The_VC6_at_David_Arthur-1 The Vassar 6 (left to right), the author, Susan, Nancy, Bette, Kendra, Teri

I didn’t want to go to Vassar.  My mother, her two sisters, and three of her cousins all graduated in the 1940s and ’50s, when this Seven Sisters college (founded by a beer brewer, Matthew Vassar) was known for delivering a top-rate education for women. Vassar traditions (which I had heard about since I was in diapers) included “demi-tasse”—drinking miniature cups of coffee (pinkies raised, if you please) served after dinner in the living room of each dorm—and  “The Daisy Chain,” six sophomores, in identical white dresses, carrying a 150-foot long chain of daisies on their shoulders to Commencement.

I was a “Flower Child” of the ‘60’s, a Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell–worshipping 18-year-old in 1971. Peace signs I could make; raise a pinky I wouldn’t. Vassar was the last place I wanted to apply. But since I was the oldest of three girls, my mother wouldn’t let me consider any other options.

When I was 10, attending my mother’s 25th Vassar reunion, she asked me what dorm I would like to live in.  I chose Noyes—which was designed by the famous architect Eero Saarinen. Unlike the majority of the traditional red-bricked campus, Noyes House was the height of modernity—tulip chairs, palm trees, and a sunken banquette in the living room, upholstered in neon colors of tangerine, lime green, and magenta.

Vassar9Noyes House at Vassar.

The first day of freshman year, I sat on my bed in Noyes with my roommate Bette—a sweet, freckle-faced, green-eyed girl from Boston who wore her blonde hair in two long braids. We got to know each other by reading the “Birth Control” booklet that was part of the orientation packet in our mailbox.

Down the hall, we met Teri from a suburb of Minneapolis, Kendra from rural Maine, and Susan and Nancy, who also lived near Boston. We spent many hours sitting on Nancy’s stylish red and white Marimekko comforter, enjoying late-night snacks, dishing the dirt on our professors, waiting for the phone to ring, weighing the merits of hometown honeys vs. Yale men vs. Vassar men.

Vassar was in its second year of coeducation, and in 1971, it certainly wasn’t my mother’s Vassar, or that portrayed in Mary McCarthy’s bestseller, The Group, written in the 1930s.  (Though it may not have been that far removed from the Vassar of the 1960s, where Jane Fonda was supposedly expelled for riding a motorcycle naked through the main building.)

We may have sung “Gaudeamus Igitur” (which my mother used to sing around the house) on the way to Convocation in the chapel, but I better remember handfuls of condoms being hurled out like candy to the crowd in the annual “Sex Lecture.” While many homosexuals were still in the closet across the country, at Vassar they were OUT. The flamboyant Jackie St. James (né Sheldon Weiss), of the Class of ’74, led a parade to welcome us freshman, singing his own ditty, “One More Monday in Poughkeepsie.”*  Acrid marijuana smoke and the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan, poured out the windows.  The Vietnam War was raging.  In our junior year, Watergate led to President Nixon’s being impeached.

In our senior year, Susan, Teri, Nancy, and I shared an on-campus “Terrace Apartment” while Bette and Kendra lived two houses away.  In TA 5, we tried to master the art of cooking, although sometimes we didn’t follow the recipes in The Joy of Cooking too carefully.  One day, when Susan was making sweet and sour pork, she put baking powder in the pan instead of cornstarch.  BOOM!  The next thing we knew there was a dark brown splotch on the cathedral ceiling (which was too high for us to reach, so there it stayed for the rest of the semester.) I rolled on the floor, laughing, while Susan tried to figure out what had gone wrong.

While not cooking, we dieted.  I tried to cure myself of my love of ice cream by going on an “ice cream” diet, when all I ate was ice cream three times a day. At the end of two weeks, I couldn’t look at one more scoop of Rum Raisin or Rocky Road.  This lasted about a week—and then I was back at Friendly’s.

