Anna Chao Pai will deliver the keynote address at Sweet Briar College’s 99th commencement ceremony on May 10. Pai is a 1957 graduate of Sweet Briar and a charter member of the College’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
Better known by the nickname “Chips,” Pai immigrated to the United States with her parents in 1938 to escape the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Her grandfather, Chang Tso-lin, known as the “Tiger of Manchuria,” was assassinated prior to the invasion in 1928.
“My maternal grandfather was what the West would call a ‘warlord,’ in control of Manchuria,” she said.
Pai and her parents fled, first to Beijing then to America. They went back to China briefly in 1939, due to the illness and subsequent death of her paternal grandmother, but returned to the States in 1940.
Her parents never saw their homeland again. “My parents never were able to return to China, nor did they want to after the Communists won the civil war against Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalists,” she said.
As a Sweet Briar student, Pai earned freshman and dean’s list honors and membership in Tau Phi and the QV tap club. She excelled as an athlete, playing softball, hockey, basketball and lacrosse. “In those days, a Sweet Briar blazer was awarded to the top athlete in the senior class, and I was lucky enough to receive that award,” she said.
She also was a student waitress — a job she recalls fondly. “It was the best-paying job on campus, and the student waitresses developed strong bonds of friendship,” she said. “I remember Professor Dean Hoskens saying to me once that her best thinkers were student waitresses. I think she was being kind, but it made me feel good.”
She earned a degree in zoology at Sweet Briar followed by a master’s in embryology from Bryn Mawr and a Ph.D. in developmental genetics from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
Her career included work as a researcher and professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, and she is the author of two textbooks. She was named an Outstanding Young Woman of America in 1965, inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 1972 and honored as Sweet Briar’s “Distinguished Alumna” in 1994.
From 1984 to 1992, Pai served on Sweet Briar’s board of directors. She also was instrumental in developing the College’s Bachelor of Science degree and Honors Program. More recently, she served on Sweet Briar’s Visiting Committee on Diversity.
Her other interests include cultivating bonsai and photography, which she has developed into a cottage industry. Her husband, David, is a graduate of Virginia Military Institute. An engineer, he was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 1994.
Of Pai, Sweet Briar President Elisabeth Muhlenfeld said, “She brings, in one person, expertise in leadership, diversity, the sciences, the arts and athletics.”
— Suzanne Ramsey