Academics Interrupted

Terry Weeks left Barnard to raise her children, returned 27 years later, graduated, and launched a new career

By by Mervyn Kaufman

“I went to the Spence School in Manhattan and then Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn.,” Terry Herring Weeks ’76 recalls. “But I didn’t take the college course there—my father had never given me any indication that he wanted me to go to college. My brother had gone to Groton and then to Yale, but there was never any thought of my going to college.”

Enter Virginia Gildersleeve, Barnard’s formidable dean from 1911 until her retirement in 1947. (The title of president was awarded her successor, Millicent McIntosh, in 1952.) Gildersleeve, an icon in the long-waged fight for women’s rights, persuaded Columbia to open its professional schools—journalism, engineering, medicine, and law—to women students. She championed the rights of married women at Barnard. And she was also a patient of Terry Weeks’s physician father.

“She came in for a physical in January of 1944,” Weeks recalls, “ and at one point asked my father, ‘What is Teresa doing?’ I was just out of school then and working as a file clerk. Apparently Dean Gildersleeve sat up right on the examining table and said, ‘Why is she not at college?’ I don’t know how my father answered, but the next Monday I came to Barnard to meet Dr. Gildersleeve. I took the SATs (I did miserably in math but did well on the verbal), and the next thing I knew, I was a February freshman at Barnard.”

With no thought of her future, Weeks took the poetry, literature, and language courses that interested her, ducking many essential core courses until later. But as it happened, there was no later. She met Louis Weeks, a Columbia law school student, and ultimately left school to marry him and become a stay-at-home mom to their three children, born in 1948, 1949, and 1953.

“I was a very good mother for the next 30 years,” she recalls. “All three children went to Country Day School on Long Island, and I went to every event at school—I didn’t do anything but that. But when the youngest went off to boarding school, I figured I was either going to, maybe, like Julia Child said, become an alcoholic or learn to play bridge. As that was unacceptable, I decided to go back to Barnard.”

The College honored her previous credits, but of course insisted “that I take everything I hadn’t taken before. I resisted, at first, but finally did it and it gave me a real sense of accomplishment. People had urged me to go to Columbia’s School of General Studies, but I said no—I wanted that Barnard diploma.”

Was it difficult for her? Certainly. “Imagine going back there after 30 years of not doing anything? I was still a wife and a mother at home—those duties do not disappear. But my husband was wonderful; he would give up anything to have me do it. My children were maybe a little less understanding. All four of them came to my commencement, and my husband wept tears. I’m not sure whether the tears meant ‘brava’ or ‘thank God it’s over,’ but he seemed very moved by it.”

Terry’s classmates had all been welcoming and nice. “I enjoyed them,” she says. “They were younger than my children, but that didn’t matter. I bonded with them. At one point I thought of taking some courses at Columbia but was discouraged by the red tape that registration involved. ‘Oh, you’ve got to go there,’ one of my classmates insisted. ‘That’s where you get to meet all the guys.’ I guess she forgot who I was, other than someone to ask for Kleenex from time to time.”

Terry grew up in a household where three languages were spoken. “My mother was Colombian—I spoke Spanish to her at home,” she says. “I spoke English to my father, of course, but I had a French governess.” Among the literature and poetry courses she took at Barnard were Italian, Spanish, and advanced French. Upon graduating, she boasted great language skills—as well as a flair for writing. She then took courses at the New School, to learn how to prepare and submit manuscripts.

In 1978, the Weeks family decided to spend Christmas on the Caribbean island of Nevis. “When we got back,” she recalls, “my oldest son said, ‘You ought to write about this,’ and I did.” When she finished the piece, she submitted it to Gourmet magazine, and to her surprise they accepted it. That was the beginning of what became a major career for Weeks, one that extended well into the ’90s. Some of the articles were her suggestions, but most were assigned to her by the magazine, which leaned on her language skills as well as her writing gift and ability to include the details, history, and color Gourmet readers appreciated.

For instance, at Airds, a Scottish inn, she reported, “Our first evening we sipped a glass of wine in one of the parlors and tasted canapés of smoked salmon on pastry rounds. Crisp white table linens and napkins tied with plaid ribbons give the low-ceilinged dining room an opulent air.” At Manoir du Stang, not far from Quimper, in Brittany, she describes the salon, “where one can have a drink before meals, or coffee afterward, [that] comes alive with a blazing fire when the weather provides enough of an excuse, and there are always flowers about, regardless of the season.”

Weeks’s husband always accompanied his wife on her assignments, though he was usually identified as “my companion, as I tried to keep it away from being personal,” she explains. “All except once. We were in Alsace, home of choucroute (from the German for ‘sour cabbage’). We had heard glowing reports of the restaurant Au Bon Accueil, and so decided to stop for lunch on our way from Nancy to Lunéville. We had a fine meal. Sandre, a local river fish resembling perch, was served with homemade noodles in a light beurre blanc. Choucroute with pheasant, smoked goose and boudin noir (blood sausage) followed. Our cabbage, the first of the autumn season, was so slightly pickled that my companion, who generally behaves as if sauerkraut were the enemy, cleaned his plate.”

From 1980 to 1993, Weeks wrote more than 40 articles for Gourmet, each one thoroughly researched before she set out. “Writing those pieces was arduous,” says Weeks. “With each one, I said, ‘This is the last one,’ because of the demanding mix of elements—food, of course, but also history, touring, shopping, museums, art and crafts. I always did a lot of work before I went—three or four weeks before taking a trip, gathering information that would probably be available immediately online today.

“I was eventually made a contributing editor, and they knew I spoke Spanish, French, and Italian—that made a difference. It is very difficult for me to think of doing any of those articles without speaking the language. I was much more comfortable where I could talk.”

This year, 29 of Terry Weeks’s Gourmet articles were republished in book form; their subject matter ranges from coastal Maine and San Miguel de Allende to north and south Wales, the Amalfi coast, Venice, and Florence. The 367-page Travels with Louis: Two Decades of Writing for Gourmet is available on Amazon or at some bookstores. The book includes a bonus chapter, “Back to School . . . After Twenty-Seven Years,” an article she wrote about Barnard for Vogue in 1980. After being a “dropout” for more than a quarter of a century, she writes about the pleasures and challenges of being an older student, remarking, “I am certain that anyone who decides to go back to college at middle age has a great awareness of how precious are the time and opportunities that present themselves.” •