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Kirkland Everlasting

Betty Hagerty Marmon K’72 and Donna Orenstein Kerner K’72

Betty Hagerty Marmon: It was overcast and rainy as we drove up the muddy river toward Major, Minor, and Macintosh, our three recently built residential halls at the edge of the apple orchard. As Constance Stellas recalls that day, Sept. 15, 1968, “My first experience of Kirkland was arriving with my mother and three sisters and unpacking our station wagon. All of my clothes were laid out on a gray blanket, and we thought we would just haul it into the dorm. It was unwieldy, and we must have looked a bit like immigrants hauling their possessions into a new land. A very kind man stopped to ask if we needed some help, and yes we did. And so, Sam, that very kind man, took up one end and I the other, and somehow we made it up to the second floor of Major.”

And so, here we are, not too far from Major, roughly 54 years and exactly 18,970 days later, to remember the beginnings of Kirkland College, the heavy lifting done by that very kind man, Sam Babbitt, and the legacy of that place at the edge of an orchard.

Welcome! As a member of the 1972 Charter Class, I’m honored to speak to you today about Kirkland College, our bold experiment on the Hill, and to celebrate all of the alumnae of the College’s eight graduating classes as part of this All-Kirkland Reunion. We were an optimistic band of sisters who gathered in the Chapel for the opening convocation of Kirkland College on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1968. We entered those doors during a time of social upheaval, joining the Hamilton College community as founding members of an innovative new coordinate women’s college, arriving with self-governance and self-determination in mind. Between 1971 and 1978, 1,058 diplomas were granted during Kirkland’s time as one of 250 women’s colleges in the United States — of which now only 35 remain.

I am delighted to see so many familiar faces here in the place where our shared story began. On that late summer day, our opening convocation was most impressive as we sought to define the innovative experiment that is/was Kirkland, established on the grounds of Hamilton’s apple orchard. “A college that exists for its students” was one of our battle cries and these first few hours together already marked new ways of thinking and articulating ideas. Our “adultification” began as soon as the ceremonies concluded, and we were initiated into the lifelong learning lessons that were guided by our pioneer spirit; a label branded for us by the College’s founders and which has stuck with us ever since. Our apple tree remains in mid-state of fructification.

Thank you to the members of the K50 Planning Committee who organized this wonderful and rewarding time together, especially to my sister Charter Class members Donna Orenstein Kerner, Susan Bickford, and Sara Redding Wilson for their leadership, and to Elaine Weiss K’73 for her support in creating this Annalist Letter. I want to congratulate Elaine on the honorary doctorate she was awarded at the Hamilton graduation ceremony this May. Her latest book, The Women’s Hour, was the outcome of the important history and dialogue that Elaine traveled the country to collect and bring to life, and through her work we have all become lifelong learners on the topic of women’s suffrage and voting rights more broadly.

Welcome to our fellow half-centennial celebrants — the Hamilton men of 1970, ’71, and ’72, represented by John Pitarresi, Rory Radding, Jon Hysell, J.K. Hage, and Steve Wulf, respectively, and to all of the other Hamilton alumni here today. Sincere thanks to President David Wippman and the Hamilton Board of Trustees, faculty, and administration for facilitating this event, especially given the extraordinary circumstances of the last two years. A shoutout also to our amazing staff partners in the Hamilton Advancement Office: Sharon Rippey, Victoria Kidd, Nancy Huckaby, Jaime Thiesen, Jen Mendiola, and Jane Taylor for all of their hard work, technical support, and good cheer. Finally, I hope you’ll join me in recognizing Kirkland’s inspirational leader, Samuel Fisher Babbitt, the College’s one and only president during its utopian decade, as well as a teacher, scholar, and friend to us all.

We arrived on the Hill together at an extraordinary moment — the Sixties. We had been coming of age with the rise of the civil rights movement and the second wave of feminism with a seismic impact personally, nationally, and globally.

After a half a century, it might be hard to remember the intensity of emotion and action that tore us from the relative calm of our post-WWII childhoods and thrust us into direct conflict with structures and figures of authority. We were questioning our parents, our teachers, our religious and cultural institutions, and our government.

