Poet, scientist, philanthropist Scott McVay releases memoir

516CReO2SuLSince his days as head of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation – it was under his watch that the Dodge Poetry Festival was born and flourished – Scott McVay has been at the center of New Jersey’s arts and culture world. During a launch party at Labyrinth Books in Princeton, to celebrate his 553-page memoir “Surprise Encounters with Artists and Scientists, Whales and Other Living Things” (Wild River Books, 2015), a crowd of cultural supporters gathered to listen as he  recounted stories from a life well lived. 

Wear a blue-and-white striped shirt, paisley bowtie, camel jacket and khakis, McVay didn’t read, but almost performed his tales for the crowd. “The book was written in praise of amazing women,” he said. Indeed there are entire sections devoted to amazing women, from his daughters Catherine and Cynthia, to Hillary Clinton and his wife Hella, always at his side. Tall and striking with a German accent, Hella has been married to McVay for well over half a century, and they complete each other’s sentences. In boasting about his wife’s natural affinity for animals, McVay often recounts how, during a visit to Borneo in the 1980s, an orangutan jumped into her arms. A larger than life photo of the adventure dominates a wall of their home.

“We are omnivores in terms of life,” he often says. “We like art and nature and connecting them.”  

Surprise Encounters takes readers to McVay’s pioneers — whether in arts or sciences — who have opened new ways of seeing the world and our place in it. A Founding Executive Director of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation as well as the Dodge Foundation, and former president of the Chautauqua Institution, he illuminates the challenges of philanthropy in education, the arts, conservation and animal welfare. But he’s also immersed himself in the realm of science. From 1963 to 1965, he was special assistant to the director of the Communication Research Institute in Miami, Florida, studying the cognition and awareness level of bottlenose dolphins, and has published 25 papers and articles on research involving whales in Scientific American, Natural History, Audubon and others. 

When McVay speaks, names and dates, right down to the time of day, roll off his tongue. And whenever he mentions a poet, he will name the year he or she won the Pulitzer or Nobel Prize, and maybe even some titles and a few lines. At the book launch, McVay joked he was not here to drop names, and then proceeded to talk about his associations with storyteller, radio and TV personality Jean Shepherd (“the best storyteller I ever heard”), ceramic artist Toshiko Takaezu (“she found the same fulfillment in cooking, gardening and making pots but could not live without making pots”) and Isaac Asimov (“after 200 books his wife left him; she said he couldn’t compete with his typewriter.”) 

Barbara Boggs Sigmund, who served as Mayor of Princeton Borough from 1983 until her death from cancer at age 51 in 1990, is another of McVay’s amazing women. Many remember the daughter of Democratic United States Representatives Hale and Lindy Boggs and sister of Cokie Roberts for her iconic eye patch, and for founding Womanspace, but McVay remembers Sigmund for her words. “She was an incredible poet.”  

And then there are the poets themselves he honors: Stanley Kunitz, twice appointed U.S. Poet Laureate who lived to be 100. In fact McVay dropped so many names, Wild River Books – whose motto is connecting people, places and ideas, McVay notes – is developing a digital index to them. 

When an audience member asked, “how do you remember so much?” McVay quipped, “I keep detailed journals but don’t look at them. When something makes a deep impression, you remember.” 

With Roger Payne, McVay discovered and documented the six-octave song of the Humpback whale. Since then he has led two expeditions to the Alaskan Arctic to study, record and film the rare Bowhead whale. Through his work on the language and songs of whales, “We’ve discovered we are not the only ones who are special.” 

In 2012, McVay published “Whales and Other Exuberances,” a collection of his own poems. The Princeton University, Class of 1955 English major (Moby Dick scholar Lawrence Thompson instructed him not to “skip the whale stuff”) has been writing poetry for as along as he can remember. Sadly, many of his poems were lost in a house fire in 1981. 

“It’s not the silver or the furniture you miss, but the little notes your kids write and the poetry,” says Hella. That book’s dedication reads: without Hella nothing/ with Hella everything. 

“Our lives are intertwined,” McVay says of his wife. Their wedding bands are engraved “whoever loves, wins.” 

He and Hella established the Poetry Trail in Greenway Meadows Park about five years ago. Through their generosity, Dodge Poetry Festival stars Paul Winter, Joseph Bruchac and Coleman Barks have performed among the 200-year-old sycamore allee.  

Hella, a mathematician, was founding chair of the mathematics department at Stuart Country Day School. A trustee emeritus of D&R Greenway Land Trust, she founded the non-profit Whole Earth Center in Princeton in 1970 and served for many years as its president. But in everything he does, McVay credits her for her role in it. 

“The Princeton community has nourished us so well in the arts, culture and science,” says McVay. “We’ve been extremely lucky to have traveled to Nepal, South and Central American, Africa, Russia, the Arctic and Antarctica, but the biggest miracle is in our own backyard: a great blue heron, the resident frogs when I go to get the paper in the morning, pileated woodpeckers who set the drum beat, and the little guys – the pollinators and bats. (Entomologist) E. O. Wilson said there’s more life in a cubic centimeter of Earth than in all of Jupiter.”


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.



Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal