Financial These College Friends Pledged to Stay in Touch—60 Years Later, They Still Do
September 30, 2019
In the spring of 1956, the newly-graduated sisters of Gamma Phi Beta left their brick Tudor sorority house at Iowa State College and scattered across the country, promising to keep in touch.
They have. In February, as in the six decades past, each of the sorority sisters received a thick envelope in the mail containing a packet of individual letters from the others. Opening with Dear Sisters or Dear Gamma Phis, each woman’s letter relates the year’s highlights. “We were all at the same point in life when we met, and did a lot of growing up together,” says Connie King Osborne, 84.
Through that annual exchange, which they call the Round Robin, the sisters have maintained ties over time and distance, sharing life’s passages from the birth of children to the death of parents and more recently spouses, many college sweethearts. They laughed when one sister described accidentally wearing a wig backwards during a three-day women’s education convention—“The bangs seemed so short!”—and cried when Jane Miller LaMair wrote, “This is my goodbye letter.” Diagnosed with cancer, she knew she wouldn’t live to write another one.
Nineteen sisters were in the Round Robin when they started. Five have died. One no longer sends a letter. The remaining 13, many widowed, are in their mid-80s and scattered among 11 states.
Some of the friends who would later write Round Robin letters for decades attended the sorority’s flapper-themed party in 1953.
Sue LaGrange Peterson
The letters have grown a little shorter. Some of their now-adult children help address envelopes or take dictation if needed, knowing the importance of the tradition to their mothers.
“I really envy them that closeness,” says Carole Tillotson, who has helped her mom, Karla Baur Tillotson, type the letters in recent years. Carole had never read the letters before she began helping and was struck by their optimism and sense of sisterhood.
Letter-writing is largely a forgotten craft, especially in an era of texting and social media, but one that has value in deepening connections. The many details included in a single-spaced typewritten page, and the effort behind it, allowed them to feel close in spite of their distance.
“There’s almost six decades of conversations through those letters,” says Tami Osborne Pederson, Connie’s daughter. “Our generation would have gone the easier route.”
In her 1963 Round Robin letter, Alice Aita Newton described living in San Francisco, traveling around the world and looking for Prince Charming. Photo: Peter Newton
Karla Baur Tillotson told her sisters in her 1978 letter that she had gone back to work in the field she loved, developing cookbooks. Photo: Clare Ansberry/The Wall Street Journal
In her 1963 Round Robin letter, Alice Aita Newton described living in San Francisco, traveling around the world and looking for Prince Charming.
Karla Baur Tillotson told her sisters in her 1978 letter that she had gone back to work in the field she loved, developing cookbooks.
Clare Ansberry/The Wall Street Journal
Such long-lasting friendships provide a sense of connection, which researchers say is important to well-being. So, too, is continuity. Even as their lives, their health and circumstances change, the missives, arriving like gifts, have remained a welcome and reassuring constant. “It always makes me smile when I read them,” says Gamma Phi sister Kathie Arnold Ervin. “They bring back happy memories of our time together.”
The women were in their late teens when they pledged to the sorority at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) in 1952. Most were from towns across the Midwest, on their own for the first time, looking for connection and finding it in Gamma Phi Beta, which was founded on the values of “love, learning, labor, loyalty.”
They lived together in the three-story house on sorority circle, under the watchful but caring eye of Mrs. Rhea Dahl, the housemother. Sue Kelley Harbour remembers confiding to Mrs. Dahl that she might have to quit the sorority because of grades. Mrs. Dahl offered to let her study in the kitchen, where it was quiet. “She was a swell person,” says Sue.
All were home-economics majors, one of the few fields available to women. It included textiles and design, applied arts and household equipment, which meant learning about the latest refrigerators, washers and ranges. It would prepare them for marriage, career or both, the home economics dean said at the time.
Senior yearbook portraits of some of those in the Round Robin over the years: (Top row from left, maiden names) Alice Aita, Kathie Arnold, Karla Baur, Maralyn Brown, Judy DeHaan, Mary ‘Zibbie’ Dickerson, Ellen Eames. (Bottom row from left) Kaye Johndreau, Sue Kelley, Connie King, Sue LaGrange, Miriam McKee, Jane Miller, Sarah Pyles.
Photo Illustration by The Wall Street Journal; Iowa State University Library; Karla Baur Tillotson
The sisters were there to learn, but also to have fun. They built floats for homecoming, knitted socks for charities and regularly took first place in swimming, volleyball and singing competitions. “We had a sextet that did a song and dance routine, singing ‘Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue’ and doing the Charleston,” says Mary Dickerson Wolter, whose nickname is Zibbie.
Many hoped to find their mate and did, rushing back to tell sisters when they got pinned—given a boyfriend’s fraternity pin, signaling he was serious—and celebrating with cookies and punch. Ten of the 19 sisters met their husbands at Iowa State. In later years, the husbands would often read the Round Robin letters to keep up with their own friends.
