and feel part of something. It enabled me to be more of the strong individual that I’ve become.”
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