Kirkland’s mission was in many ways a real response to the kind of ennui first identified by Betty Friedan in her 1963 classic The Feminine Mystique as “the problem with no name.” Prominent in Kirkland’s recruitment literature was the notion that a college education for women shouldn’t be just something you pass through between high school and raising a family, but rather that it could offer much more: a road map to learning for each stage of a woman’s life.

The ’60s began with a major step toward changing women’s role within society with the FDA’s approval of the first oral contraceptive birth control, potentially freeing American women from the fear of unwanted pregnancy and removing a roadblock to career advancement. It took almost a decade for birth control to be approved for sale to unmarried women. Our generation of women was poised to “break glass ceilings” and potentially “have it all.” That is hard to do.

The social movements of the 1960s questioned all of society’s major structures, including the framework of higher education. In a progressive vision for a more equitable future, who is college for? What is its purpose? In striving for more egalitarian gender roles, what is the function of single-sex colleges?

Hamilton had begun questioning its own place in the universe of higher education and started exploring options for reinvigorating life on the Hill. The planning committee of the Hamilton Board of Trustees recognized that Hamilton would need curricular innovation and new pedagogy to best serve this new generation. Even more, it would need women students on the Hill.

In 1963, the same year as the publication of The Feminine Mystique, the planning committee recommended the creation of a coordinate women’s college, fulfilling this vision for innovative education on the Hill. By the fall of 1968, that women’s college — Kirkland — was ready to welcome its first students — us.

Recalling my own college application choices, I planned to be a political science major. I had thought I’d go to Washington, D.C., to be in “the room where it happens.” After touring the usual big three — Georgetown, American, and GW — I returned to my high school guidance counselor to ask, “Is that all there is?” She asked if I would like to start a college. But of course, sign me up! All of the places I had looked at before talked about being special; Kirkland was guaranteed to be special because we would be called upon to invent it.

There was a palpable energy among everyone involved. When prospective students and their families came to see the mud pit — I mean the campus — moms pretty instantly bought into the Kirkland model and wished that they could have had that opportunity, and in many cases, dads got the “it” factor of Kirkland, too. “My dad’s support of me going to a school that didn’t exist was amazing and wonderful,” recalls Elaine Stroud, “and at the time I didn’t appreciate what it meant.” In our Charter Class, many of our fathers had college degrees, while less than half of our mothers had attended or completed college. Many of us, though, were the first in our families to enter college. A large portion of our class were only or first-born children in our families — perhaps more likely to take the path less traveled.

Our arrival in Clinton followed a summer of national trauma and strife, in many ways the climax of the decade. It was just a few months since the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968 and Bobby Kennedy in June, with the scars of the civil unrest that followed still raw. It was only a few weeks after the chaos of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the escalation of — and steeply mounting opposition to — the Vietnam war. The bitter ’68 presidential election campaign was in full swing. Before our Thanksgiving break, Richard Nixon would be elected president. It was certainly not a time of peace and love, but that made it all the more auspicious a moment to try to envision a better world.

Donna Orenstein Kerner: The original A, B, and C dorms that constituted the Kirkland campus that first year, christened as Major, Minor, and Macintosh after the opening convocation, were designed by the architecture firm Benjamin Thompson and Associates. These brutalist concrete buildings were offset with bold bursts of brightly colored Marimekko fabric and brilliantly hued Design Research furniture. This stylistic juxtaposition was thrilling, if a bit unsettling. They were designed to inspire innovative and creative thought, as well as to provide the refuge that the founders thought young women might desire. Those pristine spaces immediately underwent renovation as we began to move in with all of our cool college gear: stereos, speakers, and vinyl record albums; transistor radios, Kodak and Polaroid cameras, portable typewriters. We brought irons (great for straightening hair or making grilled cheese sandwiches), battery-operated or wind-up alarm clocks, and miniature TVs, with antennae of course. One classmate recalled never opening the bonnet hair dryer stowed in her pink pillbox case. Instead, she dried her waist-length hair bending upside down and turning the heater up to full blast in the Minor first-floor bathroom that reeked of Jean Nate and Lemon Up.

