Feature :: Page 5 :: Mother Midge
Clearly, Brittingham has a domestic agenda, but she has been known to dabble, too, on foreign shores. Her predecessor, the late Jack Purves ’42, arranged the first alumni overseas trip in 1975, a joint tour with other Ohio schools that was promoted by a statewide alumni support organization. It is Brittingham, however, who gets the credit for building Oberlin’s travel program into the model it has become today.
“That first trip was very successful, and for several years we continued offering one joint summer tour,” she says. “When it was clear that Oberlin had more travelers than any other school, we began to offer independent tours with Oberlin faculty members as escorts. We did just one trip a year until the 1980s, when we started to do one per season.”
Today’s travel program involves 100 to 150 alumni each year visiting four to six locales. Brittingham herself has traveled the world with the alumni groups; she accompanies at least one trip per year and organizes and promotes all the others.
“I happen to adore travel, but I had never been overseas until I went on an alumni tour in 1976,” she says. “We had arranged a faculty member to travel to Ireland and he pulled out, so I went. It was one of those magical moments in one’s life.”
It also became fodder for one of the many tales Brittingham has that makes for effortless conversation.
After setting off to tour the Emerald Isle on her own—in a moonscape region known as the Burren—her rental car leaked coolant water onto her shoes.
“It got really bad, so I found an intersection with a house and pulled up and went to the front door. Everybody greeted me as if I were their long lost aunt, whom they were actually expecting from Boston and hadn’t seen in years. I had to explain that no, I was not Aunt Whoever and that what I really needed was some water to put in my radiator,” she laughs.
Janet Taylor Spence ’45, a frequent alumna traveler, says she’s grown to admire Brittingham’s ability to handle “unexpected situations with aplomb.” She recalls a trip to China, where she and Brittingham rode a ski lift-type chair to the top of a mountain. “It was only at the very last moment that we realized we had to lift up the bar and leap off,” says Spence. “Unprepared as she was, Midge staggered a bit, but kept her feet. In contrast, I lost mine and sprawled ungracefully to the ground. My admiration for Midge took on a new dimension.”
Travel remains in Brittingham’s plans for retirement—perhaps a return trip to Ireland or to other popular vacation spots.
“I have been just about everywhere that is out of the ordinary. But I’ve never been to Italy or Greece—it’s hard to sell an Oberlin tour to Europe because people go there on their own,” she says. “But I have been to China five times, Russia six times. I’ve been to Uzbekistan, Central Asia. I’ve been to Tibet. I’ve been to Iceland and Greenland. In another life I might have joined the Foreign Service because I find that I just love being in other countries.”
Smith, a retired lawyer now working in computer graphics, attends professional soccer games with Midge and accompanies her to their summer home in Maine every June. But he doesn’t go to church, and he seldom travels.
“That’s the beauty of it. I have my life and he has his,” she says of her husband. “Besides, he’s a wonderful cook, so I wouldn’t want to give up on him.”
Reunion weekend now over, Brittingham is back at work, her impending retirement yet to slow her down. As Joan Andelman ’68 attested in a post-reunion e-mail: “The reunion was particularly spectacular this time around. Don’t know whether it was the events, or the fact that as I get older, Oberlin classmates and their enduring human values seem more and more rare and precious. My deepest gratitude to you for being such an integral force in keeping Oberlin vibrantly alive and renewing for its (sometimes heart-weary) graduates.”