In Memoriam, Sharon Hartridge Fettus, 1937-2021. Sharon Hartridge Fettus, my Mom, born in New York City in 1937, the sole daughter of Alfred and Nell Hartridge, wife of Jack Fettus, and mother of Alison, Robert and Geoffrey, and grandmother to Christopher, Joshua, Sam, Gaby, Helen and Jane, died on March 20th, 2021, at the age of 83. She had a rich, full life and was much loved by her extended family and friends. Sharon was raised just outside of Boston and then moved across the country with our Dad, finally settling in Maryland.
My Mom’s story is one portrait of a woman in the 20th century. Along with a privileged upbringing, she faced repeated instances of constrained choices and sexism. Certain parts of her formative years elicited gratitude and joy, others not so much. She loved her childhood home, her school years at The Winsor School in Boston, and her summers with her Mother in Duxbury. Coming out as a debutante in Boston society was not remembered fondly (sparing my sister Alison from such things). Central also was Bryn Mawr College. As with Winsor, BMC elicited fierce loyalty, and she found in herself a deep wish to pursue an academic career; but she also met a boy, my Father, a class ahead at Haverford College. As expected of women of her social caste, she left Bryn Mawr before graduation in order to put my Dad through medical school, working at IBM, and even nursing him back to health after a burst appendix sidelined an entire year of medical school. Her complicated feelings about leaving Bryn Mawr early, along with the adoption of the Betty Friedan-era First Wave feminism, marked her academic work, politics and life choices from that point forward.
In 1960s America, she followed our father around the country as he began his career in Air Force medicine and started producing and doing the lion’s share of raising children – Alison, then Rob, and as an unexpected surprise, me. She returned to school as a young Mother, finally earning that degree from the University of Maryland. But she didn’t stop, either raising us or getting degrees or campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment. She was well on her way to a Ph.D. in Early American history at the University of Maryland when she took one long look at the job market for history professors and pivoted to accounting and public affairs. She earned that long wanted doctorate around the time I was in college.
Our Mom had a satisfying academic career at The Catholic University of America and back at the University of Maryland. It also came with some disappointment at the hands of the rank misogyny that to this day fills areas of academic life. She authored, with her wonderful friend & colleague Mary Meyers, a seminal textbook in the field, still in use. Most gratifying, she dove into the teaching and social work duties of professorship that so many at major research universities disdain. Entertainingly, and predictably, my Mom bristled when asked to provide tax advice. Much of her work was better understood as macro-budgetary economics with a deep statistical focus – or, as she would put it in typically unvarnished form, “actual numbers on a balance sheet and what they mean, as opposed to someone’s theory pulled out of the air. Or somewhere else.”
But these are the bones of the story, and not the heart. And in her expansive heart existed her family, her dogs & cats, our home in southern Maryland, and her loyalty to lifelong friends and their children, even when they existed on opposite political ends of the spectrum. Indeed, her ferocious belief in progressive politics and the advancement of women in particular are core to who she was, but she never, not once, let it infringe on her abilities to love and support. Her tempestuous, loving relationship with her own Dad perfectly illustrated this fact. They quarreled 2 fiercely over politics but were always a central and immutable relationship in each other’s life. My Mom was a force of personality who was temperamental, judgmental, entertaining, challenged by some obstacles she herself would place in her own way, but always resolute in her intentions and warm heart.
So now that we’ve talked about the bones and the heart, we should end with what was always most evident about my Mom – her big, simply prodigious brain. Yes, she was a college professor; yes, she detested playing bridge with my surgeon Dad because he couldn’t keep up; but it was in the smaller places and moments where her brilliance was such fun. She could swiftly annihilate a Washington Post or New York Times crossword puzzle, in pen, no matter the day of the week. She was a remarkable, precise seamstress and thoroughly enjoyed the technical aspects of the multiple complicated sewing machines in our house – and she would reduce a lovely fabric to a sweater or throws with complicated math that barely rated as a small hurdle. And she retained for the entirety of her life an unerring eye for the extraordinary children’s book, benefitting all of us but especially her grandchildren. Our house, and that of every child who crossed our family’s path, was filled with our Mom’s love of the written word and a fun picture.
Reflecting her upbringing, Sharon’s table was always lovingly set for holidays with wonderful china, silver flatware, and Steuben glassware that would resonate when flicked with a finger, but the focus was on the family gathered and of course with my Mom, the sometimes acerbic conversation. She never failed to handwrite a thank you note in nearly perfect script and took enormous joy at opening her home to all of our friends and extended family. The last few years after our Dad’s death were very hard, but she took with grace and good humor to the kind, loving help at her assisted living at Collington, remarking, “so it seems you’ve put me in a nice boarding school.” As usual, she was spot on.
None of this can really capture a woman in full, but she would expect me to try and to write at least one good sentence in the effort. Through all the challenges placed before her and those that she put there herself, she made profound contributions to the academic world and her students, succeeded in a marriage of nearly 60 years, and produced a family that loves her. And she returned that love with an unmatched constancy – and remarkable ability to truly see each person as they were – especially and most of all to her grandchildren Christopher, Joshua, Gaby, Sam, Helen and Jane. What a wonderful run. We will miss her so.
March 22, 2021
** Regarding services for Sharon, due to the continued misery of the covid-pandemic, we will not be hosting a communal gathering. If you are moved to make a donation in lieu of flowers, please direct contributions in her name to any of the following schools and their programs that have or are currently serving Sharon’s grandchildren. Here are links for Helen’s & Jane’s schools in Washington, D.C.
Latin American Montessori Bilingual (the donate checkout includes a field for “Special Designation - In Honor of Sharon Fettus”)
D.C. International School (there is a space to write “In Honor Of.”)
And here are links and physical addresses for Josh’s, Sam’s and Gaby’s collegiate swimming programs.
UNC Asheville – for “Designation” choose: “Other,” and direct gift to “Swim & Dive” Or, if you would like to mail a check, please send to the address below: UNC Asheville Swim & Dive Attn: Elizabeth Lykins 1 University Heights / CPO 2600 Asheville, NC 28804 Make all checks payable to “UNC Asheville Swim & Dive”
St. Mary’s College of Maryland – Please select “More Options” and cursor down to select “Swimming” Or, if you would like to mail a check, please send to the address below: St. Mary's College of Maryland Swim Team Attn: Casey Brandt; Aquatic Director 47645 College Drive St. Mary's City, Maryland 20686 Make all checks payable to “SMCM Swimming”
Please scroll down for the donation links. Thank you.
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Latin American Montessori Bilingual
D.C. International School
St. Mary's College of Maryland