For studying, we brought architect desk lamps, ring binders, lined loose leaf, typing and carbon papers. Flair pens and yellow highlighters were new and all the rage. Another classmate wrote, “When I open my college textbooks now I wonder what I thought could possibly have been the main point of the reading. Most of the pages were covered in yellow highlight.”

We communicated to family and loved ones via letters and, using Ma Bell, placing collect calls that were allowed to ring 10 times, then hanging up to receive the less expensive direct callback. The unfortunate students whose rooms were adjacent to the open phone booths generally sought alternate accommodations ASAP.

Research papers for courses on both sides of the street required developing a bibliography from card catalogs (prehistoric Googling) and often ordering books and reprints on interlibrary loan. It was a trek to work in the library, but that’s how many of us made new friends — by learning what part of the stacks they were most likely to study in. If we were able to work, or at least pretend to work, until closing time, we could also find company and a free beer at the campus pub, which offered ladies’ nights during the week. Most course papers had to be typed, thus causing great expenditure on either white-out or fees to pay typing whiz Jane Balzereit Whitney to type our paper by the deadline, which was almost always the next day. Without cars our first year, most of us relied on the College jitney, ride boards posted in Bristol Campus Center, and hitchhiking to get around. It’s a marvel that we survived.

By contrast, the first-years who arrived on the Hill this fall had no need for stationery or landlines as they could pick up their smartphones and communicate in any number of ways. The same device supplanted the need for a camera, stereo, radio, TV, calculator, alarm clock, money. or checks. Typewriters (RIP) are now replaced by laptops and tablets.

The contrast between our Charter Class cohort and students who arrived on the Hill this year are even more stark if we consider many aspects of the geopolitical landscape. The students who arrived on the Hill as the Class of 2025 were born after 9/11 and have never lived in a U.S. that was not at war. Their social experience was not of air raids but active shooter drills. All have had their high school careers interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Social media has brought a global perspective directly into our homes, highlighting conflict and suffering around the world. Climate change was just at the edge of our consciousness in the ’60s with the publication of Silent Spring and the Whole Earth Catalog and the celebration of the first Earth Day. Today, students are highly engaged in the debates about how to tackle climate change and work toward a more sustainable planet.

What links us then? The legacy of a first-rate education offered by talented, creative, and dedicated faculty; the common landscape of an astonishingly beautiful campus, perched above the town of Clinton; and the hallmark of the young: the determination to make a difference.

We don’t know what important discoveries this current cohort of students may have made on their first day, but for us, the most startling discovery was that the dining hall was a quarter-mile — some say a half mile — away from our campus, requiring a schlep for every meal. We’d soon have another rude realization: Clinton weather. Our intrepid first Dean of the College Inez Nelbach recalled, “The weather got rough almost immediately. We had 11 inches of snow the first week in November, and we never saw the ground again until April. It was cold, bitter cold, and they had to do this hiking back and forth between the campuses the whole time.”

Betty: Over the summer, Sam had written to us a letter of welcome, where he also set forth what might be called the Kirkland credo: “Ours will be a college in which students and faculty share responsibilities for self-governance and self-determination. Indeed, it may be that the lessons which all of us learn in this constant process of self-definition may be among the most valuable we carry with us beyond our Kirkland experience.” On the first night, after dinner and the departure of parents, the first community meeting was held: just the first of many, many, many meetings of our Kirkland career.

Our process of self-determination got off to a rousing start as we voted to dispense with social regulations in the residence halls — the traditional parietals — completely. It was just the first of Kirkland’s challenges to Hamilton’s established social order. And there would be many more decisions to make. We had a college to build.

Our second official action that evening was to establish an ad hoc steering committee that would design a shared governance model with representation from faculty, administration, and students. Thanks to a corps of dedicated classmates and Daphne Petri as the first student chair, a constitution for the Kirkland community was created and approved in six months’ time.

Kirkland’s very ethos was a response to the political and cultural forces surrounding us, with a commitment to what these days we would call a “flat” organizational structure. Many hierarchical rungs of authority characteristic of most educational institutions would be eliminated. Students were largely left to determine the direction of their studies with their faculty advisors; written evaluations replaced letter-course grades. Academic divisions combined the disciplines of different fields. The focus for Kirkland women would be to analyze problems, texts, and artistic creation holistically from multiple perspectives.

