Carolyn Rovee-Collier - In Memoriam
Carolyn Kent Rovee-Collier, of Delaware Township, New Jersey, died early in the morning
of October 2, 2014 following a prolonged struggle with breast cancer. She passed away peacefully
in her home, attended by loved ones.
Carolyn was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on April 7, 1942. She grew up in Baton Rouge,
Louisiana, where her father, George C. Kent, Jr., was a professor at Louisiana State
University. Her mother, Lila Kent, played a crucially supportive role – financially through
her deft work as a seamstress, always through her loving presence as a mother and
Attending the University Laboratory School through the twelfth grade, Carolyn excelled in
academics and (despite a childhood bout with polio) athletics. She served as class president
at her high school and was a member of the National Honor Society. An exceptional tennis
player, she won the Gulf States Tournament when it was held in Baton Rouge during her
teenage years. For her achievements later in life she was inducted into the U-High Hall of
Distinction in 2001.
Carolyn was an undergraduate at Louisiana State University from 1959 to 1962, majoring in
Psychology and graduating in just three years with a B.A. cum laude and College Honors. She
spent two of these summers in Bar Harbor, Maine, attending the Jackson Lab College
Training Program and studying the cognitive abilities of newborn puppies, an experience
that laid the groundwork for her subsequent career as a pioneering researcher on the
development of infant memory. She minored in English and carried through her life fond
memories of literature classes led by famous poets and professors such as Lewis Simpson.
At Louisiana State, Carolyn met David Thomas Rovee, a graduate student who worked in
her father’s lab. They married and, when she was admitted to Brown University’s Graduate
School, moved northward together to Providence, Rhode Island. “I didn’t even know where
Rhode Island was,” she later recalled; “I had to look it up on a map to find it.”
New England was not an easy place for a young woman from the deep South. Carolyn’s
Louisiana accent set her apart there; she struggled to adapt to the chilly northern weather;
and Brown remained a male-dominated institution full of unique challenges for a fledgling
female academic. Upon admission, an older professor recommended that she go into the
field of experimental child psychology because, he told her, “That’s a good field for a
woman.” She followed his advice: “I was too ignorant to be offended.” Carolyn took an
Sc.M. from Brown in 1964 and completed her Ph.D. in 1966.
These years saw the birth of her first child, Benjamin. It was while typing her thesis and
simultaneously tending to her baby that Carolyn became intimately aware of the power of
the infant mind. She observed that when the mobile above Benjamin’s crib was moving, he
was happy and entertained (allowing her to get some writing done), but that when it was still,
he fussed. By gently attaching a ribbon between Benjamin’s ankle and the stand holding his
mobile, she enabled him to soothe himself by merely kicking, and saved herself from having
to get up from her typewriter every ten minutes. Soon, though, Carolyn noticed that her son
would start to kick before the ribbon was attached to his ankle – that is to say, that he
remembered having set his mobile into motion. Thus was born a then-radical idea, which is
now routinely taught in introductory psychology courses: that pre-verbal infants can learn
things and remember them. This idea was so unthinkable at the time that Carolyn had a hard
time publishing her findings. But she was persistent, even stubborn, and in the succeeding
decades she gradually changed the way people conceived of the infant brain and its
Psychology Events in History - c.1980 - "Baillargeon, Rovee-Collier, DeLoache, and others demonstrate greater than expected abilities of human infants." From Kalat. Introduction to Psychology, 10E. © 2014 South-Western, a part of Cengage Learning, Inc. Reproduced by permission. www.cengage.com/permissions
Thus was born a then-radical idea, which is now routinely taught in introductory psychology courses: that pre-verbal infants can learn things and remember them.
Carolyn took her first teaching post at Trenton State College in 1965. While there she gave
birth to her second son, Christopher. Soon after, she gained promotion to Associate
Professor, but she resigned in protest in after her department made a politically motivated
decision to change a failing grade, given to a mostly absentee student by an adjunct
professor, to an A.
In 1970 Carolyn was offered an Assistant Professorship by Rutgers University. She would
spend the rest of her trailblazing career there, attaining the highest rank possible for a faculty
member. She published hundreds of journal articles, co-authoring most of these with her
graduate and undergraduate students. She co-wrote an important book on learning and
memory, edited a prestigious academic journal, and oversaw two influential book series.
Editing was a labor of love for Carolyn, and it gave her the opportunity to mentor
generations of young academics who found a home for their innovative work in her
A leader within her profession, Carolyn served as President of the International Society for
Infant Studies, the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology, and the Eastern
Psychological Association, and she received numerous awards for her work. Brown
University once designated her as one of its ten most influential female graduates. Her oral
history was placed in the National Archives of the Society for Research in Child
Development. And in 2003 she was presented the Howard Crosby Warren Medal from the
Society of Experimental Psychologists, the most coveted honor in experimental psychology,
whose recipients include five Nobel Prize winners.
But her greatest professional achievement, she always claimed, was her mentorship of the
hundreds of devoted students who were a part of the Rutgers Early Learning Project, which
she established in 1974. Together they formed a special family affectionately known as “the
Baby Lab.” Consisting of undergraduates, graduate students, and post-doctoral researchers,
Baby Lab team-members tirelessly schlepped all over New Jersey, making between two and
three thousand in-home visits per year to observe babies’ memories at work. Carolyn’s
students consistently received national recognition for this research, and for the dissertations
and published articles based on it.
She oversaw and nurtured the beginnings of innumerable careers, serving as a de facto
mother to all her students. She was fiercely protective of and ambitious for them, and to a
person, they rave about her profound impact on their lives. “She will always be the person
most responsible for who I am today,” says one of her earliest undergraduate students at
Rutgers; “Her enthusiasm for psychology was infectious. Her support and encouragement
guided me along my career path. But, most of all, she was a dear friend.”
