"She Forever Changed Our School"

Allen Chamberlain loved her job.
For 11 years, the Mississippi native had served as a public librarian, most recently in Williamsburg, but now, she knew, it was time for a change. But what? she asked herself. She wasn’t exactly sure. Then, an ad in a Virginia Job Network publication caught her eye.
“It offered the opportunity to be both a librarian and a teacher,” she recalled. “I’d get to work with students from the time they were in the fifth grade until they graduated. That had so much appeal to me.”
The year was 1987. The position, you might have guessed, was at Collegiate.
“I was a single parent,” Allen continued. “When Julia Williams (interim head of school) interviewed me, we talked about what it would be like to be here and have my daughter (Evie) here. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how wonderful it would be if we could go to school together. That’s how it started.”
For 31 years, Allen has held forth as head librarian, first in what is now the Reed-Gumenick Library and, since 2013, in the Saunders Family Library in the Sharp Academic Commons.
When the school year ends, Allen will retire. She’s loved this job too. Just as in 1987, the time is right for a change.
“Insightful, perceptive, collaborative, committed, empathetic, inclusive, and grateful,” said head of school Steve Hickman in his description announcing her retirement. “This Renaissance educator, compassionate colleague, and devoted friend has forever changed our School.”
It was the ability and desire to effect change that fueled Allen’s career.
She was on the cutting edge of technology.
“The library when I first arrived was like a lot of libraries: card catalogue, shelves lined with books, and wooden tables,” she said. “In 1991, I went to a conference where I saw Netscape, that early internet browser, for the first time. I remember standing in front of the computer and thinking, I’m looking at ‘it.’ This is where we’re going.”
By that time, the card catalogue was computerized, but Allen’s revelation opened the floodgates.
“We started adding things like encyclopedias on CD where you could search them at a computer station,” she said. “We saw opportunities to build. We were at the forefront of independent school libraries.”
Allen was part of a team charged with envisioning and implementing the plan that became the Saunders Family Library.
“It’s a library-plus,” she said. “It still has human resources and information resources. There are spaces where people come together to create, develop, and even be contentious…and in hashing things out create something spectacular. Collaboration was a guiding principle in designing this building.
“A library is a host, not just for classes but for students who want to work in the audio studio and create their own music, for the math modeling team who work in here for 10 hours straight, for the social life of students. When I started imagining that, that provided a way forward to think about the space to welcome all these different perspectives.”
Allen came to Collegiate with a BA from Converse College and an MLS from UNC-Chapel Hill, then, while working full time, added an MFA in writing from Warren Wilson College.
As Upper School English department member, she co-created and implemented an elective in creative non-fiction. She’s been a senior seminar teacher and was instrumental in the TEDxYouth@RVA, CreateAthon, and senior Capstone programs.
And she’s a published poet.
“I’m really interested in how historical documents can be material that launches a poem,” she said. “In my manuscript for my MFA, I had two very long poems, one inspired by seeing a house here in Richmond, a little cottage that I later discovered was the last wood-frame home still standing ever owned by an emancipated black woman (Emily Winfree, who was deeded 110 acres in Powhatan County and a lot in Manchester by her owner David Winfree). I did research and found every scrap of record about her. Then I told her story in a series of sonnets (entitled ‘Her Proper Hand’). I found the most revealing and devastating portraits of what it was like to move from being a slave to an emancipated woman with five children.”
Allen is an astute observer. I asked her how Collegiate has evolved since she arrived.
“It’s become more supportive of those students and teachers who want to follow their deep interests,” she said. “It’s that beautiful circle of virtue.”
How have you changed? I asked.
“I don’t think I’m all that different,” she replied. “What I value in my work and in my personal life were played out here in a very rich and wonderful way: Connections with people that matter which often took the form of having read the same thing, having watched the same movie, having heard the same thing on the radio. Those kinds of intimate conversations have fueled my life and kept me engaged with people in ways that are significant. I do believe that’s part of what kept me here.”
So what will she do for an encore?
Travel a bit. Her daughter Evie, class of 2001, lives in Scotland where she serves as marketing and sport development manager for the Edinburgh Curling Club.
Manage a tree farm. Yes, you heard that right. Though she’ll still live in Richmond with her husband James George, she’ll continue to serve as managing partner for The Heirs of W.A. Bonney LLC.
W.A. Bonney is her grandfather. Her responsibility will be a 3,000-acre tree farm that spans the counties of Lauderdale, Clark, and Wayne in Mississippi and has been in her family for 100 years.
“I’ll be back and forth regularly,” she said. “When we’re having a thinning or a clear cutting, I’d like to be there to see the process.
I really look forward to doing something that’s been connected with my family for such a long time. It’s so different from what I’ve been doing. I love being out in the woods, hiking the logging roads. Momma walked every line of every tract we have. I’d like to do that at some point. I definitely don’t foresee myself sleeping in.”
Last question, I said. How would you like to be remembered?
Allen paused. She smiled. She’s moving on to a new adventure, but, after all, she’s invested 31 meaningful and fulfilling years into the life of Collegiate.
“I’d like to be remembered for generosity,” she said after a moment of reflection. “I’d like to be remembered as someone who found it of such pleasure to join someone else who had a great idea. As a kind person. As somebody who provoked when things needed to be provoked. As a contrarian when that was necessary. As somebody who stood beside people in the hardest times of their lives.”
Date Posted
  • Member of the Class of 2001 NA
    I remember quite clearly a library class in the late 1990s when Ms. Chamberlain became the first person in my world to utter the word "Google." Who would have known what effect that research tip would have going forward? Thanks for everything.