Retired Registrar Detra MacDougall dies at 68: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant"

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications and Publications

When longtime Yale Divinity School Registrar Detra MacDougall retired in 2008 after 45 years of service to YDS, her friend and successor, Lisa Huck '88 M.Div., wrote a poem in her honor that begins:

Detra photo"Alas, for this bittersweet day:/Our Detra is going away./A new life she'll be making,/but our hearts she'll be taking./'Farewell' we must now start to say."

Those words seem prescient now, in the wake of MacDougall's death on Jan. 15.  She died peacefully at her home in Bethany, CT following a long battle with Multiple Systems Atrophy.

Over the years, MacDougall established many deep and lasting friendships with students, staff, and faculty during her long career at YDS. Those who knew her best used a variety of words to describe her in the days following her death, including "patient," "gentle but firm," "straightforward," "unflappable," "savvy," "beloved mentor," "sympathetic generosity."

MacDougall's career at YDS began in the tumultuous 1960s when she was hired as secretary to then-Registrar Margaret Stahl Marston.  Together, the two handled admissions, financial aid, and the registrar duties out of a single shared office. When Joan Forsberg became registrar and advisor to students during the next decade, she and MacDougall started working together; and, after Forsberg was named associate dean for student life in the mid-1970s, MacDougall was named registrar.

 "For 21 years Detra and I shared a double-office space and one secretary," recalled Forsberg, now living in Claremont, CA.  " Within that close working arrangement grew a strong friendship, and, for me, an unbounded appreciation for my quiet, straight-forward, unflappable colleague.

"Detra was savvy in the ways of Yale, a total professional as our registrar, a strong, wise support and strategist within our small group of women faculty/administrators, a devoted champion of her students. Many of us relied on her far more than she knew!"

Indeed, Forsberg had been a pastor and social activist but never a seminary administrator, and when she joined the YDS staff she relied heavily on the experience and expertise of MacDougall. Oftentimes, with a deadline looming, MacDougall would quietly show up at Forsberg's desk and gently suggest, "We might start thinking about . . . " and then proceed to provide Forsberg with whatever was needed to complete the task.

MacDougall was closely allied with the pathbreaking women who were instrumental in bringing a feminist perspective to YDS over the past four decades, and for years she acted as mentor to the YDS Women's Center. She was given special recognition during the Eight Decades of Women at YDS gathering held at Convocation 2010.

Three years earlier, during an acknowledgment of  MacDougall's service at Convocation 2007, Professor Emeritus David Bartlett, who worked closely with MacDougall when he served for 11 years as academic dean, said, "She kept the whole place in academic order while providing a kind, listening ear. . .  She was especially important in increasing the role and place of women in the student body."

On the same occasion, Professor Emerita Margaret Farley called MacDougall "a wonderful professional, a marvelous human being" who brought "professional competence, deep faith, great personality, and commitment to the church" to her position.

Talitha Arnold '80 M.Div., who was involved in feminist issues as a YDS student and is now senior minister at the United Church of Santa Fe (NM), said MacDougall "blessed us with the example of a life committed to continually growing in the faith and in her own understanding of God's call in her life, including the call to leadership in a variety of settings.

"In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul affirmed that administration—bringing order out of chaos—is a gift of the Spirit, right up there with preaching and healing. Detra had that spiritual gift in abundance. She also had the Spirit's greatest gift, which is love. Yale Divinity School, its alums, and this world are far the better because she always combined those two spiritual gifts."

Professor of Old Testament Robert Wilson, another former academic dean who worked closely with MacDougall, said, "Detra was a superb registrar and a beloved mentor to students and faculty because she truly loved and cared about the church in all its forms. She therefore understood her job to be making sure that students had the best possible education to prepare them for their future careers. Sometimes that involved 'tough love,' but everyone understood and loved her for it."

During an interview conducted shortly before she retired, MacDougall said, "The most difficult thing to being a registrar is that you have to be fair and just and listen to students. There are policies, but there are times that policies need to be bent. But you have to do it in a manner that is fair to the rest of the student body."

MacDougall harbored a subtle sense of humor that sometimes bubbled to the surface in ways that belied a quiet and outwardly stern demeanor.

Grace Pauls, executive assistant to the dean and a friend of MacDougall for many years, recalled being at MacDougall's wedding to Erwin Steward, MacDougall's second husband.

"Stew surprised Detra with a wedding gift of an arrest-me-red sports car," said Pauls.  "They exited the church after the ceremony, and Detra gave her bouquet to Adrenna  (her niece), hopped in the car—an undertaking in a wedding gown and veil. Stew got in the passenger side, and she peeled out of the church yard!"

Pauls noted that the years the couple spent together were replete with international and national travel and attendance at UConn Lady Huskies basketball games.

Shannon Clarkson '78 M.Div. sees some humor in the looks she shared with MacDougall.

"Detra and I had a rather unique connection," said Clarkson, a sometimes-lecturer in Christian education at Yale Divinity School. "In my early days at YDS, we apparently looked somewhat alike. Consequently, Detra would be asked about the Hebrew assignment, and I was asked about changing a course. Thinking this was a thing of the past, I was surprised at my 34th reunion this fall to be greeted by an alum as "Detra!"

Sterling Professor of Divinity Harold Attridge, who served as dean from 2002-12, said, "Detra was a pillar of the YDS administration for many years. Like so many other colleagues, I relied on her deep experience of Yale, but most of all for the wisdom and sympathetic generosity that she brought to dealing with our students."

Dean Gregory E. Sterling, who succeeded Attridge in August, said in a message to YDS faculty and staff, "Great schools are not built overnight nor are they built by a single individual. They require many people working effectively over a long period of time. Detra was one of the people who helped to build our community. She not only gave her career to Yale but herself. As a result, she was deeply cherished and respected by friends and colleagues and will be greatly missed."

MacDougall was asked how she would like to be remembered by the YDS community for an article published in the Autumn 2003 issue of Spectrum, the YDS alumni magazine. She responded, "What I'd really want said, when I leave here at some point, is 'Well done, good and faithful servant.'  Because I haven't just worked here; I've been here, and given myself here.  It's been good."

She is survived by her husband, Erwin Steward; her mother, Allena T. MacDougall; a brother, Kevin B. MacDougall; nieces Adrenna D'Orlando and Corrine DeVincentis; nephews Andrew Paolillo, Dominic Paolillo, and Kevin B. MacDougall II; three great nieces; and one great nephew. She was predeceased by her sister, Marlee L. MacDougall.

A native of New Haven, she was an active lifelong member of The Whitneyville Congregational Church in Hamden, CT and a graduate of Quinnipiac College. She served for over a decade on the board of the New Samaritan Organization, which managed elderly and community housing. A treasured time of year was the first full week of August, when she made her journey northward to the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire to Camp "Winni."  She cherished that community and always used the time spent there as her "refueling" for the year to come.

Donations in her memory can be sent to Geneva Point Center, 108 Geneva Point Road, Moultonborough, NH 03254 or completed online at A full obituary is available at

A memorial service, exact date to be determined, will be held at Yale Divinity School in the spring.

Revised 8/13/2013

Date Posted: Friday, February 1, 2013 - 4:22pm