Carolyn hosted huge holiday parties at her farmhouse each December – “mob scenes,” as
one colleague remembers – bringing together multiple generations of students and treating
them to vats of her spicy gumbo, shrimp étouffée, and other dishes drawn from her River
Road Recipes cookbook. (Carolyn’s copy, full of down-home Louisiana recipes, was tattered
from long use and stuffed with her mother’s own hand-scrawled recipes.)
Carolyn had a sharp, often inappropriate, sense of humor. For someone with such a
diminutive frame, her voice was unusually forceful, trained by years of lecturing to 500-
student classrooms. She disliked pretension: she stripped away the surfaces of her 250-year-old
farmhouse to expose to view its original, rough innards. She could be prickly, as her
father had been, but this aspect of her personality was inextricable from her warmth and her
alert, disarming intelligence. She demanded the most from those she loved, and with her
students as with her children (the two categories blurred together for her) this meant
pushing them to reach their full potential.
Carolyn obscured the division separating workplace from home. Her students were her
family, and her family were her students. When her children were in elementary school, she
taught them the meaning of the word “empirical,” and responded to childish queries with
the mantra, “Well, it’s an empirical question.” Her students, meanwhile, came to love
Carolyn’s home as their own, and frequently made the 45-minute drive from Rutgers in
order to work by her side there.
Even as an untenured professor, Carolyn refused to hide the fact that she was a mother of
young children. She brought her two sons along with her to professional meetings and into
the workplace, and she spoke openly about them in her lectures. She once interrupted a class
to walk her son Christopher, who was sitting in the back of the auditorium, to the restroom;
the class had to wait. In her teaching she often used her personal experiences as a mother to
illustrate intellectual points, and if this occasionally embarrassed her children, it also made
her into a unique and important role model for her students, both women and men. “I
remember being so impressed,” recalls one of her former undergraduates, “that the most
brilliant professor I had was also a real person.” She showed her students that, if there was
nothing neat or easy about holding the two sides of one’s life in balance, life could
nevertheless be delightfully messy. “Carolyn taught me the value of ‘work-life blur’,” says
one former female graduate student, “that rather than carving out different parts of your life,
you let them all run together, and that as long as you are prepared to work hard and keep a
bag of work in your car, everyone eventually gets what they need from you, including your
children, your students, and your university.”
Her children got what they needed, and then some. Impossibly energetic and loving, Carolyn
threw the baseball with her sons, took them to Great Adventure amusement park, and
attended their cello recitals, gymnastics meets, and Little League games. She even ran the
refreshment stand at the Delaware Township athletic fields. For the eight years that
Benjamin and Christopher were in high school, she drove them almost nightly to gymnastics
practices nearly an hour away. While her sons practiced, she frequently transformed the
dank, fluorescent-lit gym-lobbies with their tin folding chairs into mobile office-spaces
where she and her students could work on articles together.
In 1977 Carolyn married George H. Collier, also a Professor at Rutgers, becoming
stepmother to three more sons, Chip, Jon, and James. She and George spent the rest of her
life together on their beloved farm on Pine Hill Road, which they shared with chickens,
sheep, horses, goats, ducks, even a cockatiel and a pet skunk. In 1992 Carolyn and George
adopted a dearly loved golden retriever named Hannah, who kept them company and ghostwrote
the family’s annual holiday letter for the next sixteen years.
And then there were cats, so many one cannot count – though at one point in the mid-
1980s, there were twenty-seven. When she worked at home, Carolyn’s papers were invariably
kept warm by one. Some of her favorites were Julius and Moses (named after Philadelphia
basketball stars), Ozzie and Harriet (named after the television figures), Eponine and Cosette
(named after characters in Les Misérables), Mikey and Jackson (named after the 1988
democratic candidates for president), and her first and probably favorite of all, Foggy – a
rotund, deep-gray, enigmatic female whom Carolyn dramatically referred to as “The Fog.”
In 1987 Carolyn was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her health dwindled gradually across
the next two decades. Yet even as her motor skills diminished, her determination to
contribute at the highest level to her profession never wavered. She could often be found
typing away into the early hours of morning, one finger at a time, wrapping up an article or
commenting on a student’s thesis, racing the clock against her debilitation.
Throughout these decades of decline, Carolyn took comfort (or, as was more often the case,
pain) in watching the Philadelphia Phillies and Philadelphia Eagles play on television.
Confined mostly to her bed in her final years, she kept her radio continually tuned to a local
sports-talk station and occasionally even phoned in to comment on Andy Reid’s play-calling
or the Phillies’ bullpen. She waited on hold for hours at a time so that she could register her
opinion. One of the favorite moments in these last years was attending a Lehigh Valley
IronPigs (the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate) baseball game with her grandson.
Starting in 2008, Carolyn received loving care from Beth Harper and Tara Kroemmelbein.
Together they made it possible for Carolyn to remain in her cherished farmhouse despite
dire health problems. Beth and Tara even drove her to Rutgers and wheeled her to the
classrooms in which she continued to teach until 2013. In the final eight months of
Carolyn’s life, Zenabu Ali also lovingly attended to her.
Carolyn was committed to her local community and its environment. She was a member of
the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and served on the board of a local historical
preservation group. She donated the acreage outside her kitchen window to the Green Acres
Farm Preservation program, ensuring that it would remain forever green.
Memorial contributions may be made to the University Laboratory School Foundation
(www.ulsfoundation-lsu.org), which has established a “Carolyn Kent Rovee-Collier '59
Memorial Scholarship” for young women interested in pursuing advanced studies in the
The flag in front of the Old Queen’s Building at Rutgers will be lowered to half-staff in
Carolyn’s honor, on October 21 and 22.