In a fundamental departure from the Hamilton approach, at Kirkland, the creative arts — studio art, ceramics, photography, dance, drama, creative writing — were considered a key part of the academic curriculum, not just a fluffy addition, highly unusual at the time and also controversial on the other side of the street.

While deep thoughts were in abundance, good times also beckoned us to do just that, so we had a really good time! Following one of our first core lectures, there was an announcement that anyone who wanted to be in a movie should stay after class to learn more. Based on a book written by John Nichols ’62, The Sterile Cuckoo was going to be filmed on campus with Liza Minnelli as its star, just a few weeks into our fall semester.

Movie making was quite an experience — one that led Sandy Faison to be flown to Hollywood for a screen test and Jane Emons to be sent to Yale-New Haven hospital for a hernia operation. Those of us who were left behind to be extras were still paid $27.50 a day to drink all of the Utica Club we could consume in the party scenes that laced the film’s narrative.

But all was not houseparties on the Hill; the social and political turmoil of 1968 made its way to campus, and national events shook us. As anti-war fervor intensified, Kirkland women joined Hamilton men in protesting the presence of Army recruiters on campus. Many of us sat with our Hamilton classmates as the first televised draft changed the lives of our friends in the most terrifyingly random way possible.

Donna: And while our social science core classes focused on the national crisis in racial relations, we were slow to face our own racial problems on campus. There were only three Black women in the Charter Class, and with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear how many members of our class ignored their misery of misunderstanding, social isolation, and stifling of identity in this very white enclave. White students had no playbook for what it meant to be allies back then and had varied involvement in civil rights causes prior to entering College. Heated discussions about inclusivity ensued as Black students on both sides of the street met to form the Black Student Union of Hamilton and Kirkland Colleges in our first semester, joining the wider network of national BSUs. The mission of the union (aside from recruiting a more diverse student body and faculty) was to promote a safe and inclusive campus community for all. Pat Chance helped to draft that mission statement and became the first secretary of the union. As a result of the efforts of the small handful of Black leaders on campus, BSU was in frequent talks with presidents Babbitt and Chandler, and BSU members were invited onto the Admissions Board.

Ripples of the national conversation on gender equality trickled onto campus our first year as well. We were confronted with a very traditional way of organizing gender relations at Hamilton — one where fraternities had long structured social life into three seasonal lollapalooza houseparty weekends. Women had been regularly imported from neighboring single-sex schools on weekends for these and other events. Heavy drinking was the norm; but casual dating and interactions in academic classes, in extracurricular organizations, and intramural playing fields were brand new ways of relating for many Hamilton men.

Some members of the Charter Class were dazzled by the attention not only of Hamilton students, but also the contingent of Colgate men who pitched a tent city behind the Kirkland dorms in the early days of the fall ’68 semester. Other Kirkland students bridled at the image portrayed by a New York Times reporter who covered the opening of the College and that centered on the shy and flirtatious co-eds.

Hamilton men seemed equally ambivalent. Those who had looked forward to a normalization of social life on the Hill and the kinds of educational reforms that Kirkland promised were initially disappointed, as was evident in an early fall ’68 Spectator essay written by the editorial board titled “Go Someplace and Giggle.” By the spring of ’69, a Hamilton contingent made a public appeal for Kirkland to inaugurate courses on cosmetology and fashion. Apparently there was dissatisfaction with the way some of us dressed. (You got a problem with overalls and combat boots? I hear they’re trending now.) Classmate Julie Beinecke’s response in a letter to The Spectator titled “Zoo Facts” provided an introductory lesson in Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, to the effect that it is well known that, in most species, it is the male who is responsible for attracting a mate through the conspicuous display of color, design, and courtship behavior.

Betty: It was during that first year that the memorable event sponsored by the Hamilton Debate Club pitted the seasoned Hamilton team against Charter Class initiates, including me. I joined my friends Janet Horsman and Elspeth Savage in a televised event held in the Science Center audi­torium to a standing-room-only crowd. The topic: “Should women remain barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen?” The audience was instructed to sit on the side of the auditorium representing the team they thought they agreed with, but were allowed to move as debaters scored points against the opposing team. By the end of the evening, the fledgling Kirkland team won, largely by advancing the argument that educated women made better wives and helpmates. Kirkland women clearly hadn’t been fully liberated in heart and mind yet, but it seemed that Hamilton and Kirkland students could at least agree on that point!

