When I think back to my days at Oberlin, starting in the fall of 1960, career choices for women were limited. I was the first generation in my family to go to college. My mother was a piano teacher, organist, and secretary. She took a job as secretary to pay my way to Oberlin, which cost her entire salary. My dad was a Baptist minister and worked for the Dupont Company. Mother taught me to play the piano and then sent me to study organ with Paul Terry, Cathedral organist in Wilmington, Delaware.
As time for college approached, Mr. Terry suggested that I consider Oberlin. My parents would never have thought of that, and were unsure about sending me far away. Mr. Terry had sent a whole line of students to Oberlin to study organ with Fenner Douglass. So with fear and trepidation I applied, sending a tape for my audition, since it was too far to travel there.
How overjoyed I was when a large packet arrived in the mail. I was going to Oberlin! I was the last of Paul Terry’s students to attend Oberlin.
I wanted to study performance, but my parents would only agree to my studying music education, because that was the only way to get a job in music for women. Women could give private music lessons, or teach in schools. Women’s other career options in those days were nursing and secretarial positions or a few careers in science. At Oberlin, I found twenty organist majors in my class, and I felt the competition keenly. The Conservatory faculty members were extremely demanding, expecting perfection from every student. What a change from my high school days, with few musicians and competition almost non-existent!
My freshman dorm was Talcott and I loved every corner and rounded turret of it. As freshmen, women had to be in their dorms by 8:30PM. If you came back later than that, you had to ring the doorbell and get the housemother to let you in. Not an experience one wanted to have very often!
Breakfasts were served cafeteria style at Dascomb, but lunch and dinner were seated affairs served in the women’s dorms with the men assigned to different dorms. One could not enter the dining hall until the housemother did, nor leave until she got up. Men were not allowed in women’s dorm rooms at all.
How things changed during my four years! Sophomore women were allowed to be out until 10PM. That year, I was delighted to be accepted into the Honor Dorm at Allencroft with 30 women and no housemother, only two senior counselors. I lived in a single, the only room on campus with its own balcony. Just last year, I discovered that another Oberlin trustee, Edith Clowes, lived in the same room some years later. We were thrilled to discover that common bond. My junior year was spent in Salzburg, Austria with my entire conservatory class. We studied at the Mozarteum.
By the time we returned to campus, senior women did not need to be in until midnight and had unlimited 2:00AMs. Of course, there was hardly anywhere to go in Oberlin after midnight; libraries closed by about 10:00, the Conservatory closed at 11:00PM, Wilder closed by midnight, and the Arb was pretty cold and dark most of the year. There were visiting hours for men in the women’s dorms on weekends, but the door to your room had to be open a foot and at least one foot of each person had to be on the floor (this was known as The One Foot Rule).
I especially remember Mary Dolliver, the Dean of Women. During freshman year, she invited all the entering women, in groups of ten, to come to her house and make cookies. She regaled us with stories of Oberlin when she first came and her house was filled with treasures from her many travels. If you think that women’s lives at Oberlin in the early 1960’s were controlled, you will not believe her stories about earlier times.
Dean Dolliver noted that when she first arrived, Oberlin was very muddy. There were boardwalks to get from one place to another. A woman could be seen walking with a gentleman before dinner, but was forbidden to be seen with a man after dinner. All women were assigned a gentleman dinner partner, and the woman was responsible for laundering her partner’s table napkin. Can you imagine that happening today?
Despite all the rules and regulations, I received an exceptional education, and had lots of fun, too. There were occasional panty raids in the women’s dorms, and lots of dorm parties. A date usually meant going to the library to study, or perhaps for a piece of pizza. I frequented Gibson’s bakery, and I admit still having a fondness for their chocolate covered doughnuts.
The only alcohol in town was 3.2% beer (hardly worth drinking) and only available if you were twenty-one. Presti’s, occasionally visited, was a long walk there and back. If you drove a car to campus, you had to rent a garage space and were not allowed to drive except to and from home. Getting to Cleveland was a major hassle. The bus did not stop in Oberlin. On the outskirts of town, you had to flag down the bus as it went speeding by. Needless to say, trips to Cleveland were few, although I did get to hear Leontyne Price sing with The Metropolitan Opera Company. What an experience!
Despite those archaic living conditions, Oberlin changed my life in many positive ways. Most importantly, I learned to be independent and think for myself. An ideal that was instilled (I can’t say exactly how) was to care about those less fortunate. It was at Oberlin that I first learned to play the harpsichord that has become my lifelong career and passion. Since 1972, I managed Brandywine Baroque in Delaware, bringing early music to thousands of people over the years and making many recordings. My love for the harpsichord inspired me to collect antique instruments, restore them to playing condition and use them in concerts for all to hear and enjoy.
There is so much to do and learn at Oberlin. My only regret is that I could not take more courses. My advice to students who are at Oberlin or thinking about going there is: if you are admitted, choose Oberlin; when there, take as many different courses as you can, meet as many people as possible. After graduation, make use of the extensive Oberlin alumni network and I am sure you will find that the experience changes your life for the better. An Oberlin education is worth any struggle you may have to get there and to persist to graduation.