Back in the middle of the last century, before anyone had heard the term glass ceiling, job options for women were limited. But you wouldn't have dared suggest that to some formidable ladies whose life's work added essential grace notes to the dignity and culture of our town. Miss Curry did social work; Mrs. Morton had a tea room; Miss Scott saved old buildings; Miss Newberry ran a kindergarten; and most elegantly, Miss Donnan ran a cotillion.
No doubt, some youngsters may never have heard of a cotillion, much less promenaded in a grand march, waltzed or done the rumba. For 40 years, however — from 1945 to 1985 — Cleiland Donnan taught dancing and the basic and fine points of etiquette to, by her count, 10,000 Richmond children at the Junior Assembly, a cotillion her mother had established.
There were other cotillions locally, all led by similarly formidable ladies, but dressing up on a Saturday night and being driven downtown to the Woman's Club on Franklin Street by one's parents to the Junior Assembly Cotillion — or simply “Miss Donnan's” — was especially grown-up and fancy stuff. Girls donned white gloves and boys wore ties and navy blue blazers. Curious parents and grandparents, if they cared to watch the proceedings, were relegated to seats in the balcony.
A highlight of each year was the Christmas cotillion when Miss Donnan wore her bright red high-heeled shoes, something that remained flashy even as the Donna Reed generation gave way to those weaned on “The Brady Bunch” or things more psychedelic.
“She made everybody feel good about themselves; she made everybody feel special whether they could dance or not,” one of my brothers said upon hearing of Donnan's death March 20 at age 88.
“And then we all went to the Clover Room. That's what going to Miss Donnan's was all about too,” he added, referring to another Richmond institution, now passed.