Mary Blackwood Collier, who has taught French at Westmont for 31 years, was knighted by David Martinon, consul general of France, Los Angeles, as a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques on Aug. 26 at a private reception at Birnam Wood, attended by about 100 colleagues and friends.
“Your love for France is absolute, and I want, in the name of our country, to thank you for that long-lasting passion,” Martinon said. He quoted French novelist and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, who described the honor as “the highest distinction the French Republic can give because it celebrates not only knowledge but the art of spreading it amongst students.”
Collier, a Santa Barbara native, completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in French at UC Santa Barbara. She earned a doctorate with highest honors in French literature from the Université de Paris, Sorbonne. Since 1976 she has served on the faculty of the Music Academy of the West as French diction coach in the vocal department, now under the direction of Marilyn Horne. She was a student herself in two departments at the academy, piano under Emmanuel Bay and voice under Martial Singher.
“It is not that often that a foreigner is distinguished in that order,” Martinon said, “but for your tremendous passion for France and for your unstoppable action for promoting French culture, Madame Collier, I am very proud to give you this insignia today.
Martinon affixed the purple ribbon with the medal to Collier’s collar as the crowd applauded. “I am thrilled and grateful for this distinction that your nation has conferred upon me and I am very proud to represent the French language and culture,” she said.
Westmont President Gayle D. Beebe spoke before the presentation, as did Scott Reed, president of the Music Academy of the West, and Frederick Sidon, past president of Opera Santa Barbara and president of Le Réseau Français de Santa Barbara, who nominated Collier. DeAndre Simmons, bass-baritone, and Natasha Kislenko, piano, performed Henri Duparc’s “Phidylé” and Gabriel Fauré’s “Mandoline.”
Collier, who has published several scholarly articles and presents papers regularly at international academic conferences, wrote the book “La Carmen essentielle et sa réalisation au spectacle” about the character of Carmen, both Mérimée’s literary and Bizet’s musical creations. She continues to immerse herself in French life and culture by living part time in Paris.