When Pete Lalich sat down to write Maya Lin’s Yale recommendation in 1976, he was almost positive she’d get in.
Lin ’81 ARC ’86 had been a solid student in his world history and American government classes — outstanding, he wrote on the form — and she came from a creative, academic family. Clearly, he said, she was a promising candidate then.
“Maya was just a little bit of a thing,” Lalich said. “She always looked so frail to me when she was young. But she’d surprise you. She was no nonsense. She cut to the chase, got to the point as a student, and I suspect she’s like that now.”
While writing his letter to the admissions committee, Lalich never predicted — but said now he was not surprised by — the buzz that would begin around his precocious student four years later.
It has followed Lin from a seminar project-turned-Vietnam Veterans Memorial to a very public career as an environmentalist and an architect savant. And now, it follows her back to her alma mater, this time as the only Association of Yale Alumni-backed candidate in the most hotly debated and high-profile Yale Corporation election in history.
Lin, while widely known for her building designs, has until now drawn little attention for her political ones.
Her friends, collaborators, college roommates and teachers talk almost exclusively about Lin’s personal characteristics when asked to locate the logic behind an architect’s surprising Corporation run.
Lalich, for one, thought a minute about why Lin would want the job and then declared it perfectly characteristic.
“I could see her doing something like that,” he said. “She’s assertive and she’s opinionated. I think she’d have good strong feelings about things.”
Bright college years
In the fall of 1977, when dining hall workers went on strike, Maya Ying Lin went to Yorkside, her freshman suitemate, Lauren Kane ’81 remembers. Lin skipped the food fight in Commons, but, Kane said, they took turns complaining about the inconvenience of the strike and purchased a coffee maker from the Yale Co-op with the money they got in place of meal plans.
Now Lin, who has declined to speak to the press since her nomination, is the only opposition to a union-backed candidate, the Rev. W. David Lee DIV ’93. She was the lone candidate proposed by AYA this year; in all years past, the alumni organization has nominated at least two, and frequently more, candidates for the Corporation.
Kane said she was shocked to hear of her old suitemate’s nomination and thought it was incongruous with the rest of Lin’s interests.
“When I knew her, in the narrowly circumscribed time I did, she was very apolitical. She was very reserved,” Kane said. Lin was never concerned with business, she added, although she imagined Lin might be interested in the position because of her feminist inclinations and might be suited for it from running her own architecture firm.
“She may feel that what she lacks in business acumen,” Kane continued, “she has from her life experience.”
Before the more famous life experiences, the Women’s Table and the widespread critical acclaim, Lin was the self-described “Monet of the School of Architecture,” notorious already for her combination of art and architecture.
She was a coxswain on the Yale women’s crew team, a soft-spoken freshman who wore pale green V-necks and listened to records with her roommates on the third floor of Bingham Hall.
Many a Yalie has heard the legend of Lin, a Saybrook College senior whose final project in a funerary architecture class stands in Washington, D.C. — now known by many simply as “The Wall.” Her design, entry number 1,026, consisted of 140 black marble panels inscribed with 57,661 names of soldiers dead or missing in Vietnam. She was 21 when it happened.
As part of a protracted battle over the monument’s simplicity and style reminiscent of Asian artwork, the then-unknown architect and sculptor defended her design at public hearings in the Capitol and faced racial slurs and criticism for her youth. In the end, it proved a springboard for Lin and the most visited memorial in the United States.
After that, her career is more or less a fairy tale. She designed the Museum for African Art in New York. She was the subject of a 1995 Academy Award-winning documentary called “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.” A civil rights monument she designed down the street from the Confederate White House drew a crowd of 6,000 at its dedication.
Not so humble beginnings
Still further back, before Lin built models for architecture professor Vincent Scully in New Haven, she grew up in Athens, Ohio, worked at a McDonald’s, and was co-valedictorian of her graduating class in high school. She kept the magazine room in her high school library “perfect at every minute,” according to the school’s head librarian Helen Porter.
She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants (one, the dean of fine arts at Ohio State, and the other, a professor of Oriental and English literature there). She is the sister of a published poet and the niece to an aunt who spent six months studying stage design at the Yale School of Drama in 1927.
Lin is also the granddaughter of a 1921 Chinese delegate to the League of Nations. Resident China scholar Jonathan Spence once said of her, “She’s got the most fantastic genes.”
In his book, “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” Spence called Lin’s grandfather, a cohort of H.G. Wells, a “gregarious and emotional man of romantic temperament.”
Jill Beck, a dean at the University of California who is overseeing a current project of Lin’s, called the diplomat’s progeny “wonderful, animated, lively, creative, and a very very fun person to work with and be around.”
Other business associates and friends, too, kept the “gregarious” in describing her and left out the “romantic temperament.”
Alan Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, worked with Lin on the Bronx paper mill project, a complicated design intended to promote industrial ecology and advance environmental causes, he said. Hershkowitz said Lin was “able to navigate in what might have been the most hostile environment imaginable, among traditional industrial developers and ruthless financiers, to show them the project was not only beautiful but useful.
“When one deals with Maya,” he continued, “the most dominant feature of her personality is an intense compassion that’s communicated through a beyond-her-years wisdom.”
It is the wisdom many say has been with her since her early 20s, when she was first on display at Washington galas and debates about her Vietnam memorial.
“The memorial design details are near completion, the [American Institute of Architects] reception was crazy,” Lin wrote in a journal published by the Washington Post in 1982, “then the eyes and whispers she’s the one — i [sic] felt like a prize, yet so small, not me but the competition was on parade.”