When graduation came, the 19 Gamma Phi sisters were eager to start the next chapter of their lives, but didn’t want to lose touch.
“All of us were real close. We thought it would be nice to keep up with each other,” says Sue.
Someone, they can’t remember who, suggested starting a Round Robin, a type of progressive letter. Each would write a letter annually and send it to a designated sister, who would then make copies and mail the packets to everyone, usually around Valentine’s Day. They took turns being the one in charge and dutifully updated addresses and phone numbers as the sisters moved over the years to places like Glacier, Wash. (pop. 100), and Saudi Arabia. No one wanted to let the others down.
“There is so little to do here. The school had one little league baseball team and 80 kids tried out for 15 positions. Transportation is such a problem for women (we can’t drive) that there are very few organized activities,” wrote Sarah Pyles Davis in 1977 from Saudi Arabia, where her husband was stationed with the U.S. Air Force. In later years, Sarah became the contact person if any sister was sick or lost a loved one. She would alert the others so they could call or send cards or flowers, often pink carnations, the sorority flower.
Living together at the Gamma Phi Beta house tightened the bond of the sisters, who ate, bunked and studied together under the watchful eye of their housemother, Mrs. Rhea Dahl.
All the sisters married, two while they were still in college. Sue LaGrange Peterson, the sorority president, who went by Sue La, married the same day she graduated. Two sorority sisters were in her wedding. Connie married two days after graduation in a small ceremony at her family’s farm. Mrs. Dahl, the housemother, gave her a cookbook.
Their children began arriving within a few years. “Catherine Kelley Harbour was born July 31 at U. of Ky. Medical Center. She’s chunky and has multitudinous brown hair which sticks up and out,” Sue wrote in 1970. As more children arrived, the mothers traded stories about their hectic lives, knowing the others could relate.
“Brian is two and more trouble than the other two.” … “I feel like an Army Sergeant trying to keep the two boys in line.”… “Our oldest drives us all nutty with his football.”… “My ‘baby’ started kindergarten this fall. I must be an abnormal mother because I didn’t feel any sadness at all.” One mother of a 10-year-old daughter longed for the return of “Victorian prudery.” That was in 1970, the year after Woodstock.
The teen years were more difficult. One sister wrote of her son’s suicide attempt and the hospitalization and long treatment that followed. “Thanks for listening—for reading—for understanding. As I said, it sometimes takes the bad years to make the good years,” she wrote. “I love you all.”
Sue LaGrange, sorority president, fourth from left, graduated from Iowa State in the morning and got married the same evening. Sorority sisters and future Round Robin writers Judy DeHaan, second from left, and Miriam McKee, third from left, were among her bridesmaids.
Sue LaGrange Peterson/Deborah Meyer
They confided other concerns. Miriam McKee Cerveny was 36 and had just celebrated her 10th anniversary when she mentioned in her letter that she lost feeling in her right leg, “which is most disconcerting.” Subsequent letters chronicled the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and its progression. Her sisters were worried but heartened by her resilience and humor. She would give a brief update on her MS, which she called her “dumb disease” followed with “enough of that,” and proceed recounting an amusing discussion between her daughter who wanted pierced ears and her husband, who suggested using an ice pick.
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With their children barely out of the house, they began caring for aging parents. Kaye Johndreau Davis’s mother lived with her for 17 years and suffered from depression. “Mom recovered once again from a bout with her recurrent depression, receiving electro-convulsive therapy via the local geriatric assessment program,” she wrote to her sisters in 1997. There was an honesty among them, she says. “It was just what we were going through. I think it’s important to share that, too.”
They shared the loss of parents, siblings and children. “We always helped each other carry hard times,” says Judy DeHaan Hetzer. She remembers the sisters reaching out to her after her son Jim died at the age of 26. He was born with heart disease and over the years she would update them about his health. “Even knowing from his birth that his life expectancy was limited, his death was a great shock,” she wrote in 1988. “It is true that time helps us to heal, but it is also true that it is a very slow and painful process.”
A new chapter in the letters began in the late 1970s when the first of their children married. Grandchildren arrived over the next decade. “Our letters reflect the seasons of our lives so much, the loss of parents, marriage and now grandchildren,” wrote one sister in the late 1980s.
Judy DeHaan Hetzer kept her sisters updated each year about her son, Jim, who had heart disease. In her 1988 letter, she told them that he had died at the age of 26. Photo: Deborah Meyer
‘This is my goodbye letter,’ Jane Miller LaMair wrote to her sisters in 2016. She had cancer and knew she wouldn’t be around to write another Round Robin. Photo: Deborah Meyer
Judy DeHaan Hetzer kept her sisters updated each year about her son, Jim, who had heart disease. In her 1988 letter, she told them that he had died at the age of 26.
‘Somehow I thought I was going to live to 99 like my mother did,’ wrote Jane Miller LaMair in her final Round Robin letter to her sorority sisters.
