Fall 2011 /Time Travel/

LetterBox: Sagehens Sound Off

Leslie’s Legacy

When I saw the header on page 40 of the Summer 2011 issue which said, “At first glance, the elusive Leslie Farmer ’72 left little trace at Pomona, but upon her death, she left millions to the college. So who was she?” I said aloud, alone in my study, “She was my roommate.”

Leslie and I entered Pomona in the fall of 1963 and lived in a suite (230 Harwood Court) where we shared a room first semester of our first year. I have a clear picture of her in my head: slender, tall-ish (I think we were the same height), often in a long cotton skirt and top, and her light brown hair under a scarf tied behind her neck. She walked with a long stride, head forward, always looking clear in purpose and direction, always alone.

That summer, we had written each other long letters once we discovered we were roommates. I’m sure mine was suitably adolescent and breathless. Hers was not. She had a voice and a view on the world. I distinctly remember her interest in learning Arabic. Or perhaps she was teaching herself Arabic even then. I can’t imagine what I made of that at the time.

Once our college lives started, we lived them differently. I was thrilled with the apparently limitless social opportunities available away from parental oversight, and attended only in fits and starts to what my parents were paying tuition for.  Leslie was altogether more serious and more earnest and definitely more solitary. It did not make for a good roommate blend. We weren’t in conflict; we just didn’t connect, and I was making as many connections as I possibly could.

Before the end of the semester, I had found a new roommate who was living in a single in a suite nearby, and we engineered a switch so that Leslie took the single. I am not proud of that. I don’t think we were cruel in setting it up, and my new roommate and I were very close friends for many years, but I can’t imagine that any young person wouldn’t have felt rejected under the circumstances. I could have seen the year out. Her feelings were clearly not a high priority for me.

I’d like to think that, more than 40 years on, young people like Leslie who don’t fit in the niches generally available are now viewed more positively and appreciated for their unusual strengths and interests, rather than being seen as odd or anti-social. We now know what wonderful accomplishments can come from intensely focused people, what amazingly creative solutions can emerge from interests society finds obscure or not worthwhile, that lives can be lived fully, away from society’s current parameters.

I took away from Mark Kendall’s fine and sensitive piece (accompanied by Mark Wood’s beautiful drawings) the tremendous strength of purpose and will and individuality that propelled her from one interest and concern to the next, and her continual focus, in one way or another, on cultural hotspots in the world, connected to her continued effort to express what she saw, what she learned, what she knew, in writing. That she died, as she often lived, alone is not surprising, but I grieve those lonely and isolated circumstances, suffering so severely from her paralyzing disease.

I know that Pomona College will use her extraordinary and generous gift well and wisely. I am so pleased that her spirit—her unusual, quirky, complex spirit—will live on.

—Gretel Wandesforde-Smith ’67
Davis, Calif.

Thank you for another outstanding issue. Many of the articles were poignant but none more so for me than the one about Leslie Farmer. She was one year ahead of me, and while I never spoke to her or shared a class, I remember her clearly. During my four years at Pomona, she was the only woman I ever saw who wore pants to class! While we might put on slacks or shorts at the dorm, women always wore skirts or dresses while on campus. There was no rule that I know of, but it was a matter of tradition and respect. So when I saw her striding across the quad in her signature tight black pants and black cape, she was memorable. I must have asked someone her name, but that was all I knew about her then.

Reading your article filled me with sadness. We know so little of the people we walk by every day, but even then she was a loner, eccentric, different. And to me she will always be the girl who wore pants at Pomona.

—Marilynn (Muff) McCann Darling ’68
Colorado Springs, Colo.

I regularly receive PCM because I spent a year at Pomona as a French exchange student back in 1964-65. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the article about Leslie Farmer in the summer issue. My year at Pomona is obviously blurred by the passing of time and I don’t have clear memories of all the people I met there. But strangely I have a vivid recollection of Leslie Farmer and I often thought of her, wondering what had become of her. I remember her as a very pretty girl with a pale face, very elegant and wearing a hat. She was very opinionated and spoke a lot about Arab culture, which in those days was very unusual. I was a young student from the University of Aix-en-Provence and meeting this strange young woman in a small California college was to say the least … an experience. I am extremely moved by your article which has helped me to at least discover who this young lady was.

—Gérard Bardizbanian
Salon-de-Provence, France

 Birth and Death
From Both Sides

In my four years at Pomona, I had just two roommates, both of whom were also very dear friends. Little could have been more personally poignant than opening the summer issue titled “Birth and Death” to find it featured both of them—one on each side of that dichotomy.

It certainly seems a sad, bizarre and ironic twist of fate to everyone who knew her that my ridiculously fit, vivacious, fearlessly adventurous, ambitious Oldenborg suitemate Mariah Steinwinter would suffer a debilitating stroke at age 28 that would sap her will to live. Thanks so much for the article about her—a lovely and thoughtful profile of her life, and a gentle glimpse into the struggles of her final months.  

