A Life: Becky Irving; ‘You really had to be on your A-game’

  • Becky Irving, left, works with a student during a medical technology class at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H., in 1982. (Courtesy Colby-Sawyer College) Courtesy Colby-Sawyer College

  • Becky Irving, shown in an undated photograph, was an alumna of Colby-Sawyer College and taught at the New London, N.H., school from 1954 until 1982. (Courtesy Colby-Sawyer College) Courtesy Colby-Sawyer College

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/26/2021 7:56:07 PM
Modified: 9/26/2021 7:56:09 PM

NEW LONDON — To Becky Irving, the generations of pupils she taught over 28 years at Colby Junior College weren’t just her students, they were her “kids.”

As they graduated from the school’s medical technology program, going on to hospitals and health care institutions around the world, she felt pride.

And when they settled back into the Upper Valley, or simply came to visit New London, she welcomed them with open arms.

“She was so awesome. She was funny and had great stories about all kinds of things, the history of the college, the town, different people in town,” said Bonnie Lewis, a former student and one of Irving’s longtime friends.

After Lewis moved back to New London, the two would sit down and Irving would share gossip about the school that later became Colby-Sawyer College — although nothing too scandalous. Lewis said she would comment that “I didn’t know any of that” when she was enrolled.

“She would always laugh and say ‘that’s because you’re not supposed to,’ ” Lewis said.

Friends say Irving possessed a quick wit and can-do attitude that often saw her take on jobs — from home repair to advocating for students — without a second thought. A trailblazer, she also elevated Colby Junior College’s medical technology program into a leading school, one that saw hospitals compete for its graduates.

It’s those qualities that friends and former students say they’ll miss about Irving after she died on Aug. 7. 2021, just 10 days before her 101st birthday.

Irving was born in Brookline, Mass., on Aug. 17, 1920, to Mary (Chapman) and Fredrick Carpenter Irving, a renowned obstetrician who also served as a governor of the American College of Surgeons.

Her older sister, Frances, also worked in the histology lab at Harvard Medical School and would bring tissue samples back to the family’s homes in the Boston suburbs.

Noticing an interest in Frances’ work, Irving’s father set up a room in the basement with running water and a microscope. Years later, Irving credited the makeshift lab with sparking her interest in medicine.

When it came to choose a college, she said, there were two schools offering degrees in medical technology — the University of Minnesota and Colby Junior College.

“In those days, going to university out in Minnesota was (a long) train trip whereas coming up here was about a six-hour drive with at least one flat tire between here and Concord,” Irving said in a 2019 profile. “I had an automobile and so I decided it would be much easier to come up to Colby.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1943, Irving worked as a medical technologist in Brookline, Needham and Norwell, Mass. And during World War II, she traveled to the Dominican Republic to train personnel to administer malaria tests.

Irving was called back to Colby Junior College in 1954 to teach medical technology in a program that she would ultimately lead, elevating its standards and national recognition along the way.

When Lewis started college in 1969, she had to work her way up to Irving’s classes, which typically came in students’ third year of training.

“She had a very comprehensive course called clinical laboratory methods,” recalled Lewis, a 1971 graduate. “You really had to be on your A-game. She had really high expectations for excellence.”

Irving didn’t want her students slacking, missing classes or blowing off deadlines, telling them that in the health care field “you can’t take anything casually,” Lewis said.

The Rev. Rebecca Cavin, who also graduated from the medical technology program in 1971, added that classes were geared toward real-world challenges. The technology at the time often focused on lab work, such as on blood.

Cavin remembers complaining during a class on malaria that “we’re in New Hampshire” and the disease isn’t prevalent in the Granite State.

“You aren’t always going to be in New Hampshire,” Irving responded.

During her almost three-decade-long tenure, Irving worked to ensure her students would travel the world and be afforded opportunities that other medical technology programs couldn’t offer students.

She first did that by turning the college’s medical technology program into a bachelor’s degree track. Lewis said that meant taking liberals arts classes along with health care ones.

The change wasn’t just about academic prestige but also an effort to ensure students were well rounded on leaving school.

“I finally said to them, ‘Look, when you leave here, you’re probably all going to get married, have kids and you’re going to go out during social occasions — to parties or concerts — and not a lot of people are going to want to talk about blood and urine,’ ” she told Colby-Sawyer two years ago.

Irving also drove to hospitals across the country to help place students in internships, which were required in their fourth year of college. By the time she retired, Irving estimated that she placed students at 75 hospitals in 23 states.

“When we applied to various hospitals, we just had to say ‘Becky Irving’ and they’d say ‘Oh, yes, come.’ ” Cavin said.

Lewis said she interned at Rhode Island Hospital and, at the start of her program, she was pulled aside and warned that some of what she would be taught could amount to a review of what Irving already went over.

“People in hospitals, when they accepted Colby Junior College students, they knew they were getting students who were very well prepared,” Lewis said.

When Irving finally retired in 1982, her former students were working across the nation, and many were eager to keep in touch.

“As I travel the country talking to alumni about the college, Becky is one of the few faculty members who comes up in nearly every conversation given the reach of her influence,” Colby Sawyer President Susan D. Stuebner said in an email.

“Alumni each have Becky stories about how she impacted them during their careers here at the college and beyond,” Stuebner added.

Peg Andrews, a longtime friend of Irving who works in Colby Sawyer’s advancement office, said she’s encountered similar sentiment from alumni and characterized Irving as “beloved by her students.”

“She basically ran our med-tech program and it was probably the number one med tech program in the country while she was teaching,” Andrews said. “It was all due to Becky.”

“Her love for the college was probably one of the biggest soft spots in her heart,” Andrews added, saying Irving kept grade books from her entire tenure at the college.

She also proudly displayed the honorary doctorate of humane letters the college awarded her in 2016, along with her college regalia.

In retirement, Irving continued a lifelong love of sailing, anchoring her Herreshoff sloop, Dovekey, in Lake Sunapee. She also loved traveling, visiting Europe, Australia and Alaska with longtime friend and traveling companion Nancy Draper.

Draper, who chaired Colby Junior College’s music department, was a dear friend, according to Lewis. And when Draper died in 2018, Irving offered to write her obituary.

Irving also spent years volunteering at the Tracy Memorial Library, where she would build shelves, change locks, fix lights and help move books, according to Missy Carroll, the library’s circulation manager.

“Becky came into the library with a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans ready to work,” Carroll said. “That’s just who Becky was. She was there to make a difference.”

Friends said Irving was very mechanically inclined and could often be seen either working on or driving her garden tractor, which she called Rudolph, to campus.

The tractor was later gifted to Lewis when Irving moved into Sunapee Cove assisted living facility on the promise that she maintains it. Lewis said she would take photos of the machine at work.

“That made her feel better, that it was getting used,” Lewis said. “And I was just so pleased to be able to have him.”

Until her death, Irving also continued to host students.

Cavin, who went on to become an Episcopal priest, was among them, visiting the Upper Valley yearly to share a lobster salad sandwich and some wine.

“She was just a delightful New Englander,” Cavin said, adding that Irving delighted in telling stories about the college, town and its residents.

Cavin presided over Irving’s memorial service earlier this month. Preparing for the event, she estimated about 25 people would pay their respects in person. However, when the day came, the crowd easily doubled that.

“She had an effect on all of us. She would never brag about it but she was just delighted to know it,” Cavin said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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