John Bard and Margaret Johnson were a true power couple. If they were famous today, tabloids would smush their names together and create a contraction that you’d be embarrassed to say out loud, like Johngaret, or Bardston, or . . . .MargBard. Whatever you call it, these two were a collective force with which to be reckoned.
Bard and Johnston seemed to share a familial pedigree that made them almost genetically suited to founding their own school. For both husband and wife, the impulse to create an institution of higher learned was practically ingrained from birth.
A Bard Is Born
John was born in Hyde Park, New York in 1819. He was the eleventh of an astonishing fourteen children, all raised in a family of physicians and professors. Indeed, John’s grandfather Samuel Bard merged these passions when he founded the Columbia University’s medical school years prior. By way of qualification, Samuel held the historical distinction of having operated on George Washington during his first term in office. While his family background suggested a deep connection to medicine and education, John Bard was especially moved by a religious calling. His devout Christianity would be a major force in his life and work.
Meanwhile, in Dutchess County . . .
Margaret Taylor Johnston was born in Rhinebeck, Dutchess County, New York in 1825. Johnston also entered the world with an innate connection to the history of American higher education. Her father John was the founder of New York University. Like her father and her future husband, Margaret was moved by the value of education, the calling of Christianity, and the imperative that both of these forces created to pursue charitable social causes.
St. Stephen Will Remain . . .
John and Margaret were married in 1849, bringing together two families of high intellectual esteem. Both had enjoyed a privileged upbringing and yet both were driven by progressive values to help those in need. They viewed ministerial work as the best path forward. Thus, John parlayed his new bride’s wealth into the purchase of an estate that they called Annandale, where they founded a preparatory college for the seminary. In 1860, the newly established St. Stephens College saw the enrollment of six students in its inaugural class.
Margaret served on the new schools board of trustees, an extremely unusual distinction for a woman at this point in history, and an ample demonstration of the high regard in which she was held both for her intelligence and kindness.
John was also known for his kindness and his devotion to the cause, if not for his financial savvy. To wit, the university struggled mightily in its first years, enjoying little support from the Church and enduring paltry enrollment numbers. Fortunately for the future students of Bard College, John was undeterred by these challenges. He continued to funnel his own personal fortune into the school during that first decade. Sadly, when John and Margaret lost their only son, Willie, at the age of twelve, they sought emotional relief by relocating to England.
There the couple would live until Margaret’s passing in 1875. John did not return to the US permanently until 1895, when he remarried and moved to Washington DC.
. . . All He Lost He Shall Regain
Bard’s limited business acumen haunted him for much of his life. By 1897, his financial woes had become so persistent that he was forced to sell what remained of his fortune to the college. When he passed in 1899, he would be entombed on the campus that would eventually bear his name.
John Bard’s familial connection to Columbia University was actually solidified after his death, when St. Stephens became one of its undergraduate schools in 1928. It was at this point that the religious school began to adopt a more secular orientation, not to mention a board of trustees that included future US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In 1934, the institution finally took on the name of its benevolent founder, emerging as Bard College and then, one decade later, declaring its independence from Columbia and transforming into an independent coeducational institution nestled in beautiful Hudson Valley today.
Though neither John Bard nor Margaret Johnston would ever live to see their dream realized so vividly, Bard College truly honors their legacy as a bastion for progressive educational and social values.
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Check out Education for the Common Good: A History of Bard College — The First 100 Years, 1860–1960 to learn more about Bard and the remarkable couple that gave it its name.
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