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The Lady in the Portrait: A Remembrance


Since 1972, several generations of faculty members and students have gathered for meetings and examinations around the conference table in Patterson Office Tower 1145 under the imposing gaze of a lady whose portrait once dominated the room. The Lady in the Portrait, Dr. Alberta Wilson Server, entered UK as an undergraduate in 1916. Her professional relationship with the university continued until her retirement as Professor of Spanish in 1966. Her contributions as a faculty member, as well as her financial gifts to the University, constitute an enduring legacy to the institution that she served for a half-century.

Alberta Wilson’s ties to the Spanish language and Mexican culture began shortly after her birth, March 31, 1897, in Ludlow (Kenton County), Kentucky. Her father, Albert Henderson Wilson (1875-1922), was a locomotive engineer for the Cincinnati Southern Railway. When an accident cost him loss of vision in one eye, he decided to relocate to Mexico where the newly established Mexican National Railway system needed experienced engineers. His wife Lou Emma (1877-1963) and his young daughter Alberta joined him in Mexico where they lived in several locations before purchasing a small hotel and establishing a household in the city of Puebla.

Alberta’s early years in Mexico produced fluency in Spanish and immersion in many aspects of Mexican cultural life. She completed elementary studies at a mission school and later was tutored by a minister’s wife who helped prepare her for high school. Her memories of those years included details of one of the first battles of the Mexican Revolution when federal troops in Puebla attacked and killed opponents of the Porfirio Díaz regime in November of 1910. She recalled vividly the bodies stacked like firewood in the plaza, waiting to be claimed, and the sound of cannon balls striking the façade of Puebla’s cathedral during a bombardment. As revolutionary activities grew more violent, and danger for the family increased, Lou Emma Wilson and Alberta returned to Kentucky. Albert Wilson continued as a locomotive engineer on the Mexico City to Veracruz Inter-Oceanic Railway until the Díaz government collapsed in May, 1911. He later returned to Kentucky where the family settled on farmland near Nancy in Pulaski County.

Following graduation from Somerset High School, Alberta enrolled in the University of Kentucky in 1916. Unlike the vast majority of her sister cohort who majored in Home Economics, English, Classical or Modern Languages, Alberta chose to specialize in zoological sciences, having become interested in the natural world and scientific observation as a youngster in Mexico. Two UK faculty members in particular had an impact on her academic preparation and future career directions. One was Dr. William D. Funkhouser who joined the UK faculty in 1918 as Head of the Zoology Department. The other was Professor of Modern Languages Alfred C. Zembrod, a native of Switzerland, who served as Head of the Department of Romance Languages from 1914 to 1934.

Although Zoology was her major field of interest, Alberta pursued advanced studies in French and Spanish, as well. The Kentuckian Yearbook of 1920 notes that during her senior year Alberta Wilson was President of the Romance Languages Club. It also records that she was the only university senior to serve as a Teaching Assistant in Spanish and concurrently as a Laboratory Assistant in Zoology. Among approximately 150 graduates in 1920, she was one of two women, along with eight men, who graduated at the top of their class “With High Distinction”. In an era when women were often discouraged from pursuing scientific careers, Alberta was the exception. Under the guidance of Dr. Funkhouser, she completed master’s level studies during 1920-1921 and was awarded the A.M. degree in Zoology, while teaching Spanish classes at the William Morton Middle School.

Friends of the Albert Wilson Family in Pulaski County were interested to read in the Somerset Journal. (25 Feb.1921) that Miss Alberta Wilson had wed Mr. James Milton Server of Henderson at the Christian Church in Covington on Saturday, Feb. 12. Their marriage –a surprise for many friends and associates— marked the union of one of the University’s most academically accomplished students with one of the Institution’s star athletes. A multi-sport athlete, Server had been elected Captain of the 1921 football team only a short time before the marriage. Decades later, a friend of both recalled that Alberta and Jim were one of the handsomest and most popular couples in Lexington at the time.

Jim Server (1894-1964) enrolled at UK in 1914 where he was elected Freshman Class President and selected to membership in Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Server played baseball, basketball, and football as a freshman and in varsity status during 1915-16. With the outbreak of WWI, he left the University to join the military in the Medical Service Corps, including service in France until the end of the war. He returned in 1919-20 as a junior to continue his education. The Kentucky Kernel reported that “Big Jim’s” election as Captain of the 1921 football team was in recognition of his on-field success as a junior. He played at left tackle and did most of the punting, reportedly without being off the field for a minute. Sports writers picked him as “one of the mythical eleven” and as “one of the greatest linemen that ever wore a Blue Jersey”.