Between cooking, dieting, and watching the soap opera All My Children, some managed to write senior theses, apply to graduate schools or “real world” jobs.  It was hard to contemplate life after Vassar, but soon the daffodils covered the hillside above Sunset Lake, the Shakespeare garden was in bloom, and we were trying on our graduation gowns.

The night before graduation our families met for dinner at a lovely country inn.  As we crossed a grassy field to the entrance, Kendra, her parents, and her three siblings were walking arm in arm, in front my family. Their red hair haloed by the late afternoon light, they looked like a pack of gorgeous Irish setters bounding off into the sunset.

The next day, I laughed so hard during the humorist Art Buchwald’s Commencement speech that I completely lost track of the significance of the day; the VW Camper was jam-packed with all my belongings, and soon my friends and I would head our separate ways.

Like good Vassar women of generations past, we all eventually got our MRS degree. Our focus became juggling marriage, motherhood, and careers. As a group we drifted apart. Until four years ago.

I was traveling to Portland, Oregon, for a garden writers’ conference and called Kendra and Bette, who live two doors away from each other there.  They invited Nancy and Susan and Teri, and voilà—the first “Best Weekend Ever.”

Even though it had been over 30 years, we picked right up where we left off.  We sang our theme song from freshman year—“Maggie May,” by Rod Stewart—at the top of our lungs and pretended it was the fall of 1971 and we were back on the fourth floor of Noyes.

Susan still twirls her hair when thinking, and ponders deep psychological questions. Bette is as sweet as ever, and is a culinary wiz too. How I had missed the staccato of Nancy’s laughter!  I would discover that her California home has the same fresh, modern style that was evident while sitting on her Marimekko sheets freshman year. Teri is, hands-down,  the sunniest among us.  And as her father once did, she now shows us how to strike a pose. Kendra always knows exactly the right words to say in every situation, and she has been the glue that has held us all together.

In the past 38 years, these women have taken on serious jobs in management consulting, medicine, public health, family and marriage counseling, and college admission counseling.  They have used their intelligence, experience, and compassion to help others—whether it be a CEO, a family with a sick child, or an angst-ridden teenager in the throes of college applications. They asked me not to use their specific titles.  All I can say is that all of them are impressively accomplished. Most importantly, they are about to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversaries, and have been devoted mothers. They have juggled and multi-tasked, kept their sense of humor, and dropped nary a ball.

In Portland, we toured the Pearl district, art galleries, and the famous Powell’s bookstore. But the real magic came from just being together and sharing the highs and lows of our lives—the career zig-zags and successes; the joys—and challenges—of marriage and parenting; our children’s graduations, wedding engagements and career aspirations; the deaths of parents, siblings, and friends.

Kendra’s husband dubbed us the “VC6”—as if we were members of a gang. And I guess we are, in the best sense.  We have had three more annual reunions—two in the Napa Valley at Nancy’s house, and one at my house in Connecticut.  During these long weekends we gab and giggle to the wee hours of the morning, take long walks, make delicious, healthy dinners (a far cry from the days of sweet and sour pork and diet chocolate pudding) and drink very good wine.  This past summer we went to New York City for dinner and the musical Motown, and grooved all the way home.

The Internet has helped us stay in touch.  On the first of each month, Kendra sends off a “Rabbit, Rabbit” e-mail (everyone still follows my old family tradition of saying “Rabbit, Rabbit” on the first morning of every month for good luck).  The e-mails fly between us every week, as we all chime in with what is happening in our lives, attaching photos of our families, friends, and travels.

Kendra, Susan, and I are hooked on playing the word game “Lexulous” online. We play five or six games at a time, and since Susan and Kendra live on the West Coast, I start my day with a cup of coffee, several Lexulous moves, and often start or continue the conversation in the “chat” box.  There is no better way to wake up.
Between the six of us, we have thirteen children.  None have gone to Vassar.  But Nancy and I have daughters who have graduated from other Seven Sisters schools, where, like us, they forged close female friendships, friends we hope they will have for life.

