She’s No Perfunctory President: Continuing Care Communities

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Dr. Martha E. Church’s brightly-colored Buddhist prayer flags hang elegantly over the staircase in her spacious home, which is filled with priceless artifacts from around the world. From the moment you walk into her house, you could easily confuse it for the Asian special collections section of a cosmopolitan museum; however, this feeling quickly dissipates as Dr. Church begins giving a tour more informative and personal than any museum guide could ever hope to give. Her welcoming smile and vibrant explanations demonstrate a thirst for knowledge and a fascination with other cultures that is contagious. Much more than a mere collector, Dr. Church is a scholar, a National Geographic Society trustee, and a college president (twice over).

Although her treasures are displayed throughout her cottage in Buckingham’s Choice, a continuing care retirement community in Frederick, MD, her most recent assignment has called her away to Jacksonville, IL. She is serving for a year as the interim president of Illinois College, an undergraduate liberal arts college that is one of only 262 institutions in the United States to have earned a Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Even though this distinguished intellectual was born in and grew up in Pittsburgh, her travels and her influence as an educator have extended far beyond Pennsylvania-even outside the borders of the United States.

It’s not surprising that a career that so clearly demonstrates Church’s devotion to continuing her own education and the education of others has culminated in her being a much sought after and award-winning college president. After receiving her A.B. from Wellesley College and her M.A. from the University of Pittsburgh, Church received her Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Chicago in 1960. After several years of teaching experience, her already noteworthy career continued with her dual appointment as the Dean of the College and Professor of Geography at Wilson College in Pennsylvania. Dr. Church was later recognized as a superior educator when she was appointed as the first woman president of Hood College. She served the growing school for the next twenty years and was named President Emerita upon her retirement in 1995. She is currently using her problem solving skills to prepare Illinois College for its permanent president by making tough but courageous decisions that the new president would prefer not to face. Rather than refuse this opportunity as one that would infringe on her long awaited retirement, Dr.Church eagerly accepted it and has found it rewarding: “I am finding Illinois College to be a gem, and the city of Jacksonville to be steeped in education and the arts and full of wonderful new friends.”

In addition to significant stateside service, Dr. Church has made her influence as an educator felt around the world. Currently serving on the Board of Trustees for the National Geographic Society, the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia, and the International Partnership for Service Learning, Church has successfully combined her love of education with her fascination with other cultures and habitats. In the spring of 1998, the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration invited her to become a member. This influential opportunity offers her a chance to review and rank more than 360 research proposals over the course of a year from scientists who may become the Society’s future Jane Goodalls, Robert Ballards, Sylvia Earles, or Johan Reinhards.

An ardent explorer and researcher herself, Dr. Church’s treks have taken her to all seven continents, including all three faces of Mt. Everest. This fall she attended meetings in Hong Kong and at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she met the founding president, Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae, who is an alumnus of Illinois College. Dr. Church still continues to plan new and exciting adventures. She is planning to return to Nepal once again, perhaps in 2004 or 2005, in order to visit with the Sherpa family members who have been her guides since her first trip in 1978; she is also planning to travel to Costa Rica and to the Panama Canal, as well as visit the famous temples of Cambodia and Myanmar.

Dr. Church explains her move to a retirement community as one that afforded her the convenience and flexibility to continue traveling-not to mention the extra space to display her memories: “I am freer to travel as my cottage is totally taken care of by Buckingham’s Choice staff members-no snow to shovel, no grass to cut, no windows to wash, not even any dusting!,” she exclaims. “With all my traveling, as you might have guessed, I’m also an enthusiastic photographer, and my cottage at Buckingham’s Choice provides an excellent place to display my photos!” She made the decision to move to a retirement community after “10-15 years of thinking and planning,” which included “visits to former teaching colleagues living in continuing care retirement communities, which convinced me that such communities were a serious option for me, given the fact that I was single and did not want to become a worry to the next generation.” When Buckingham’s Choice opened, Dr. Church’s decision was made simpler: “I was thrilled to find everything I desired. I decided to move in at age 70 rather than waiting and taking my chances later on when I had turned 75 or 80! What luck! I secured a wonderful 3,200 sq. foot cottage facing Sugarloaf Mountain and overlooking the Monocacy River.”

The beautiful view from her roomy cottage is even more enjoyable because it is shared with so many friends at Buckingham’s Choice. She sincerely enjoys the company of the other residents and feels her life has truly been enriched by their companionship. “My social life has become much more active!,” reports Dr. Church. “Many of us enjoy a ‘wee libation’ before dinner. So it is very easy to gather four or five to share drinks and then go together to dinner in one of Buckingham’s Choice’s three dining areas.”

As a member of this community, Dr. Church cannot do enough to sing its praises: “I could go on and on about the benefits of being with all of these new and old friends. Even when one of us is encountering some health difficulties, we are never alone unless we want to be.” What makes this supportive community so unique is its atmosphere of friendship and intellectual fellowship. Dr. Church has truly been able to contribute to the community through her slide shows of remote areas of the world, including Antarctica, Tibet, and Nepal. She happily relates that her programs thus far have been a huge success and that she looks forward to entertaining and educating her friends and neighbors in the future.

Like many of the residents at Buckingham’s Choice, Dr. Church may be retired, but she is far from through with her colorful career. As a photographer and an educator turned president, Dr. Church has received many honors, including nine honorary degrees and election to the Cosmos Club in 1988-making her one of the first 18 women ever admitted to the exclusive club. In addition, she was chosen by the Exxon Education Foundation as one of the 100 most effective college and university presidents in 1988 for her continued commitment to improving the quality of education at Hood College.

All of these accolades as well as her service for National Geographic make her a rarity-a female scholar whose success could never have been predicted and which would have been impressive for even a male of her generation. Although she jokes about having served as the “token woman” throughout her exemplary career, one only needs to meet Dr. Church briefly to know that her achievements are anything but perfunctory. She cites her exceptional accomplishments in several male dominated fields as the result of her ability to “make good decisions, offer sound advice based on considerable experience, keep answers short, and hold information in confidence.” Having earned the trust of her colleagues, Dr. Church has felt that her “voice has always been heard-not always appreciated-but heard and acted upon when necessary.” Despite the occasional unappreciative listener, it is clear that Dr. Church is not simply a representative female; she is a highly motivated and devoted individual whose curiosity will never be satiated and whose lists of laurels is far from complete. With her diplomas and pictures neatly on display, Dr. Martha E. Church now has a comfortable cottage to call home and a solid base of friends at Buckingham’s Choice, but her proverbial hat will never hang long in one place.

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