Tragic circumstances in the Wilson Family occurred one year after Alberta and Jim were married. Newspaper accounts from Somerset reported that on February 16, 1922, Alberta’s father, Albert H. Wilson, had appeared in the office of a Somerset attorney to provide a sworn deposition in a pending civil suit. A neighboring farmer whose land adjoined Wilson’s own substantial holdings had been charged with domestic abuse and Wilson had been called to provide testimony in the case. When Wilson emphatically responded with emotion to one of the attorney’s questions, the farmer drew a pistol from his pocket and fired four shots at Wilson who fell to the floor and died within minutes. Newspapers were quick to sensationalize the event. One account carried the sub-heading: “Father of Mrs. James Server, Wife of University of Kentucky Football Captain, Slain in Lawyer’s Office”.

Aside from emotional trauma, the impact of Albert Wilson’s death on his wife and daughter, and her husband, was severe. While pursuing her career, Alberta assumed responsibility for the family’s estate in and around Somerset, and for her mother’s well-being. Whether these circumstances affected the Servers’ marriage can only be conjectured. Whatever the reason, Jim and Alberta Server divorced around 1928. He departed Lexington and established himself in Houston, Texas; Alberta remained anchored to the University of Kentucky.

Dr. Alberta Wilson Server donating her portrait to UK Hispanic Studies and Dr. Reedy
Photo credit: The University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center

From 1923 until her retirement in 1966, Alberta was a full time academic staff member at UK. Dr. Zembrod hired his former star pupil as Instructor of Spanish and French in 1923. Her appointment as Assistant Professor of Romance Languages followed in 1925 and remained unchanged until 1944 when she was promoted to Associate Professor. In a contemporary academic environment, Professor Server would not have been authorized to teach Spanish since her post-baccalaureate studies were in Zoology. Nonetheless, her native facility in Spanish was clearly an overriding factor in her employment.

In order to improve on her credentials in the fields of Spanish language and literature, Server travelled to Spain and France for study and research during the summers of 1926, 1928, 1937, 1938 and 1939. In Madrid, she undertook advanced studies at the Centro de Estudios Históricos, earning her a Diploma de Suficiencia. Subsequently, she completed  requirements for the degree of Doctorat de l”Université at Besançon, France, with a dissertation entitled “L’Espagne dans La Revue des deux mondes, 1829 -1848”, published in 1939.

After receiving her degree at Besançon, Dr. Server and her mother travelled to Madrid where, at her mother’s insistence, Alberta sat for the portrait that she later presented to the UK Department of Hispanic Studies in 1972. The painter was the internationally known English portrait artist, Nelly Harvey (1877-1961), who resided in Madrid after 1914, after having spent time in Munich and New York. She is especially remembered for her 1920 portrait of Spain’s Queen Victoria Eugenia (daughter of Queen Victoria of England) and wife of King Alfonso XIII.

German military units were already massing on the Polish border when Alberta and her mother returned to France from Spain in August, 1939. Across central Europe panic among travelers and residents jammed available sailings from France immediately. To make matters worse, Alberta had purchased a French automobile to be shipped as cargo and her mother’s pet dog was their inseparable companion. Because British animal importation law required 30 days quarantine, Alberta and her mother adamantly refused to seek passage via England. Neither could they find a ship that would transport their vehicle as cargo. Despite their awareness that war in Europe was an imminent certainty, for several days the travelers drove resolutely from one French port to another. Finally, at Le Havre, they booked passage on the French ship Champlain, arriving safely in New York, September 5, with their automobile in the ship’s hold and the pet dog tucked under Lou Emma’s arm. Server often chuckled that she would have remained in France to confront the Fűhrer rather than leave the dog behind.

In the 1940s and early 1950s, Professor Server assumed an ever-expanding instructional role in advanced Spanish literature courses. In addition to preparation of new courses, teaching assignments often totaled 12 to 15 credits per semester. Her course rotation included Spanish literature, beginning with Cervantes and ending with the Generation of ’98; she also offered Old Spanish at the advanced major level. With the growth of literary productivity by mid-20th century Spanish American writers, Server introduced Spanish American Civilization into the undergraduate curriculum, and developed advanced Spanish American literature courses featuring representative authors and genres. Dr. Server’s undergraduate summer course on Mexican Civilization allowed her to travel with students to her ‘segunda patria’ to improve their linguistic ability and to be exposed to a culture that their instructor knew firsthand. When institutional resources were not available on one occasion, she reputedly funded the 3-credit course at her own expense.

Dr. Server was famous for her high classroom standards and for her frank criticism of students who failed to achieve success for lack of effort. According to a young Lexingtonian by the name of John Esten Keller, who would become her most illustrious disciple, she was also known for her personal interest in diligent students. Like his mentor, Keller’s early academic interests were in zoology and botany. After enrolling in Spanish classes, he soon came under Dr. Server’s tutelage. When an appendicitis attack left him hospitalized for several days in a local hospital, she appeared in his room with an armload of books, explaining that there was no need to waste valuable time during his convalescence.

Under Server’s guidance, Keller subsequently wrote his MA thesis (1942) on Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga, Some twenty five years later, on the eve of Dr. Server’s retirement, John Keller returned to his Alma Mater from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, accompanied by a large contingent of faculty members and graduate students, to develop a doctoral program in Spanish and guide the Department of Spanish and Italian to high national standing, a status it enjoys yet today as the Department of Hispanic Studies.