Just a year later, a new book would help us make our points more cogently. The young women of the Boston Women’s Health Collective would cheerfully teach us how to smash patriarchal and puritanical assumptions about sex — and much else — in its groundbreaking publication, Our Bodies, Ourselves. Kirkland began distributing the book at orientation.

Despite the good intentions of our founders, in many ways Hamilton was not really ready for women to share the Hill. The College Health Service, under the direction of Dr. Rowe, also known as Death Rowe, was woefully unprepared to deal with the health needs of Kirkland women. Those who sought reproductive counseling and a birth control prescription had to find their way to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Utica or return home to attend to reproductive concerns. And suffice it to say that neither Kirkland nor Hamilton were yet safe spaces to openly explore a range of sexual and gender identities. At least one classmate in our alumnae survey felt it was a supportive environment from the perspective of opportunities to be in the company of engaging and intelligent women, but how many others felt stifled in the process of discovering themselves we will never know.

Ours was certainly not the usual freshwomen experience as we settled into coursework while still building the structure and character of the College. There were ongoing hot debates in the governance committee and other ad hoc committee meetings. (Ad hoc was a state of being at Kirkland!) There was the physical discomfort of living in an active construction zone. One morning there were chickens roosting in the bathroom, another morning there was Mindy Sherer’s goat munching on leftovers in Minor’s first-floor kitchen.

But we had a great soundtrack. Music reflected the turmoil of the ’60s even in Upstate New York. Protest music was everywhere — side by side with rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll. A former Class Annalist, Christopher Wilkinson ’68, did some digging in the archives for the performers during our era. This impressive list included Laura Nyro, Sam & Dave, Patti LaBelle and The Blue Belles, Odetta, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Richie Havens, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Simon and Garfunkel — quite a line up over the years.

Our second semester in the spring of 1969 brought the formal inauguration of Sam — in a coat of many colors — as Kirkland’s first president. Sam’s inaugural address focused on the important role that students might play in working toward a more just and peaceful world. The spring also brought the distribution of hard hats in Kirkland green with our names painted in white letters on the front by Sam’s wife, Natalie Babbitt, a reminder that the College was a constant “work in progress.” Kirkland students also sought out Natalie for advice about creative writing and publishing. She was a role model and author of the prize-winning novel Tuck Everlasting that explores the magical constellation of love, choice, and the immutable dimensions of time. As our first year came to a close, there was excitement and exhaustion from being college founders while we were also coming of age ourselves. Sam wrote in his report on the College’s first full year that “the academic and social philosophy of Kirkland is the work of many minds, some trial and error, and much conviction.”

Donna: The summer between our first and second year was certainly not a boring one. It was the summer of 1969 with Woodstock and the Summer of Soul, the first moon landing, the Philadelphia race riots, and the Stonewall uprising, a pivotal moment in the long struggle for gay rights and recognition. We returned to campus with plans for ourselves and for our young college, carrying the promise of flowers in our hands. As Betsy Swallow remembers: “Between freshman and sophomore year, we were asked to bring tulip and daffodil bulbs when we came back to campus in September. On one of the Saturdays after we got back to school, we had a ‘planting day,’ and all of us who had brought bulbs back got gardening tools and we planted the bulbs. We were rewarded with colorful flowers the following spring.” A good reminder that it takes planning and work to bring forth beauty and growth.

As our College career continued into our sophomore year, Hamilton followed Kirkland’s lead and passed a new curriculum, abandoning many distribution requirements, ending Saturday classes, and establishing a January term. The institutional melding of the two colleges was progressing well.

Political activism also brought us together: 50 Hamilton and Kirkland students traveled to Washington on a chartered bus to the massive mobilization for peace rally in November ’69. In the following months both Kirkland and Hamilton faculty and staff reached out to the Clinton community — which was wary of the political agitation taking place on the Hill — to explain the reasons for our opposition to the war. That opposition reached fever pitch in the spring, with students across the nation protesting the bombing of Cambodia, and then, in early May, the killing of four student protestors at Kent State by the Ohio National Guard.

