by Virginia Weir
When Fairfield’s first class of women arrived on campus in 1970, it was a time of excitement and turmoil. How would the presence of women change the character of an all-male University?
There were 181 women enrolled that first semester — 26 percent of the class. Most came from Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, looking for a good education at a local University that had a reputation for rigorous academics and a beautiful shoreline campus. Twenty students came for the new nursing school, which had just opened that year.
Today, the alumnae from that class of 40 years ago number 156, of 162 who graduated. More than a quarter of the class — 41 in total — married men who attended Fairfield, and several sent their children to Fairfield. Now, they live as close as Fairfield, and as far away as Florida and California. Some have retired. Many still thrive in careers as teachers, nurses, attorneys, psychotherapists, and financial managers.
Many have stayed involved with the University, serving as Trustees, volunteering on school Advisory Boards and the Alumni Association Board. Over the years many have shared their expertise on Reunion and campaign committees, assisted at Admission recruitment events and mentored current students.
In celebration of that extraordinary time and and 40 years of women at the University, in anticipation of their reunion in June, Fairfield University Magazine invited three graduates from the Class of 1974 to share their memories.
Vivian Moore-Brown, retired since 2008; previously worked in public health administration for many years in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; currently working as an events planner at Baruch College; mother of two adult sons and “two precious grandchildren”; lives in New York City.
“A couple of my teachers from high school were alums from Fairfield. When they heard I was applying, they were encouraging. I loved the campus. It had a small-campus feel. I will always have this picture in my mind of studying in small gatherings on the big lawn, and the willow trees by the (Bellarmine) pond.
There were about 10 African American women when we started, and maybe 30 (African American) males at the time. We definitely formed an allegiance — we had to be there to support and encourage each other. The men considered themselves our big brothers. In general, we felt a sense of protection from the guys — they were very receptive to us being on campus — maybe too receptive! It was sort of great how they didn’t have to go off-campus anymore in order to hang out with women.
I felt there was a disparity between the students, but it wasn’t an issue per se. The only concern I had was that there was not a sense of inclusion in terms of the University’s mainstream. There was only one African American professor, and no specific courses relevant to people of color or women.
One of my favorite memories was the Earth, Wind & Fire concert (1973). We fought hard to get that concert — you can only imagine! And any time spent at the Campus Center. You could always predict countless laughs and serious people watching.
Our particular class fostered special relationships; I don’t think that other classes maintained that same bond. I have maintained a 44-year “sistership” with several women from the class (Sharon Christopher, Cathy Ford Frissora, Carla Latty, Kathy Graham Griffith, and Joanne Patterson Fagan). We have experienced weddings, the birth of our children, grandchildren, and have even vacationed together. It is an incredible bond, one that I treasure.
After I graduated I went into public health administration in New York City, and assisted with administrative policy development for the ‘Article 28’ clinics that provided direct clinical care.
I felt very passionate about my work… I felt like I was able to be a voice for the voiceless.
I would classify the women of the Class of 1974 as pioneers — strong willed and very opinionated. We did make a difference, and I think we left an indelible mark on the University. I feel like we helped change the atmosphere on campus. It had a different swag when we graduated. Hopefully we made things a bit easier for the women who followed us.
Joellin Comerford, English literature major; retiredafter31yearsatAccenture, where she was Chief Executive, Outsourcing; co-chair of the upcoming 2014 Fairfield Awards Dinner.
“The year 1970 was the first that American Jesuit universities accepted women. I applied to Georgetown, Boston College, and Fairfield. When my father looked at the tuition bills, he accepted Fairfield for me. I was happy — I was looking forward to a coed campus and priests after 12 years of nuns! Imagine my horror when I was notified that Fairfield had over – accepted women, and some 40 of us were going to be housed in a convent (with nuns on one side!). As it turned out, Julie Hall (Dolan) turned out to be great — we each had our own room and became very close as a dorm. The friends I made there I lived with for the next three years.
It was a good time to be in a university. Politics, rock ’n roll, and streaking were part of the air. There was great school spirit, and our sports teams led the charge with our basketball team going to the NITs twice in those years.
I graduated as an English major and wanted a job in journalism. Unfortunately, I failed all the typing tests I was given. I worked for my dad’s company for a year and then went on to business school at Cornell. When I left, I joined a company then called Arthur Anderson in their consulting division. I would end up staying at what would become Accenture for 31 years. I had a variety of jobs there, and when I left I was responsible for their outsourcing business. It was a highly rewarding career.
