Catherine Seaman, retired anthropology professor, dies

| January 17, 2014

Catherine Coleman Seaman, 90, former professor of anthropology at Sweet Briar College, died Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, after a long illness with Alzheimer’s.

Catherine Coleman Seaman in a 1987 edition of the Sweet Briar College Alumnae Magazine

“Kitty Hawes,” as she liked to be called, was born Aug. 28, 1923, in Rockford, Nelson County. An intense and driven student, she graduated from Graham High School at age 16 and attended Bluefield College, graduating in 1941. She immediately enrolled in the University of Virginia School of Nursing and in August 1943 graduated with a nursing license. Seaman was one of three selected to join the nursing staff at the Henry Street Nurses of New York. She moved to New York City in September 1943 and enrolled in graduate studies for working nurses at Columbia University.

In early 1945, her brother was classified as missing in action and presumed dead after surviving the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. Tiring of New York, intrigued by her father’s military service in World War I and devastated over the loss of her big brother, Seaman joined the U.S. Army Nursing Corps. She was determined to graduate at the top of her class, thinking she would then be able to request a station in the Pacific.

“I felt if I could make it to some location in the Pacific, I could find my brother and bring him home,” she said later, according to her obituary in the News & Advance.

After graduating at the top of her class in May 1945, now-2nd Lt. Catherine H. Coleman was instead assigned to the Woodrow Wilson Convalescent Center in Staunton. There, she was able to piece together information on her brother’s fate from the hundreds of wounded soldiers she treated.

In June 1945, she met 1st Lt. John A. Seaman Jr., who arrived at Woodrow Wilson for treatment and convalescence from a gunshot wound sustained near Ludwigshafen, Germany. He was assigned to Lt. Coleman’s ward. Outranking her and having been a tank unit commander in heavy combat, he believed decisions about his treatment should be up to him. After numerous confrontations with “that tall, skinny, damn bossy blonde,” as he recalled later, he received all treatment as ordered by Lt. Coleman. They were married Jan. 19, 1946, and remained together until his death in March 1997.

In February 1946, by request of the UVa School of Nursing and by order of the U.S. Surgeon General, she was released to fill a much-needed nurse teaching position. The couple moved to Nelson County, where they started a family, farmed part time, and she began to fulfill her dream of renovating her beloved 1768 family home. The family moved into the house in 1955. In 1963, Seaman returned to UVa to receive her RN license and in 1965 graduated with a B.S. in nursing.

Seaman in a later photo at Sweet Briar College

At UVa, Seaman also earned her master’s degree in anthropology and sociology, and subsequently her Ph. D. in 1969. She began teaching anthropology at Sweet Briar in 1967, serving in various faculty positions, including chair of the department. She loved teaching and formed many enduring relationships with her students.

Dance professor Ella Magruder, a 1975 graduate of Sweet Briar, remembers Seaman well.

“I have such wonderful memories of [her] — she was an extraordinary teacher,” she says. “My hand always ached after lectures, since I never stopped frantically taking notes. … I didn’t want to miss a single word she said! [She] introduced me to new concepts and ways of looking at family and community and human behavior. She had an intellectual curiosity that seemed to know no bounds.”

But Seaman didn’t just share her knowledge and insights with her students. She was also an “extraordinary role model,” Magruder says, because she showed her students “that it was possible not to have to choose between family or career, but that you could — if you were very clever — manage to achieve a full life with your family and have a rewarding career.”

Seaman traveled extensively and in 1980 was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for research in India. She retired as chair of the department in 1993, at age 70, and was awarded professor emeritus.

During retirement, she focused on farming, real estate investment, painting and writing until her declining health forced her to give up many of the things she loved at age 85.

Seaman was the first woman to serve on the Nelson County School Board, a position she held from 1955 to 1988, retiring as school board member emeritus. An avid writer, she also published a nursing research text in the U.S. and abroad and, during her retirement, wrote numerous books on the history of Nelson County. Seaman was a member of the Nelson County Historical Society, serving as its president for three years, and attended Adial Baptist and Trinity Episcopal churches.

A private family service for Seaman was held Dec. 28, 2013, in Lovingston. Her father, William Irby Coleman Sr., her mother, Bertha Hughes Coleman, and her brother William Irby Coleman Jr. preceded her in death. Sisters Ann Coleman Currie and Elizabeth Coleman Gentry survive, as do her children Catherine Seaman Fisher, Gwendolyn Seaman Whipp, John A. Seaman III and Andrew C. Seaman. She also leaves behind 10 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, friends are asked to make a donation in memory of Catherine Coleman Seaman to Adial Baptist Church in Faber; Trinity Episcopal Church in Arrington; or to your local or National Alzheimer’s Association.

Category: Academics, Anthropology