Here on the Hill, not all of us were in agreement about the war, and we also disagreed on the appropriate response to the infringement of our civil liberties and the exercise of state violence. The Kirkland faculty voted to suspend classes in protest of the Kent State killings. Thirty-four Kirkland students signed a letter condemning those class cancellations. Elspeth Savage and Betty Marmon were dispatched to speak to the Board of Trustees about the difference of opinion among members of the Charter Class in the decision to hold a moratorium on classes. Kirkland women did — and still do — think for themselves, and they were honored to bring that messy but important message to the board.

All the while, many of our classmates were demonstrating on the quads, in Clinton, in Utica, and beyond. 1968 and 1969 represented a surge in social activism — the Prague Spring, the work of Students for a Democratic Society, student uprisings in Paris and Mexico City, and intensifying protests against the Vietnam War were all part of an alarming global mosaic of revolt. The same was true on the Hill with increasing demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The New York State Legislature passed rules for maintaining public order on campuses. These rules were read to Hill demonstrators — the Riot Act quite literally — but not strictly enforced. There was no violence. It’s an ironic truth that war brought Kirkland and Hamilton closer together.

Certainly, by the end of the spring of ’69 semester, the coordination project of integrating the extracurricular life of the two colleges could be deemed a limited success. Coordination was most notable in the area of College publications: The Spectator had two Kirkland editors, myself and Elspeth Savage, supervising a team of Kirkland reporters, roughly half of the reporting staff. Kirkland was invited to join the other Hamilton publications and addi­tionally began to publish its own news outlet, Commentary, edited by Betsy Mackta, Barbara Stein, and Debbie Moskowitz. Kirkland women joined Hamilton men in volunteer opportunities offered by Cornhill tutoring and the local hospitals in Utica, Chapel Board, the Black Student Union, and in musical performances, including the Kirkland Choir, theatre, radio, and Debate Society.

One place where we could not join our Hamilton classmates was on the playing field. The inauguration of sports in the era before Title IX and without any budget or P.E. requirement at Kirkland was bumpy. Its initial success in securing time for Kirkland athletes on the courts and playing fields was due to the determination of Sarabelle Hitchner, Betsy Mackta, Woody Root, and Assistant Dean of Students Louise Slipper. By sophomore year, a handful of Kirkland athletes began to organize team sports and were championed by the indominable Comfort Richardson.

Comfort, spouse of Hamilton Professor of International Affairs Channing Richardson, truly pioneered women’s athletics on the Hill. She was hired in 1969 to create an athletic program with a $1,000 budget, which eventually grew to support intercollegiate teams. At our 10-year reunion, Nancy Gay Bargar came to the open mic to praise the change in athletic opportunities available to Hamilton women and shared how she had wished for the opportunity of balancing physical activity and studies when she was a student. Comfort followed her with a message of solace. “For all that we lost for women in the merger, let us also acknowledge the one area where women gained. The minute the colleges merged, Hamilton was obliged under Title IX to provide the same superb athletic facilities for women as they did for men.” At the time of the merger there were four varsity sports for women, and by the time Comfort retired in 1982 as assistant professor of physical education and associate director of athletics, women’s sports were flourishing. Today there are 15 intercollegiate sports for Hamilton women athletes.

Betty: Kirkland women could — and did — join with their Hamilton counterparts in other endeavors. In my senior year, I was given a life-changing opportunity through Hamilton’s Speech/Rhetoric Department. Three students from the Soviet Union were going to come to Hamilton for a friendly debate. It was allegedly the first time Soviet students were coming to engage in free speech and public debate, an especially timely goal given the intensity of global tensions exacerbated by the Vietnam War. The debate caught the attention of the media. CBS was there to record it, and The New York Times, AP, and other news outlets sent reporters. Two Hamilton ’73 men, Michael Clinger and Gary Venzel, were nervously awaiting the Russians’ arrival with me at the Alexander Hamilton Inn. We could not believe it when they arrived and appeared old enough to be our dads! Rather mature students! We were able to communicate with them thanks to the translating skills of Professor David Young. The topic question for the evening: How can the United States and the Soviet Union work together for world peace? What followed was not a debate per se. The Russian team, while judicious in their criticism of us, their hosts, were not prepared (or free) to criticize their own government. The social/cultural exchanges that followed may have done much more to further the possibility of diplomacy than the public forum.

