Remembering Sheila McCarthy: Professor, Scholar of Russian, and Champion of Citizen Diplomacy

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Brilliant, dedicated, and compassionate, she led with her belief in the value of person-to-person connections

Associate Professor of Russian, Emerita Sheila McCarthy
By Laura Meader
January 21, 2022

Colby mourns the passing of Sheila McCarthy, associate professor of Russian, emerita, who died Jan. 11, 2022, in Ithaca, N.Y., at 79. A champion of citizen diplomacy between Americans and Russians, McCarthy dedicated her life to education driven by a commitment to share her vast knowledge of Russian language and culture. She taught at Colby from 1987 to 2009.

A scholar of Russian literature and modernism with a near-fluent command of Russian, McCarthy was an exceptional teacher possessing a deep capacity to care for students as individuals with unique interests. On campus and in the Waterville community, she built and sustained intercultural programs rooted in individual connections.

“She was absolutely dedicated to teaching undergraduates, had a great rapport with students in the classroom, and mentored many students,” said Anthony Anemone, Colby’s former assistant professor of Russian who hired McCarthy. “I valued her brilliant knowledge of Russian, her wit, kindness, and her dedication to the program.” McCarthy would chair the program for several years starting in 1992.

That dedication included making Russian accessible and interesting through a rich array of cultural extracurricular activities for students. Among them was the yearly Colby-Bates-Bowdoin Russian Student Symposium. The conference-like event offered Russian majors the opportunity to present a piece of original research in Russian. McCarthy also organized a German and Russian holiday party, a Russian poetry slam, and a yearly Maslentisa (the Russian Mardi Gras) celebration, a student favorite.

“Sheila was all about building community across cultures and across boundaries,” said Elena Monastireva-Ansdell, assistant professor of Russian. McCarthy drew upon her profusion of connections in Russia and America to execute programs that enriched Colby students and the broader community alike. “She had a magnetism and a power of inspiring you to be part of a cause, of very important causes.”

Born in Salem, Mass., and raised in nearby Peabody, McCarthy earned a bachelor’s in Russian from Boston’s Emmanuel College in 1963. She earned a master’s in Soviet area studies from Harvard University in 1965 and a doctorate in Russian literature from Cornell University in 1980.

During this period, she also served as an exchange teacher of English at a middle school in Moscow, participated in a graduate student/young teacher exchange at Moscow State University, and worked as a translator in the Quaker United Nations Office in New York City. She also taught Russian language and literature at Antioch College, Cornell, and Grinnell College, where she worked for 16 years and earned tenure.

Sheila was all about teaching Russian and introducing students to a new culture in ways went beyond the classroom.”

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell, Assistant Professor of Russian

McCarthy took dozens of trips to the former Soviet Union and Russia beginning in 1965, many specifically to strengthen connections between U.S. and Soviet/Russian citizens. She brought that mindset to Colby when she joined the faculty in 1987, a time of significant reform in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.

“During the years of glasnost and perestroika, Americans were suddenly much more interested in Russia, and we had some real successes building the Russian language and literature curriculum within a new Russian Studies Program,” Anemone recalled. A hallmark of that period was the inception of exchange programs between American and Soviet academic institutions as well as local communities. McCarthy and Anemone were key in establishing exchanges both at Colby and in Waterville.

Starting in 1990, Russian exchange students arrived at Colby, including Monastireva-Ansdell. She first met McCarthy while quarantining in Colby’s Millett House because of a measles’ scare on campus. McCarthy came to welcome Monastireva-Ansdell bearing homemade zucchini bread, an endearing gesture that anchored their decades-long friendship.

In 1991 McCarthy was instrumental in establishing the Colby in St. Petersburg program by drawing upon her extensive connections with the academic community in St. Petersburg. Colby students studying at the St. Petersburg Classical Gymnasium reunited with former exchange students and Russian language assistants, who all came to Colby from the gymnasium.

“For Colby students,” said Monastireva-Ansdell, “it was like there was a Colby family, and there was a St. Petersburg family. For them, St. Petersburg was more than spending a semester abroad. It was a larger connection.”

McCarthy also played a fundamental role in forging ties that led to the Kotlas-Waterville Area Sister City Connection, a public manifestation of citizen diplomacy in action. She provided essential intellectual and logistical support that brought a Russian school teacher and two students to Waterville every spring for a week of cultural exchange.

Included in that week was the Russian Sampler, a community outreach event that brought more than 200 area middle schoolers to Colby’s campus for a day of immersion in Russian culture. Presenters included the Kotlas delegation as well as a variety of community volunteers and Russian immigrants from nearby Richmond, Maine. “Sheila knew every single Russian person in the area,” Monastireva-Ansdell said.

“She was a brilliant teacher who worked overtime to get students interested, to help those who needed extra help. She was always incredibly generous with her time.” 

Anthony Anemone, Former Assistant Professor of Russian

Monastireva-Ansdell, who joined Colby in 2009, appreciated McCarthy’s vision and stamina. “The amount of time she invested into all these connections, giving Colby students the opportunity to start meeting real Russians at the very first opportunity, right when the Iron Curtain opened up. She was always looking for any possibility for students to have meaningful person-to-person connections with Russians. That was Sheila’s intent.” 

McCarthy was predeceased by her husband, Clifford E. Reid, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics, Emeritus, who died just two months prior, on Nov. 6, 2021. She leaves their son, Matthew Reid, daughter-in-law Judith Griffin, and two grandchildren, who delighted her.

A wake will take place Friday, Jan. 21, 4-6 p.m. at Veilleux and Redington Funeral Home at 8 Elm Street in Waterville. There will be a funeral at 9 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 22 at Notre Dame Church, 116 Silver Street in Waterville.