Vassar Opened When?

I’m sure I’m not the first to question this, but shouldn’t the “year Vassar opened” in the Spring 2001 FirstWords column be 1861, not 1865? The Vassar seal, which used to be on all the annual college catalogs, reads, “A.D. 1861,” and the class of 1865 alumnae listed in the directory surely had to start college four years earlier than that. Not only that, but thousands of us came to campus in June 1961 to celebrate a Centennial Jubilee. Otherwise, though, I enjoy every word of the magazine.

Hope Christopoulos Mihalap ’56
Norfolk, Virginia

Editor’s note: 
Several people questioned the opening date of 1865 mentioned in that column. Here’s the story. Vassar College was chartered by the State of New York in 1861; groundbreaking for Main Building occurred that same year. The college opened for classes September 26, 1865, with 353 students enrolled. Those students, however, then had to take tests to determine their place at Vassar. When those tests revealed that many were not ready for college-level work, a program of remedial education was created. Some enrolled in that, others left to prepare elsewhere, some left and never returned. College historian Elizabeth Daniels ’41 reports that student records for the first two years have not yet turned up, so the exact standing of those 165 individuals named in the directory as members of the class of 1865 is a bit mysterious. We do know that the first graduation occurred on June 19, 1867, when four students were awarded Vassar diplomas. For more information about Vassar history, visit the 
Vassar Encyclopedia at http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/.

Sternhagen Blessings

How lovely to find the spring issue graced with that beautiful picture of Frances Sternhagen ’51 and to find the interesting article about her inside.

As someone who shares a hometown (New Rochelle, New York) with Frances, I do want to mention her enormous generosity in terms of sharing her talents. I have always felt that she could read the Yellow Pages and be wonderful at it; but actually, the material she chooses is quite extraordinary and her audiences are the lucky ones. She was one of the stars at the New Rochelle Public Library’s 100th birthday party. She added considerably to an event for a local church and their campaign to save/restore their Tiffany windows. She has done local Vassar events. In short, I feel that she rarely says no if her schedule permits, and we are much blessed.

Marian Bloom Reiner ’57

New Rochelle, New York

Family Planning "Mayhem"

I read with interest your articles (Winter 2000 VQ) regarding Vassar alumnae who were pioneers in the family planning movement, and was reminded of my own adventures during the long struggle for women’s right to contraceptive services.

I entered Harvard Medical School in 1944. (Ours was the last all-male class—the following year they admitted four women, a drastic step indeed.) In the third year, our lectures on contraception were delivered at a local hotel in the dark of night. The professor was very careful to point out that this was not an official function of the school, since contraceptives were officially classified as indecent articles and were illegal in Massachusetts and Connecticut. We found it ludicrous that such a great institution could be intimidated by the thought police, but we duly attended.

Upon entering my ob-gyn residency in 1949, I found that a woman had to be half dead of heart disease or other serious illness in order to be eligible for a tubal sterilization. As your article pointed out, even contraceptives were opposed by the American Medical Association until 1964.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the late 1950s decided to “liberalize” its policy. The board, all male, decided that sterilization was acceptable if a woman was at least 30 years old and had four children, 40 years old and three children, etc. The patient’s opinion and wishes counted for nothing.

When I entered practice in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1954, virtually every hospital in the country had a sterilization committee, invariably all male, whose function was to approve or disapprove applications for sterilization. This was at a time when all available methods of birth control were notoriously unreliable. Contraceptives were legal in Wisconsin, but the annual Blue Book that was issued to all medical practitioners in the state carried an opinion of the state attorney general that sterilization of a woman not seriously ill could be construed as mayhem and subject the doctor to criminal prosecution. While this opinion was obviously based on personal bias rather than law, it was effective as intimidation.

In 1955 I started doing tubal ligations on request. I believe that this was not happening anywhere else in Wisconsin, and probably not in the whole Midwest, but it was obviously in the best interest of my patients, which is where the principles of medical ethics should lie. There was much flak from fellow physicians, occasional anonymous harassing phone calls in the middle of the night, visits from priests (I am not a Catholic), etc.

In 1965 Dr. Lee Buxton, a professor of ob-gyn at Yale, called the local district attorney with the message that “I am about to fit a diaphragm for a married patient. Please come down to my office and arrest me.” The case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court (Griswold v. Connecticut), which declared the anti-contraceptive statute unconstitutional, at last.

With the longtime efforts of the Vassar alumnae whom you cite, and many others, the Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade decisions have brought women closer to the equality guaranteed by our constitution.

Walter C. Rattan, M.D.
Denosha, Wisconsin

In Memoriam: Andrew Price III, '78

“99 percent of all parties are nothing, but the one, like tonight’s, is worth them all. Why isn’t life always like this?” Maybe he asked this wandering the halls of Davison during finals with a keg in a grocery cart, an instant, perfect party. Or a TA23 sonic fest, or Pizzatown, where Charlie Hutson ’77 first met this Daltry curled, untied mess wrapped in a bathrobe and Inca hat who winced at Charlie’s pickup lines. AP was wired for that one percent, and when that magic appeared he lit up like a torch and took us higher. 

His funeral had the magic. His wife and love Lori Bongiorno, who fought hard, side by side with AP against the malignant mela-noma while raising their children Eliza and Andy, somehow welcomed us all to their home where he died. The Clown Prince stories flowed hilarious all weekend, through the crowded funeral, wake, and final ceremony—a massive touch football game. Stories from childhood, when he stayed on first base to admire his “double,” to the hospital, where he trash talked an 80-year-old woman, also with gown and IV stand, into a race. But when AP’s shy cousin finally spoke, she compared him to Jimmy Stewart, that kindness, bringing it all to point. 

Beneath his antics lay a genius for this elusive communitas. He gathered us, using any excuse, from his last-place teams to his terrible band, the Buttners, and his cousin hit on it. His heart was huge in the listening. Near the end, AP still asked about you: “I’m into any problems that don’t involve blood draws.” People came from far away and deep in his past to mourn him. He had great friends because he was a great friend. His family loves him. There is no greater legacy. 

Bill Hebner ’78
Springdale, Utah

In Memoriam: Elizabeth Runkle Purcell '31

The “In Memoriam” section of the last Vassar Quarterly carried one line reporting the death of Elizabeth Runkle Purcell ’31, but nothing further about this remarkable woman and her singular leadership role in the history of Vassar. Betty was a trustee of the college for 21 years and served as chairman of the board from 1969 to 1977. This was the time of the perilous transition to coeducation and of the $53 million capital campaign, which made possible its success. Betty’s steady hand had much to do with guiding the college through those very difficult years.

Herbert L. Shultz
Former Vice President for Development
Kingston, New York