Like most Fairfield graduates of those days, I had no grand plan or vision of life after university. Unlike the pressure on today’s young people, many of us stumbled through our early career years — which seemed to work out for the great majority of us!
The one thing Fairfield did instill in me was Jesuit values. They were subtly instilled — not pounded in! They were about living well and trying to enrich yourself as a person. It was a sense of progressive thinking, trying to do what’s right for yourself and the world — to live a good life. The faculty, the other students, and the political times reinforced those values.
I have worked and travelled for many years and as a result was not involved with Fairfield. Now that I am retired I am back in touch. It is exciting to see all the things that have changed for the better and many of the things that have thankfully stayed the same.
One of those things that has stayed the same is Fairfield’s continuing search for diversity on campus. To that end, last year I started a scholarship for financially challenged inner-city women — to try to give them a helping hand to come to a university they might otherwise not be able to attend. Many of my classmates from the 70s were very generous last year, and I am hoping that that trend will grow! I also get to go to my 40th reunion this year — something I could never have imagined back in 1970.”
Karen (Stonkas) Ponton, nursing major; RN; worked in various clinical, teaching and administrative nursing roles until retiring in 2011; takes and teaches ballet; resides in Center Harbor, N.H.; assistant professor in the School of Nursing(1981-87); first female trustee on Fairfield University’s Board of Trustees (1974-1981).
“Very early on in my life, ‘college’ became synonymous with ‘Fairfield U.’ My favorite uncle, J. James Lesko, graduated from Fairfield in 1952. When my dad passed away suddenly when I was 7 years old, Uncle Jim became like a second father. Jim was the first in my family to go to college, and it is from him that I first learned about Fairfield.
Also, I adored my Aunt Mary, who was an RN, and I wanted to be a nurse just like her. When I learned that Fairfield was going to go co-ed in 1970, and that they would be offering a nursing program, I just knew that Fairfield was right for me.
We were probably less than 2,000 students. We seemed to know everyone — even the cafeteria ladies — if not by name, then by sight. Our classes were held in Xavier, Canisius, and later, Bannow. The only dorms were on the quad and, for some women, at the novitiate (Julie Hall, now Dolan Hall). I was a “townie” and lived at home. I felt that everyone really cared about one another, in the classroom and out. There was a real sense of community.
All of my closest friends went to Fairfield University. I sometimes wonder how those deep friendships came to be and endure.
I fell in love with my husband (Mark Ponton ’72) at Fairfield. A favorite memory is of my mother making spaghetti dinner for these 18 (yes, eighteen!) guys from the Class of ’72 (plus my two younger sisters and me) at my home in Fairfield. I don’t know how my mother did it! But she thought of them as her ‘adopted sons’ and part of our family. To me, they are the older brothers I never had and I love them all dearly. My husband and I are still in touch with many of them, and we get together whenever we can.
When I think about the influence of Fairfield’s liberal arts education and Jesuit tradition on my life, I think of those 18 guys, and my close friends. And I also think of Betty Dolan, the founding dean of the School of Nursing. We always called her ‘Mrs. Dolan.’ There were some different and differing ideas and opinions then about nursing and nurses. Mrs. Dolan undertook the immense challenge of establishing a nursing program on a university campus when most nurses were being trained in hospital-based schools of nursing, and the idea of a baccalaureate in nursing was truly revolutionary.
In addition, she was doing this at a Jesuit university that was admitting women for the first time. So she was up against some faculty and administrators who questioned all this. And, similarly, we nursing students were often under close academic scrutiny to see if we could measure up. (Now, some 40 years later, Fairfield’s School of Nursing is a highly competitive program, offering not only a baccalaureate degree, but masters and doctoral degrees!)
Mrs. Dolan touched each of us, whether nursing student or faculty, in a very personal way. Even later, when she was so very sick with cancer, she was always there for us — to listen, to advise, to nurture, and to send us off when we were ready.
All of this has something to do, I believe, with the kind of community and caring about others that was, and I hope still is, Fairfield University.”
Remembering Lisa Schwabe ’74
In addition to their time, many alumnae from the Class of 1974 have generously established endowed scholarships and remembered the University in their estate plans. Elisabeth Herson Schwabe, known as “Lisa” and remembered with great affection by her classmates, was a captain and founding member of the cheerleading squad, and later a University trustee from 1998 to 2003. When she passed away in 2009 at the age of 56, she had given Fairfield lifetime and bequest gifts totaling more than $1 million, supporting Irish Studies and the Library Fund. The seminar room in the Bellarmine Museum is named in memory of Lisa. “She was exuberant, and loyal,” said Joellin Comerford ’74. “She stood out.”