On the “birth” side: how my other roommate Barbara Suminski and I would have delighted, on giddy nights of freshman-girl-talk in Smiley 1, to know that nine years later she and Torrin Hultgren (subject of many of these talks!) would be happily married and wrapping their first-born little boy in a snuggly blue Sagehen blanket for a photo with his Sagehen great-grandma. Thanks, too, for including this happy photo—and for all the ways, from intriguing articles to simple class notes, that Pomona College Magazine helps us continue to share in the life stories of our fellow alums.

—Emily Sherman ’02
Nashville, Tenn.

Maternity and the Medical Machine

I was so pleased to see the topic of birth highlighted in the summer 2011 issue since the mainstream media strives to avoid it. I am a living oxymoron, a health care professional who has worked in various hospitals but did everything I could to avoid giving birth in one knowing that my pregnancy was low-risk. Aside from trying to avoid an unnecessary cesarean birth in a for-profit hospital, there are many other reasons to consider giving birth at a birth center or at home with a trained midwife if you have a low-risk, uneventful pregnancy. Drug-resistant infections are rampant in hospitals. The environment is hostile for a mother who needs focus, relaxation and privacy for the optimal chance to give birth naturally. Also, babies are typically whisked away unnecessarily for several hours and given bottles, reducing the likelihood that a mother will be able to successfully initiate and continue breastfeeding.

I am grateful that we have technological advances for true emergencies, but pregnancy is not automatically a medical emergency that warrants intervention to progress. Do your research, make an informed decision, be very careful choosing your provider and, if you choose to give birth in a hospital, be prepared for a system that is rarely designed to support the natural birthing process.

—Miranda Crown ’98
Bend, Ore.

 As a midwife, I was especially drawn to the profile of Sarah Davis’ important work as a home birth midwife and Nathanael Johnson’s discussion of industrialized birth. While I commend Johnson for his attention to this important issue, I challenge his conclusion that health care consumers are powerless to do anything other than choose a system and surrender as an act of faith. Certainly it is a sad commentary that a newly pregnant couple would resist asking important questions of their health care provider out of concern for sounding “like a crazy person.” In large part the fault lies with the system for resistance to such inquiry. Coupled with this resistance, however, is a competitive interest in patient satisfaction, which does invest the consumer with power.

Certified nurse midwives attend about 10 percent of vaginal births in the U.S., the vast majority in hospitals, and on average have lower cesarean section rates than obstetricians, even when controlling for patient risk factors. This and other favorable birth outcomes are tied to midwifery philosophy, which dictates nonintervention in normal processes and respect for a family’s self-determination. While I agree that our health care system and maternity care specifically need reform, it also is important that we recognize successful models of care and empower ourselves to ask for them.

—Kara Myers ’95
San Francisco, Calif.

Baked Goods and Big Beds

Back in my day, instead of pancakes the week before finals (“Syrupy Beginning,” summer 2011), we had QUEST courses to relieve tension. They were taught by anyone on campus who had a skill to teach, from the janitor to a student to a professor. There were topics like ballroom dancing and how to knit a ski cap; I took a pie baking class taught by Mathematics Professor Mullikin. To this day, everyone compliments me on my pie crust and one of the recipes he gave us, “Miss Clara’s Fudge Pie.” 

On the subject of the new housing (“Home Suite Home”), I noted the photograph with the “full-sized bed.” Gee, I would think that could be a problem, with students competing to get one of those rooms, since the majority of dorm rooms have only a single bed. And if you are trying to utilize space better, a smaller room with a smaller bed would have been the ticket. It’s good for things to be a bit austere during college, so you can really appreciate your first tiny apartment after you graduate.

—Cheryl Nickel Prueher ’83
Harrison, Idaho

 Remembering Corwin Hansch

Professor Corwin Hansch will always be for me the ultimate professional mentor.

He was my organic chemistry professor and academic advisor in 1956 and recommended that I change majors to mathematics from chemistry because my “C” grades in the latter and “A” grades in the former subjects strongly suggested I would not professionally succeed in my chosen field. I stubbornly rejected his appropriate advice and indeed earned only a “C” in that fall semester in his lecture course.

Where I excelled was in the laboratory and, in the following semester, as my brain started accepting the theory of the subject, he offered me the then very rare opportunity to be his summer 1957 research assistant on his grant involving plant growth regulator synthesis and testing using oat sprouts. Corwin’s teaching process for me was to tell me the question he wanted solved and then to disappear and leave me alone to use the literature to determine how to select chemicals and apparatus to carry out reactions and to verify results.

I will forever be grateful to him for that learning experience, which by his invitation was duplicated in the summer of 1958, after graduation, on a totally different project. The immersion into doing real chemistry propelled me to complete my Ph.D. thesis in graduate school in a short 2.5 years.

As a career professor of chemistry I mimic his method with undergraduate and graduate students joining my group. Thank you, Corwin, and may your soul rest in peace!

—Richard Partch ’58
Hannawa Falls, N.Y.

Alumni and friends are invited to send us their letters by email to pcm@pomona.edu or by mail to the address on page 2. Letters are selected for publication based on relevance and interest to our readers and may be edited for length, style and clarity.