March & April, 2014 / by Sylvia Ford-George


Dr. Ione D. Vargus. Many people know about her founding of the Family Reunion Institute; her role as Temple University’s first African American as well as first female academic Dean; her work encouraging family reunions beyond a mere picnic; the famed conferences that were a big part of the Institute; her being mother to daughter Suzanne and son Bill, and grandmother to three young ladies. But how much do we really know about her journey from Medford, MA to Temple, (with stops at Tufts University, University of Chicago, Brandeis University, and the University of Illinois)? How does a little girl born in the midst of racism grow up to become a trailblazer and pioneer, and deemed “The Mother of Family Reunions”?



 “Our parents had a whole set of friends who were black professionals—anybody who was anybody. The house used to be filled with people while our father was alive.”


Ione grew up in the historically African American community of West Medford, MA with her mother, father and five siblings. Their home was always filled with friends, family, card and board games, and music. Their family name had a lot of recognition and credibility throughout the city, and the family was very popular. Although her own neighborhood was ethnically diverse, segregation and racism were evident throughout the North. But her mom taught them that they were, “American first and a Negro second”. 


Her father, Edward Dugger, worked as a postal clerk, and also served as lieutenant colonel and commanding officer of the 372nd Infantry, an all African American National Guard Unit. When he passed away in 1939 the community and city worked to name a playground in Medford after him. The playground still exists in beautiful condition. Her mother, Madeline Dugger, was involved in civic committees. “My father died during the depression and my mother had to go to work to support us. Because she was Black and a woman, she had a hard time finding a job.” When she found one in 1941 as Director of Services Clubs for Black Soldiers in the Army at Fort Devens in Ayer, MA, the commute was too great to travel home more than a few times a month. With no parent in the home, her sister Madeleine took on many of the mothering responsibilities. Madeleine and two other sisters’ left for college early in the morning, worked after classes, and didn’t get home until late at night. But the community pitched in. “They took responsibility for me. They made sure I was home at night. They made sure that I studied. They made sure I took my music lessons. They occasionally helped out financially.” The community became an extension of her family and made a lasting impression on her life. When she founded the Family Reunion Institute she knew it had to focus on “extended” family relationships.



“Mother was accustomed to the military atmosphere and felt comfortable with her position. She was known as “Ma” to thousands of soldiers.”


Education was also very important to Ione’s mother. She was admitted to Sargent College for Physical Education in 1917 and in 1931, a year after Ione’s birth and with six children, earned a law degree from Portia Law School. She knew that her children’s success would be very limited if they did not earn degrees. In 1952 she was named Massachusetts Mother of the Year for having sent six children through college as a widow. It was a goal of hers that each one of them receive a college education—which they did.


Ione’s brother, Eddie Dugger, was said to have single handedly put Tufts University on the map. He was one of the most outstanding and beloved athletes in the history of Tufts athletics, and was frequently referred to as a one-man track team during his college years. However, in spite of the acclaim, he was unable to secure a job in Boston due to racism, and went to work in Ohio, becoming one of the first African American aeronautical engineers in the nation. The Dugger Memorial Auditorium at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base where he worked thirty-three years has been named in his honor. Her sister Madeleine, a pioneer in her own right, was the first African American woman to run for—and win—a seat on the School Committee in Medford, MA. The Madeleine Dugger Andrews Middle School is now named after her. Her sister Barbara graduated from Bridgewater State Teacher’s College and went on to earn a Masters’ degree and in the 1940’s, taught at the elite Charlotte Hawkins Brown School in North Carolina, always refusing to sit at the back of the bus despite being in the South. Her sister Portia, after receiving her home economics degree from Framingham State College, worked in schools, and eventually became a guidance counselor. Her brother Cortland also attended Tufts and has several scientific patents.


Ione earned a B.A. in Sociology; M.A. in Social Service Administration; and Ph.D. in Social Welfare Policy. She attended Tufts University’s Jackson College, The University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration and The Heller School at Brandeis University. She taught at Brandeis, San Francisco State, the University of Illinois, and Temple University. She was an Assistant Professor in the newly formed Black Studies Department at Brandeis University and also at the Heller School; Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois and Director of the Community Pupils Project. At Temple University she was the Associate Dean before becoming the first African American as well as female academic Dean. She was also the Acting Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Temple and was given the honored position of Presidential Fellow before retiring in 1995.



 "I come from a strong Black family and was raised with a strong Black consciousness and an interest in history", Dr. Ione Vargus

Ione’s professional experience as a social worker in the fields of family service, child welfare, public housing, home management and informal education in Chicago and Boston helped pave the way for her work, research and founding of the Institute. In 1987, Dr. Vargus was named one of 498 Hardworking Women of Pennsylvania. Her role as Chair of the Philadelphia Foundation was described as“ the first woman; the first Black person in that position; one of a handful of women in the United States who chair foundation boards; one of a handful of minorities as well.” She has served on a number of local and national boards and received many awards. She has been quoted in or appeared on over 400 national and local publications and radio, television and internet shows. She is a catalyst for carrying out extended family functions that transmit a sense of identity and direction, and strengthen values. She published a book, “Revival of Ideology: The Afro-American Society Movement”; has completed extensive research on African American family reunions; has spoken at countless family reunions. And, believe it or not, she earned money for undergraduate college cleaning professors’ houses, and for graduate school as a jazz club singer and church choir soloist.

