Forever Fair and High and Strong
Vassar College Song c 1929 “Alma Mater”
“Hark, Alma Mater, through the world is ringing the praise thy grateful daughters bring to thee. O thou who dost hold the torch of truth before us, across thy lawns we hear the magic song. ‘Tis Vassar, Our beloved Alma Mater, that stands forever fair and high and strong.”
Our trek across the Southwest with our southern French friends barely two weeks gone, we hit the road again, this time eastward toward Poughkeepsie, New York en route to Vassar, but not before stopping to see our dear friend, Frances Wolfson in Utica (see previous blog). The occasion was Melanie’s 50th college reunion. The last time we set foot on campus was ten year’s ago for the 40th reunion. Then, as now, it was a glorious and festive weekend. Classes from as far back as 1942 were in attendance. Forever fair and high and strong, Vassar, founded in 1861 by Matthew Vassar, was the first degree-granting institution for women. It began admitting men in 1969, two years after Melanie graduated.
Over the years, Melanie has shared with me fond memories of her undergraduate days — the friends she made (a few with whom she has maintained contact), her professors, her dorm days, her junior year abroad in France.
But most of all she’s talked about the rigorous liberal arts education she received there, an education whose foundational values of looking at the world broadly and openly with an inquisitive mind has shaped her into being the person she is today. From my own exhilarating conversations I’ve had with her classmates, I’ve observed that Vassar education in bright, dynamic, intelligent and confident women. Like many women’s colleges, Vassar was a place for women to feel empowered. These graduates have reached the pinnacle of professionalism in their desire and determination to excel. They are impressive in what they have accomplished as scholars, engineers, researchers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, educators, and as leaders in business, government and healthcare policy and practice.
When these women were in college, it was a tumultuous time for our nation. In their freshman year, President Kennedy was assassinated. Civil Rights workers were beaten and murdered. The Vietnam war was raging. Racial unrest led to rioting in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The fight for the right to vote, for fair housing, for equal education, for fair and equal wages was still ongoing. The Women’s Movement sought gender equality. The role of women in the professions and in society was still being debated. I remember a conversation with a graduate at the 40th reunion whose mother discouraged her from pursuing a career as a doctor. She instead became a nurse and married a doctor. I’m sure she excelled as a nurse, but if her dreams to become a doctor had not been stymied by the prejudices of the day, what heights she might have ascended? In spite of many historical and social barriers prevalent at that time, these women persevered, persisted and achieved.
As typical of alumni gatherings, activities were planned for each of the classes. There were dinners and socials for the classes to bond. For the Class of 1967, a highlight was the tour of Val-Kill, the residence of Eleanor Roosevelt. To situate us to the importance of Mrs. Roosevelt and her historical impact, we saw a brief film of her life before visiting her modest get-away that eventually became her home.
There, tucked among the trees, on the vast grounds of the Roosevelt estate, she entertained heads of state and other dignitaries, nationally and internationally. Senator John Kennedy visited her there seeking her endorsement of his presidency. She said she would, but only if he took a stronger stand on civil rights. I knew of some of that history from my reading of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. In my view, she was as grand in stature as her husband. After that visit to Val-Kill, I feel compelled to read more about her.
Saturday morning was the traditional grand marches by all the classes, beginning with the earliest classes present. This year the Class of 1942 lead the parade in a golf cart amidst the blare of music and cheering classes that lined the parade route. As the Class of 1967 followed in step, led by the New Orleans-style band, the Saints of Swing, Melanie and I noticed the increased diversity in gender and ethnicity among the classes cheering us on as they waited in turn to join the parade. Several women in the Class of ’67 wore pussy hats, evocative of the Women’s March on January 21, the day after President Trump’s inauguration.
The parade ended with raucous cheering as the last class entered the huge campus arena. Seated in the middle just in front the stage was the celebrated 50th Reunion Class of 1967. After the usual greeting formalities from the interim president and others, the alumni president delivered a roll call of class gifts. Over fifteen million dollars was raised and the largest gift came from the Class of 1967, $5.4 million. Included in that amount was a Jean-Francois Millet painting presented by an alumna the evening before to the Vassar Museum. This family treasure initially belonged to her great-grandfather, an avid art collector in the nineteenth-century.
Later that evening, we dined at the Wallace Center of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum. During the cocktail hour, Melanie and I strolled along the gardens and patio where we sat on a bench with Franklin and Eleanor for a casual chat. They were pleasant enough, even smiled!
For the Class of 1967, that weekend was a joyous time to reminisce, to celebrate, to renew old friendships and to begin new ones. At the 40th reunion, we vowed to stay in touch with several alumnae we met. In spite of our good intentions, we did not. But now after the 50th, perhaps because of advancing age, there is a renewed commitment to reach out in the remaining years to appreciate those whose lives have intersected ours
From Poughkeepsie, we motored to Boston to spend a marvelous weekend wth our politically engaged daughter, Amanda. There we ate well as usual (she’s a fabulous cook) and we ventured out to eat delicious fried clams.