Meet Madame le Chevalier

France honors professor Mary Collier with a knighthood as Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques.

David Martinon (left), Mary Collier and President Gayle D. Beebe

Noting her “absolute” love for France, David Martinon knighted Mary Blackwood Collier as a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques in a ceremony Aug. 26. “I want, in the name of our country, to thank you for your long-lasting passion,” said Martinon, consul general of France, Los Angeles. 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.”

“It is not that often that a foreigner is distinguished in that order,” Martinon said. “For your tremendous passion for France and for your unstoppable action promoting French culture, I am very proud to give you this insignia today.”

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.

“During her distinguished, 31-year career teaching French at Westmont, Mary has helped the modern languages program grow from a handful of adjunct professors to a department in its own right,” Beebe said. “She has inspired countless students with her fascination for all things French, teaching them about France’s remarkable culture and history and enduring influence on the arts, theology, mathematics, science and diplomacy. A gracious, cultured woman of deep faith, she has touched many lives, and we’re thankful for all she has contributed to the Westmont community.”

Napoleon established the Order of Academic Palms in 1808; in 1866 France began awarding the high honor to French expatriates and foreigners who promote French language and culture.

Mary seeks to engage students in French culture through classes and other activities, inviting them to sing Christmas carols in French during the holidays and to make crèpes for Candlemas, Feb. 2. She has offered students French cooking classes and planned excursions for them to Opera Santa Barbara dress rehearsals and performances, master classes in French music at UC Santa Barbara, and French films and plays in town. She also advises the French Club and speaks French with students over lunch.

Mary earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in French at UC Santa Barbara. Hired to teach two-thirds time in 1981, Mary accepted the challenge of rebuilding Westmont’s modern language program. By 1985, she had reinstated the French major and minor, instituted a Spanish major and minor, and accepted a tenure-track position. While teaching full time, Mary entered the doctoral program at Université de Paris: Sorbonne, which waived the residency requirement for her. She worked by correspondence with a committee and spent summers in Paris, completing her degree with highest honors in 1990.

The modern languages department now includes four tenured faculty members holding terminal degrees and two part-time adjuncts. It has twice hosted the North American Christian Foreign Language Association and has invited visiting professors and an artist-in-residence to campus.

Mary’s scholarly work focuses on the opera “Carmen,” the subject of her doctoral dissertation, her book and numerous articles and papers. She belongs to the North American Christian Foreign Language Association and Literature Faculty and has presented her scholarly work at annual conferences of this organization as well as at meetings of the Conference on Christianity and Literature and the 1996 Summer Institute of French Language and Culture at UC Santa Barbara, among others.

She has continued to immerse herself in French life and culture by living part time in Paris. She celebrates this storied city in a memoir she is writing based on her letters home from France.

As befits a French professor and lover of French culture, Mary is passionate about the arts. She has served on Westmont’s Art Council to support the college’s visual arts program and has taught French diction to Westmont singers and as a vocal faculty member at the Music Academy of the West since 1976.

She has received three Faculty Development Grants, and students selected her as the Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 1992.

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