Our career on the Hill began in 1968 with war, protest, and upheaval. It ended in 1972 with Watergate and the publication of the first issue of Ms. magazine featuring Wonder Woman on the cover. The 117 students of Kirkland’s Charter Class graduated without gowns or robes, but with pomp and circumstance of our own design. Our Commencement was modeled after a medieval fair, held under a tent filled with flowers and balloons, a horse decked out as a unicorn, jesters offering baskets of fruit and candies, and an open mic as per Kirkland tradition. Photos by Georgie Silk were published in Life magazine. And, of course, the weather intervened again. Were it not for the evidence from my dad’s Super 8 home movie, I might have forgotten how terribly windy it was that day. The faculty procession following the ceremony shows the staff proceeding with dignity and then literally running for cover as they exited the tent!

As each graduate received her diploma, she was given the choice to have it stamped on the front or the back with the words “First Lot Inspected and Passed” — a wry twist as a Kirkland degree symbolized anything but a one-size-fits-all factory-line product. It was a fitting coda to the admissions recruitment question, “When your daughter goes to college, will she get an education?” The answer was a resounding yes. We didn’t get a rubber-stamped degree; we had been given an education in the joy of learning that would serve us far beyond 1972.

Oh, yes, and I should mention that there was a class — some accelerated and some transfer students — that graduated in a small but dignified ceremony the year before in 1971 in order for Kirkland to receive accreditation. Pioneers all! And, of course, there were Kirkland women who entered after us. I don’t understand it when our younger Kirkland schoolmates say they felt overshadowed by the aura of the Charter Class. But we were, of course, the first — the pioneers, the founding sisters, and that experience has stayed with us.

Donna: In preparation for this 50th reunion, we sent out a survey, and from the responses we received (roughly half the class), it is clear that we, the Charter Class, still feel something akin to awe in having been chosen as the pioneers to help build an innovative educational institution. The excitement of entering into something new and uncharted is indelibly imprinted in our classmates’ memories. As one of us put it, we had “the freedom to make it up as we went along.”

But Kirkland, what I call the bold experiment, was soon to hit a rocky reality. The College was conceived in the best of times for higher education and launched in the worst of times for the national economy. In the mid-’70s, inflation, the energy crisis, and the debts incurred in building the campus converged. Hamilton allowed these costs — annual and capital — to continue to mount, placing Kirkland in a dire financial situation. Hamilton insisted upon a merger, or more accurately put, a subsuming of Kirkland into Hamilton.

Perhaps we should not have been surprised. The most fundamental and nettling contradictions of gender inequality were baked into the founding of Kirkland. It was to be a place that celebrated and nurtured women’s intellectual and creative capacities but was fathered by an institution that in many ways represented the epitome of traditional male power and privilege. Flurries of petitions and testimonials by Kirkland students, alumnae, and parents, many of whom continued to financially support the College, followed. Demonstrations — featuring our signature apples — were held in Rockefeller Center. Meeting upon meeting upon meeting continued until the eleventh hour. When the Kirkland charter was dissolved, some faculty did not have their contracts renewed, while other tenured members were forced to repeat the tenure process at Hamilton. The bitterness — especially among alumnae — lingered. However, many of us have made peace with it, and have enjoyed forging a relationship with Hamilton, where the impact and the spirit of Kirkland remain evident. This is a very different place from what we found when we first gathered in the Hamilton Chapel in the fall of ’68.

While the bold Kirkland experiment may have been short-lived, its legacy can be seen in the lives and work of its 1,058 alumnae and, most vividly, in the lives of its Charter Class. We were at the leading edge of future generations of women who sought higher education, a fulfilling career, and work/life balance, but were certainly unprepared for the juggling act required to manage all three at once. Despite the challenges we faced, the majority of our classmates report being partnered or married at some point in their lives (some for more than 50 years — give yourselves a round of applause). Three quarters of us are mothers (some proud single parents), and about half of us are now experiencing the joys of grandparenting.