After graduating, the sisters who didn’t get married right away pursued their careers. Sue Kelley got a master’s degree and then spent the next eight years teaching early childhood development at the University of Kentucky. Karla pursued the career of her dreams, working for “Better Homes and Gardens,” editing and compiling recipes for cookbooks.
Alice Aita Newton went to Kansas City, Mo., and worked for Hallmark, designing greeting cards, then moved to San Francisco, where she worked for several years before deciding to travel around the world. “My plane ticket is good for a year so unless I meet Prince Charming, I’ll be back next year at this time,” she wrote to her sisters in 1963. While loving her adventure, she read their letters about their families and wanted the same for herself. “It sounds like you all have such nice families and homes. I hope some day I can be one of you. Being single is great so long as it doesn’t last forever.”
The sisters who did get married put whatever career aspirations they had on hold to raise children. Some had little choice.
Soon after she married in 1956, Connie moved to Nebraska, where her husband had a job at a dairy, and applied for a job teaching home economics. “The nice placement lady said we aren’t hiring married women,” she recalls, the explanation being that married women would get pregnant and leave. She eventually got a job with the local gas company traveling to neighboring communities to teach women how to cook pineapple upside-down cake in a skillet on the new gas stoves that had “burners with a brain.” When she became pregnant, she remembers her boss telling her, “We really want you back but your place is at home.”
She raised her children and ran a piano studio, teaching 35 students. In the late 1970s, she and her husband bought a book bindery and soon she was traveling to conventions throughout the country and making sales calls. “Long days—fun and challenging, but then sometimes exhausting and irritating,” she wrote in 1978. At one point, when she was in charge of sending out the Round Robin, she surprised the sisters by compiling that year’s letters into a bound book.
Along with the annual letters to keep them in touch, the Gamma Phi Beta sisters have had five reunions, including one in 2001 in Scottsdale, Ariz., when Connie King Osborne made T-shirts with a picture of their sorority house on the front.
Sarah Pyles Davis
Karla resumed her cookbook development career after her children went to school. “In October I went to work—I think I’m out of my mind, but I do love it!” she wrote in 1978. She told them that she was working on a cookbook for Whirlpool to go with its new “combination range,” a conventional oven with a microwave unit. “It’s slick!” she wrote.
Kaye started a preschool when her oldest was in first grade and spent the next 30 years in early education, the bulk with the Head Start Program, a government-funded early childhood learning program for low-income families. Zibbie became an occupational therapist, working with children who had intellectual and developmental disabilities. In spite of her multiple sclerosis, Miriam returned to work when her children were in school as a research home economist at Oscar Mayer, developing taste tests for new products.
Some returned to school. Marilyn Nelson Kern, who goes by Minnie, obtained two more degrees, the latest when she was 44. “I received my Masters in August after much blood, sweat, tears and strange meals for my family as I dashed off to class,” she wrote in 1978. Two decades later, she was still teaching. “Some days I think it would be fun to not work so hard. Then I think ‘How can I ever give this up?’ Retirement for me is still an unknown.”
When they retired, many worked in the community. One sister raised funds for a home for abused children, the symphony and YWCA. Another was chair of her local hospital board.
Aging is the latest passage they share.
“Can it be possible this bird has flown for so many years? I still look back at our years together with such fond memories, laugh at the funny things and crying at the sad, always being thankful that the Lord put us all together for our special times,” one sister wrote in 2017.
Several lost husbands in recent years. “Please know that we all care about you and are sorry for your loss,” wrote Kaye in this year’s letter.
Many moved to retirement communities. “I’m in the home. You know what that means!” Sue La half-joked in 2017, announcing that she was in a senior-living community. Her daughter Deborah Meyer typed the letter while her mother dictated it. Growing up, Deborah heard about the Round Robin and knew her mother cherished the letters. Now, they are even more of a gift. Her mother’s short-term memory is weak, but her recollection of college days and sorority sisters is strong. Sue La keeps the letters in a basket by her chair and rereads them often.
In 2017, Sue Kelley Harbour, left, invited recently widowed Karla Baur Tillotson, center, for a weekend visit to Lexington, Ky. Kaye Johndreau Davis, right, joined them. Karla’s daughter, Carole, was moved by their gesture, which gave her mom a much-needed getaway.
Kaye has a housemate, Barbara, and a social life again. She belongs to a Gamma Phi alum book club and recently finished “Educated” by Tara Westover. Miriam is in assisted living. “My hands still work, my mouth still works and my mind still works, happily so,” says Miriam.
Sue volunteers at an Alzheimer’s day center and watches “Hogan’s Heroes” reruns with her husband, Paul Harbour, while enjoying a glass of Kendall-Jackson wine. She has a new hip, which she loves. “The only thing I can’t do ever again is play basketball. Well damn!”
All wrote about how much they missed Jane Miller LaMair, who had cancer and wrote her last letter in 2016.
Jane’s daughter, Teresa Jenson, remembers her mother writing it. “It was a testament to how close they were to each other,” she says. “They met the challenges of life together.”
Write to Clare Ansberry at email@example.com
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