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What inspired you to start the Family Reunion Institute?

After I started my formal research on African American Family Reunions, negative books and articles about the Black family appeared, including a documentary entitled, “The Vanishing Black Family,” by a popular and respected TV journalist appeared on PBS. It was very negative, even suggesting that by the year 2000 the Black Family would disappear. I became determined to show the other side—the strengths of Black Family life. Our African American Museum in Philadelphia decided to focus on the Black Family as part of Philadelphia’s, “We the People Celebration,” and I served as the consultant to their family reunion conference, which focused on cultural arts. After the second conference I was asked to spearhead the direction of these gatherings for the future and I did so by making them an annual event and bringing them under the umbrella of Temple University. I decided we needed a structure through which to work and the Family Reunion Institute was established. However, I changed the focus from cultural arts to supporting family strengths, as an important finding of my study highlighted the revival of the extended family through reunions. When I began the study most black families did not recognize how much they were contributing to the American family. My agenda became that of helping families revive and preserve the extended family and to do this through encouraging reunions, and building on the family’s strengths. I also wanted to share the story of the reunions so that the public and even African Americans could see our positive side. In the latter regard, I feel rewarded.


Did you concentrate on the extended family from the very beginning? 

Not at the first two conferences. The workshops were more cultural driven. But we changed the focus and set-up a more mission driven direction.


How do you think families have changed over the years?

Families keep evolving. In the past a family was a mother, father, and their children. Today with single parenting, divorce, stepfamilies, and the LGBT community, that structure has changed. A family can be seen as four parents or two fathers or two mothers, or a single mom or dad. In today’s economy we see adult children living with their parents longer or moving back home. And there are more retirement communities which have created a whole new twist on having the holiday dinner at grandmom’s. Family is still relevant and important—no matter what the makeup. Families are not dying, just changing.


How has the Institute changed?

Not much. The focus is still the same. We’re still interested in building up and strengthening families. We are however, exploring ways to have more interaction, conversation, and dialogue on families. To get families to have reunions that are more meaningful than just good food, and eventually restoring the Family Reunion Institute conference.


Were you able to do all that you intended with the Family Reunion Institute?

Most of it. There’s a reconnections piece that was left out, not developed. I wanted to do some work connecting children, foster children, homeless children. We never got to that.


As the Institute moves into another phase, what would you like to see happen?

That it continue. That the focus stays with the extended family. That we showcase and build on the strengths of families, and continue to build them up. That we restore the conferences and find additional ways to network, relate and work to advance and improve the institution of families. And if possible, that the connections piece that had not been developed regarding children, be cultivated.


Did your family have reunions when you were a child? 

No reunions growing up.


As someone with an academic background and focus, do you find that family relationships impact family members’ views on education and higher learning?

Reaching the younger generations, building expectations, creating a sense of worthiness, building up self-esteem and high expectations, offering scholarships, and getting children to think beyond where they are is highly important. There’s nothing better than being able to offer real-life role models that look like you, can talk with you and can mentor you. Children need role models outside of the sports and entertainment world and that’s one of the benefits of the family reunion. And that’s definitely one of the benefits of reunions being more than just a picnic.


“People need to belong to others and often benefit from the knowledge that somebody to whom they are related is doing well, in spite of the system.”


At Temple you were the first African-American academic dean. Did you set out to be a pioneer and a trailblazer?

No. When I received my doctorate I became a community organizer, worked with campfire girls, and in housing projects identifying strengths in parents to help deal with their issues and problems. I wanted to find out more about poverty, why people struggle, and try to get some answers and create solutions. At the same time students were pushing for more black faculty, they even took over a school building for 11 days. Students wanted more than just black studies programs, they wanted Blacks as part of the faculty. My becoming the first African American as well as first female academic professor just happened.


What would you say to encourage families of all cultures to have reunions?

I would talk about the benefits of having family gatherings outside of weddings and funerals, and speak about how valuable they are. Weddings are centered around a bride and groom, funerals on the death of a loved one along with feelings of sadness and sometimes guilt. A reunion is for the entire family, helps strengthen family ties and family members sense of belonging. Reunions impart values. They’re a positive experience, a place to share family history, meet new members, visit with seniors and others you’ve not seen for awhile. And when family friends and others who were instrumental in our upbringing can attend as well, it’s that much more gratifying.


How did it happen that you were given the title “Mother of Family Reunions”?

It all started when Claude Lewis, writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote an article and declared, “If Alex Haley, author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots, was the father of the African American family reunion, Temple University vice provost, Ione Vargus is its mother.” He went on to say that, “few Americans have guided so many toward uniting lost or alienated family members as she has”, and he highlighted other accomplishments including research, dozens of family gatherings attended, and consultations, lectures and broadcasts given.


Our goal at the Family Reunion Institute is to put a spotlight on “family” and the people who are working passionately to build-up, strengthen and restore them. If you know of someone who deserves to be In the Spotlight, let us know who they are by clicking the CONTACT US tab above.


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