Open primary navigation menu
Mobile Dropdown Button

Joan Backer Maddy ’50

Joan Maddy '50Joan Backer first arrived at the gates of the University of Mount Saint Vincent as a bright-eyed, eager 16-year-old whose deep hunger for knowledge had bloomed during her rigorous education at a New York City high school. “I was fully open to the exquisite treasures of Chaucer, Dante, Donne, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine, and I savored my classes,” she recalls. “However, my spiritual foundation had been minimal, even though I was brought up Catholic. So I was challenged when I first encountered the studies of philosophy, theology, and ontology, and was exposed to the abundance of mind- and spirit-provoking questions that my teachers presented.
I found it all fascinating.”

Joan was a sophomore when she met and married Elmer Maddy, a Columbia University law student. Both continued their studies through graduation, and they settled in Greenwich, Conn., to start a family. Elmer, a Methodist, agreed to raise their only child, Patty, as a Catholic. When Patty received her First Holy Communion, Elmer surprised Joan by revealing that he had been studying his catechism, too—and was now ready to convert to Catholicism. “I was so surprised and pleased,” she says. “We took courses in systematic theology, studied the documents of Vatican II. He was wonderful.”

One day when Patty was in elementary school, Joan had reason to visit the Mount. In the office of the registrar, she was told that a nearby school was desperate to find a math teacher. “I didn’t want to be a teacher, but the registrar insisted I’d be good at it, and handed me my transcript,” she recalls. At the Convent of the Sacred Heart Joan inquired about the teaching job. “The Sister who did the interview said to me, ‘St. Jude must have sent you!’ I started the following Monday, first teaching math, algebra, and geometry, and later calculus. The hours enabled me to be home when my daughter returned from school.”

Now a resident of Vero Beach, Florida, Joan teaches Bible studies to boys aged 13-19 at the St. Lucie Regional Juvenile Detention Center. She says, “I use my classical education. I read excerpts from poems like “Death Be Not Proud,” and they really respond. The Mount expanded my mind by teaching me the classics, like reading Chaucer in the old English. It made me love literature.”

She continues, “I love the enthusiasm, spontaneity, and resourcefulness that burst forth from the atmosphere of youth. The virtue I would like to see more abundantly [in young people] is courage. In today’s environment we often walk the journey alone, so it is in this capacity that we truly make a difference. I feel that we should be the person God intended us to be. He sometimes expects very little, but everyone has to give that. I tell my students, ‘You are born with a job description that the Lord has given you. As you try to become that, you will come into your own.’”

Joan often thinks about her education, and how it kindled her own intellectual curiosity and spirituality. “When people ask, ‘What is the value of a college education,’ many answers are given. To me the most important is, does my education contribute to my journey to the One? In my case, the Lord opened a vista that supersedes all academic and material achievement and human endeavor. Only after many years can I appreciate the door that was opened for me at Mount Saint Vincent. College should give you something that never leaves you. It should instill how beautiful learning is and the mind is. [Young people] all know the computer, but I think, what’s happening to your brain?”

And what of the other “door” that was opened by her education? “The Roman Catholic faith is a magnificent gift. [My advice to students is] to learn it, study it, make it the marrow of your heart and soul—then go out and live it. As Robert Frost wrote, if we all take ‘the road less traveled by,’ it will make all the difference.”