When Alberta Server was promoted to Full Professor in 1960, she was only the second woman to progress through the academic ranks in the College of Arts and Sciences since its establishment in 1908. The first was mathematician Sallie Elizabeth Pence, who was promoted to Professor in 1956. Dr. Pence completed her BA at UK in 1914 and received a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Illinois in 1937. An additional twenty-four years would pass before Arts and Sci9ences would name a female as department chair; that milestone occurred in 1984 when Dr. Margaret E. W. Jones became Chair of the Department of Spanish and Italian. Aside from fields such as home economics and nursing, the number of women occupying academic or administrative positions was sparse during the first half of the 20th Century. Those who persisted in academic careers were often confronted with discouraging social and economic pressures.

Social advancement for women on campus came occasionally in the form of small victories. After President James K. Patterson’s death, members of his family resided until 1932 in the Patterson Home on campus (sited near the east end of White Hall Classroom Building). Subsequently, the house was adapted for use as the University’s first Faculty Club.  It housed a kitchen and dining room, limited facilities for meetings, and a billiards room presided over by a determined cadre of zealous players. Conflict arose when the sole first-floor bathroom was designated for men only. Alberta recalled how she and other female faculty and administrative staff gave notice to Faculty Club officers that they would no longer be relegated to facilities on the second story. If no comparable facility were made available on the first floor by a predetermined date, the men’s bathroom would be commandeered by women at their discretion. The stand-off was soon resolved with another bathroom.

Equal pay for equal effort without regard to gender was a persistent issue for women in Dr. Server’s era. Men held administrative control, at the pleasure of the President, in most quarters of the University, and had unusual discretion in matters pertaining to staff appointments, promotions, and salaries. In Arts and Sciences, for example, Dr. Paul P. Boyd (Mathematics) was Dean from 1917-1947; followed by Dr. Martin M. White (Psychology) until 1965. Department Heads, who controlled unit budgets, often justified salary increases for males with families, with less regard for deserving women or persons known to have other financial resources. In fact, a major issue that ultimately led Dr. Server to retire in 1966 was the disregard of her petition for an equitable salary adjustment by the college dean.

From 1954 until her retirement in 1966, Alberta Server was the editor of the Kentucky Foreign Language Quarterly, a journal that published selected proceedings of the annual Kentucky Foreign Language Conference of which she was a co-founder. Subsequently, the Quarterly was reconfigured as the Kentucky Romance Quarterly until 1986 and is known today as Romance Quarterly. In 1962 Dr. Server published Sobre el Tapete Verde, a treatise on the game of bridge. After retirement, she collaborated with Professor John E. Keller on a translation and edition of Alonso Fernẚndez de Avellaneda’s Don Quijote de la Mancha (1980). She was also a longtime member and treasurer of the National League of American Pen Women.

Dr. Server’s continuing attachment to UK in retirement resulted in several financial gifts to the University. On learning that the Alfred Charles Zembrod Scholarship in Romance Languages (established in 1946) was becoming insolvent, she quietly provided funds to maintain the undergraduate travel scholarship in memory of her former mentor and department head. Her establishment of the Lou Emma Wilson Mexicana Fund was in memory of her mother (1878-1963) and their love of Mexico. The endowment – expanded significantly by a bequest in her will –provides for the continuing purchase of rare books on Mexico for the Special Collections Research Center of UK Libraries.

Alberta Server’s adventurous spirit continued in retirement. With longtime friend and colleague Jane Haselden (French), she travelled extensively –up the Brazilian Amazon by paddle wheeler, riding elephants and dodging insurgent gunfire in Nepal. Diabetes ultimately slowed her pace and she reluctantly left her home on Arcadia Park to enter a senior care environment. During my visits with her, she spoke frequently about many of her personal and professional experiences. In particular, she repeatedly expressed concerns about her teacher/student relationships. Had she been too demanding? Did they remember her? What did they think of her? Had she done a good job?

The sense of resolve and determination that guided Alberta Wilson Server in life was no less present as she approached the end. Despite constant discomfort and great physical pain, she was determined not to have an infected foot removed. She told me emphatically that if her caregivers agreed to amputation against her will, she would turn her face to the wall, not speak, eat, or drink until the end. And so it occurred! When I next sat at her bedside with her hand in mine, she uttered not a single word. Yet, as I spoke, her gentle squeezes on my hand assured me that she was acknowledging my presence. Approximately two weeks later her determination was victorious; she died on July 4, 1986. At her request, she was interred in her French academic regalia, wearing her Phi Beta Kappa key, and holding a memento of her illustrious Boone ancestor, alongside her parents in Somerset, Kentucky.

Daniel R. Reedy
Professor Emeritus of Spanish
Dean Emeritus of The Graduate School