Women traditionally have had a tough climb to positions of prestige and power in our society. We therefore take special note of the ones who were “first” in their fields—women like Evelyn Koontz Lott ’38. When Mrs. Lott died in August, her obituary reflected with justifiable pride the fact that she had been the first female editor of The Penn.
Yet another noteworthy female group comprises those who are not the first women to do something but the first people. In this category are two other alumnae who died within a few weeks of each other: Alice Clements, recipient of the first bachelor’s degree from the college that eventually became IUP, and Patricia Hilliard Robertson ’85, the first astronaut in the alumni ranks. Although there was nearly a sixty-year difference in their ages, the two share secure spots in the history of the university.
Alice Clements came to Indiana Normal School as a student from Margaret Morrison Carnegie School for Women, which was part of Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). Not long after she arrived, the Department of Public Instruction conferred the power to grant bachelor’s degrees. Miss Clements was the first to receive such a degree from what had become Indiana State Teachers College. Hers is the only yearbook picture that year taken in a cap and gown.
Miss Clements led a long, productive life, teaching home economics in the Indiana School District for nearly forty years and giving hundreds of children a positive start in the nursery school she operated at her home. She earned a master’s degree at Pitt, pursued graduate work at Carnegie Mellon, was active in her church, and made many friends. She died in May at ninety-seven.
Patricia Hilliard Robertson
Patricia Hilliard Robertson’s life was also one of great accomplishment—but telescoped into only thirty-eight years. She came to IUP from nearby Homer City, graduated with a biology degree, studied medicine in Philadelphia, did a residency in Erie, and practiced family pediatrics. Along the way, she learned to fly.
Dr. Robertson earned a fellowship at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where she specialized in space medicine. She joined NASA’s Flight Medicine Clinic at the Johnson Space Center and within a year was selected for the astronaut training program. In her training class of thirty-one candidates, she was one of four women and the only physician. Next year, she likely would have traveled to the International Space Station.
By the time of her death, Dr. Robertson had accumulated more than 1,500 hours of flight time. A multiengine-rated flight instructor, she was also a whiz at aerobatics. She died in May from burns suffered in the crash of a single-engine experimental plane in which she was a passenger. At a service at St. Thomas More University Parish near the IUP campus, one of several speakers aptly characterized Dr. Robertson’s “short but luminous life.” The light of that life shines, too, in the history of the university.