In the fall of 1959, as Elizabeth Ewing ’63 moved her belongings into her room in Hewitt Hall, she met the five women who had the single rooms along her hallway. More than 50 years later, the six remain devoted friends. In college, a daring escapade was running out to the deli in a pair of pajamas. These days, the six are more likely to be found together on an Alaskan cruise or a pilgrimage to Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace in the Caribbean. They have supported each other through dozens of life changes over the years. “These friendships get more valuable as we grow older,” Ewing says. “It’s a remarkable thing, to still remain close to people you’ve known for nearly all of your life.”
On a Thursday afternoon in January, Ewing and many of those friends returned to campus with dozens of other members of the class of 1963 to mark yet another milestone together: their 75th birthdays. The women shared reminiscences not just with those in the balloon-festooned Helene Kaplan Tower Suite in Sulzberger Hall, but also with those participating by video connection at simultaneous parties in several time zones.
Members of the class of ’63 gathered in more than 10 American cities—including New York, Boston, Albany, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, San Francisco, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New Orleans—and abroad. In Israel, where it was already evening, the women toasted their classmates with glasses of Israeli wine. In Florida, they gathered to reminisce over a festive lunch. In Washington State, they greeted their fellow partygoers over brunch—and a slice of birthday cake.
The celebration was part of an effort over the last few years by the women of 1963 not only to maintain connections with their classmates, but also—decades after they were students together—to forge new ones.
After the class’ 50th reunion in 2013, Lucy Shahar helped create a virtual book group for the class as a means of deepening their rapport. More than 30 women connect on the Goodreads website once a month to discuss novels, memoirs, and works of nonfiction. “We have gotten to know each other a lot better by talking about books and sharing a number of things related to our lives that are inspired by the books,” Shahar says.
Though Shahar, a retired teacher and intercultural consultant, has lived in Israel since 1969, she now counts as friends Barnard women who live in New York, Australia, and Los Angeles, several of whom she had not known during college. “You realize that there are so many extraordinary women that you simply never met because you weren’t in a class with them,” she says.
A shared Barnard experience is especially powerful for the classmates because the country was changing rapidly during their undergraduate years. “We graduated at a moment when there was so much happening in the world—the civil rights movement, the beginning of the women’s movement,” says Frankie Stein. Barnard helped hone Stein’s nascent activism by sponsoring an exchange program with colleges in the South. Stein spent several weeks at Spelman College, the historically black women’s college in Atlanta.
This early exposure to civil rights activism, combined with her classes on government and politics, launched her lifelong commitment to social justice issues, first as an executive at Planned Parenthood and now as a consultant for a refugee organization. “The blend of scholarship and activism that we absorbed during that time really shaped many of us. It’s one reason I like to stay in touch with Barnard women,” Stein says.
Economist Connie Brown Demb, who participated in the exchange program by spending a week at Wake Forest College in Winston-Salem, N.C., and now lives in Toronto, says the experience helped her understand the impact of segregation in the South. Demb says the trip was just one way that the tempestuous social milieu of the early 1960s helped her build ties with the women in her class. Their intense conversations about political and cultural issues helped direct her strong social consciousness.
The common experience of attending Barnard is a solid foundation for friendships, even decades after graduation, Shahar says: “Anyone who went to Barnard—I know they’re going to be a pretty fascinating and lively person, and we’ll understand certain things about each other that others might not know.”
Members of the class also seek out classmates they haven’t yet met when they move to or visit a new city. When Stein relocated to Washington, D.C., last summer, she discovered Barbara Posen-Chapman ’63 living in her apartment building. They are now part of a group of a dozen ’63 women in D.C. who meet regularly and gathered in the condo’s recreation room for the 75th birthday party.
The classmates have also been forging bonds with current students. They recently endowed a scholarship fund and welcomed the first recipient, Soniya Gurung ’17, at the birthday celebration in New York City. “As we’ve grown older, I think we’ve come to appreciate even more deeply what Barnard gave us,” says Marlene Ruthen, a retired illustrator. “We have this deep pride in each other’s accomplishments and a real desire to stay connected to the place that helped us make so much of our lives.”