In my adult life, I have made many new friends, and I cherish these friendships. Yet there can be no “new old friends.”  Even though I went to Vassar under protest, every day I thank my lucky stars for my alma mater, and especially the VC6.


* Editor’s note: We have deleted a statement originally in the story that Jackie St. James died of AIDS. The statement was erroneous.

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  • Emily Kelting November 10, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Thanks for writing, Diane. I’m so glad you liked the article, and could relate to it from your own experience at a 7 Sisters school.

  • Diane Vacca November 9, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    Wonderful article, Emily. I too was at one of the 7 Sisters and can relate perfectly to your experiences. No one who hasn’t attended one of them can understand how different they were from the stereotypes created by people who know nothing about women’s colleges and how progressive they were.

  • Emily Kelting November 7, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Thanks, Edith, for sharing that recollection of Noyes merging into the woods. Noyes, as it turned out, was quite noisy. Sound travelled up and down through the radiators, and because of the curved shape of the building, those of us with rooms in the front on one side, could hear conversations in rooms clear on the other side. So I moved to the Jewett tower the first semester of sophomore year, and then spent junior year as one of 15 “coeds” at all-male Amherst. One day I’ll write about THAT experience… where did you transfer to? Hope all is well with you now!

  • Emily Kelting November 7, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Risa. While attempting to be amusing, I don’t think I stated this well, so I apologize to you and my classmates.
    I should have been clearer in the article. Of course, I spoke “with” boys as well as “of them.” I too, formed deep friendships with many Vassar men that endure to this day, as well as having great friendships with women beyond these five.

    ALSO: My mother earned a PhD at age 51. She was very hopeful that I would have a career, and she was very proud that I have had not one, but several wonderful careers. But she did tell me, in her Vassar ’49 lingo, early on and often, that she hoped I would also get married.

    I certainly did NOT mean to generalize that every woman in the class of ’75 was pressured to marry and have a career in the same way that I was. I understand we all came from different backgrounds, and we all had our individual experiences there. Truly, the school was full of fascinating people, including you and Laird. As I said at the end of this piece, I thank my lucky stars that I went to Vassar.

  • Edith Beard Brady November 7, 2013 at 10:32 am

    I was in the Tower, Jewett Tower that is at VC in 1971 and remember that year fondly. I was one of the forty percent of our class who left after freshman year. At Vassar I forged lifelong friendships too. One of my fondest memories was walking to an evening class where I had to walk past Noyes in the twilight. I loved popping out of the woods and seeing the curve of the dorm follow the curve of the forest., with the beautiful darkening sky above the roofline. Thank you for reminding me of those beautiful moments.

  • Emily Kelting November 7, 2013 at 9:39 am

    I need to make two corrections to this article. I apologize profusely for misstating that Jackie St. James died of AIDS. He died in a fire in his basement in NYC.

    And I need to clarify that the pressure to get a MRS degree came from my mother. Many of my Vassar classmates have expressed extreme discomfort with this statement. I want to make it clear that this was how I felt at the time, not how I feel now. I have been divorced twice, and in fact, have thrived since being on my own. (Though juggling several careers, being a single parent, and paying my mortgage has not always been easy.) I kid my 27-year-old daughter about being a “beautiful, strong Barnard woman.” I have never pressured her to marry, and never will. That said, I am very happy that Kendra, Nancy, Bette, Susan and Teri all have wonderful, supportive husbands.

  • Risa Scranton November 7, 2013 at 9:20 am

    A lovely picture of a time at Vassar that feels very long ago. Some of us who went there then, however, held in a more modern mindset. I for one did not pursue any “MRS” degree (although I did eventually marry my college sweetheart) nor did I spend long evenings talking “about” boys (I was too busy talking WITH them, they were part of the amazing landscape of fascinating people at Vassar in the ’70’s). I did, however, develop close, intimate, irreplaceable friendships with many amazing ladies AND men. How fortunate we all were to have been there at that time.