For Professor Emerita Dr. Ione Vargus, whose legacy as Temple’s first African American dean as well as the first female dean of the School of Social Work, her race was no big deal. “I come from a family of firsts,” she said. “My father, Edward Dugger, was the first African American appointed to the Medford Massachusetts City Planning Board. Later, he was the first to have a public park named after him. My mother, Madeline was named Massachusetts Mother of the Year in 1952, the first black woman to hold that honor.” In addition, her sister, Madeleine Dugger Andrews, was the first African American elected to Medford’s School Committee; a school named in Madeleine’s honor was built in 2000. “So I really didn’t think that much about my race. What was a major interest was that all of the deans at that time were men,” she laughed. “Some of the female faculty would ask me ‘how do you get along with all those men at the meetings?’”
Vargus arrived at Temple in 1974 as an associate dean, after holding professorships at Brandeis University and the University of Illinois. “The School of Social Administration [now the School of Social Work] was wholly unique when I arrived,” she said. “For one thing, we were focused on social justice and social change, which most social work at the time did not do. Also, we used systems change theory with our students, which was quite new at the time and exciting to me, because I’d worked in a variety of programs using that theory to inform students.”
In 1986, Vargus became deeply interested in the subject of African American family reunions. “I began my professional work in in 1954 with families, and worked in that field from that point on,” she said. “I saw an opportunity to identify and show how African-American families were contributing to the revival of the extended family through the reunions. I was really drawn to that as research, because I’d been talking about how the extended family was now kind of dying out: people were moving, relocating and now the family –because of progress– was being broken up.”
Vargus visited hundreds of family reunions from coast to coast, learning about the traditions and strategies families use –even those with members who live far from each other–to come together every year. She became a regular on the lecture circuit, culminating in a documentary broadcast on WRTI in 1987. By 1990, renowned for her scholarship, Vargus had established the Family Reunion Institute at Temple, the only organization of its kind in the United States dedicated to strengthening and preserving the extended family through family reunions.
“Reunions help support a person’s identity, especially for youth,” said Vargus. “Increased communication is another benefit, especially among family members you would have never known if you didn’t have a reunion. Another thing that happens is that certain family members can serve as role models to younger people, where someone in the extended family has accomplished a great deal and is able to pass on those experiences to younger generations.”
Reflecting on her 22 years at Temple, Vargus spoke movingly of the School of Social Work. “When I was a dean, my office faced the subway. I loved watching the young people come out of the subway to their way to classes. That was so wonderful to see. Some of those young people were struggling -some had work as well as school- but their education was so important. That’s a picture I’ll never forget.”
On April 22nd, friends and former colleagues of Dr. Vargus will return to Temple to celebrate her contributions. More information is available here.