Despite dire predictions that ungraded qualitative course evaluations of our undergraduate work would harm our chances of furthering our post-graduate education, the women of our class took the Kirkland promise of making education a lifelong commitment seriously. Among our 45 survey respondents, we hold 29 master’s degrees, three Ph.D.s, and four J.D.s.

Charter Class women entered a broad variety of professions and occupations: teachers, librarians, professors, researchers, lawyers, scientists, civil servants, ministers, psychotherapists, artists, actors, musicians, authors, administrators of nonprofits, fundraisers, bankers, real estate and travel agents, and marketing, media, and technology consultants. Two of us are judges, several of us are active in state and municipal government as civil servants or elected officials. One of us ran for Congress. Christie Vilsack not only ran her own spirited campaign, but also served as advisor to the Obama administration on global education at USAID and as first lady of Iowa. Another is a magistrate and ran for a legislative office in the French Caribbean. One produces and hosts a nationally televised talk show for PBS. Several are entrepreneurs and CEOs of our own businesses.

We asked, how did your Kirkland experience impact your life? Cordelia Burpee noted in our 25th reunion yearbook that Kirkland “managed very nicely to prepare [us] for a world where rules change quickly.” Kirkland taught us confidence and reliance to best adapt to an ever-changing world.

With the guidance and inspiration of our professors, we gained the freedom to be curious and take control of our own education. Most importantly they encouraged us to take intellectual risks. “I learned how to be curious and explore new things rather than just memorize facts,” says one grateful classmate. “Kirkland gave me the foundation to ­reinvent myself throughout my life and career.”

Betty: Personally, my Kirkland education gave me the confidence to be an appreciative guest and a joyful lifelong learner. My time at Kirkland prepared me also for my 45-year career as a fundraiser and agent for change, as I know firsthand what happens to good ideas and programs when the seed money runs out or the economy changes. These skills have opened many doors for me.

Donna: And, for me, Kirkland is the circle; the beginning and the end. At age 18, it was the school I had been waiting for but could not imagine. Looking backward, I can honestly say I have spent the better part of the last 50 years paying forward the gifts I received here in every classroom where I have been privileged to teach, with a practice guided by curiosity, compassion, creativity, and collaboration.

The last question we asked our charter classmates was this one: What did you like best about your Kirkland education? We received many thoughtful answers that highlighted: “The celebration of women’s intellect” and “The sense of hope and respect for women that infused the place.”

But the one that made that drive to the orchard seem particularly worthwhile was this one: “The freedom to be who I really am; not to be ostracized for being intelligent. I felt beautiful in mind and body for the first time.”

Kirkland Everlasting.


Betty Hagerty Marmon has spent over 45 years as an exemplary fundraiser at leading nonprofit organizations. Throughout her career, she had the opportunity to travel the world working as an agent of change, securing resources to turn good ideas into realities. A Philadelphia High School for Girls graduate, she took on her first development role as a student at Kirkland, founding the Alumnae Association and serving as a trustee. Following graduate work at Syracuse University, the first half of her career was spent in higher education — Rochester, Cornell, Barnard, and Penn, where she was instrumental in the creation of The Penn Club of New York. Betty then applied her love of history to serve as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She returned home to become director of development at the Philadelphia Museum of Art before assuming the role of vice president for external affairs at Inglis, a national leader in serving people with complex physical disabilities, in 2009. Betty was co-chair of the K50 Reunion Planning Committee.

Donna Orenstein Kerner is professor of anthropology emerita at Wheaton College in Massachusetts where she held the William Isaac Cole endowed chair and taught for 33 years. Her field research in Tanzania East Africa and Fiji in the South Pacific spans 30 years and has resulted in numerous publications, including the landmark co-authored book on gender and famine in Africa, The Political Economy of African Famine. Donna was among the first anthropology majors to graduate from Kirkland. She was vice president of the Kirkland Alumnae Association at the time of the merger and subsequently served as the first Kirkland co-chair of the Hamilton Alumni Council. Donna was co-chair of the K50 Reunion Planning Committee.

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