Born on December 11, 1876, in Moorhead, Minnesota, Ada Comstock was the eldest of three children. She was bright, vivacious and very much a tomboy in her early childhood. Her father, a successful lawyer, recognized her capabilities and potential and set about to cultivate them by encouraging an early and sound education for his daughter.
Ada completed her high school education at the age of 15 and went on to college. In 1895 she transferred from the University of Minnesota to Smith College, where she completed her last two years of undergraduate study. As a Smith student, Ada often questioned the established rules and norms of college life. While a resident of Hubbard House, she was given a case of champagne, which the housemother felt should be given away. Instead, in a move characteristic of her spirit, she decided to store it in the water cooler to refresh her friends!
After graduating from Smith in 1897, Ada went on to a graduate program at Moorhead State Normal School, where she became certified to teach. She then entered Columbia University for graduate work in English, history and education, and by 1899 was ready to return home to look for a job. In 1907, after teaching rhetoric at the University of Minnesota, she was appointed the university's first dean of women. In this capacity, she was instrumental in improving the quality of life for the women of the college, arguing persistently that a college was responsible for one's physical and intellectual well-being.
In 1912, Ada came to Smith to serve as the first dean of the college and to teach English. Particularly challenging to her was the opportunity to advise and teach young women in an all-female institution. One of the most important tenets of her educational philosophy was the inculcation of self-respect in young women, one aspect of which was knowing how to employ oneself. Ada believed very strongly throughout her entire life that a college education should inspire women to take part in shaping the world.
In 1917, when the presidency of Smith College became vacant, Ada was given the responsibility of Smith's operation for approximately six months, but was neither given the title of acting president nor was she considered for the position. Despite Ada's significant and numerous contributions to the college, Smith was not ready for its first woman president.
The chance to become the president of a women's college presented itself to Ada in 1923 when Radcliffe offered her the position of its first full-time president. Throughout most of her administration, Ada Comstock struggled with trying to maintain a balance between Radcliffe's association with Harvard and its establishment as an independent women's college. Under President Comstock, Radcliffe was able to launch a nationwide admission program, improve student housing, construct new classroom buildings and expand the graduate program.
In 1943, Ada felt her work at Radcliffe was complete. She had brought the institution to distinction and maturity, and it was now time to move on. At the age of 67, she stepped down from the presidency and shortly after announced her marriage to Wallace Notestein, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University, a man she had known since her days at the University of Minnesota.
Retirement for Ada was an extremely busy period in her life. She continued to be actively involved with the Smith College Board of Trustees, worked on plans for the graduate center at Radcliffe, did extensive educational committee work, administered a two-career household and traveled extensively with her husband.
Ada Comstock Notestein considered education and personal growth to be a lifelong process. She was active and involved in her work for higher education for women until her death at 97. As Ada Comstock Scholars, our lives epitomize her ideals. Her enthusiasm for life and perseverance in the attainment of personal goals inspires us all.