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The class of 1944

By Patricia Clarke

Our lives don’t always turn out as expected. I intended to be a famous foreign correspondent like Dorothy Thompson, a heroine of the 1930s. I wound up chronicling Elizabeth Taylor’s weddings. Bob, who worked with me on the student newspaper, abandoned news reporting to sell real estate. Mary Lou, a chemistry major, planned to be the next Mme. Curie. She became a marriage counsellor, benefitting from on-the-job training in three marriages.

As one classmate said, quoting John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans.”

But here we are, 65 years after graduation, back at our university in California for a class reunion. One of the men sports a trophy wife. We women covertly evaluate each other’s thickening waists, thinning hair, sagging chins. What do we remember from so long ago? “The parties,” says Virginia. “The friends,” says Betty. No one mentions professors or courses. Phil remembers sitting at the window of the fraternity house, exchanging comments on the pulchritude of the girls walking up sorority row. Tonight, he and a friend’s brother are exchanging tributes to their gated retirement communities.

On this reunion weekend, we need maps to find our way to old haunts on the campus. Huge complexes for graduate study and research have sprouted up everywhere, named for other alumni who turned their education into fortunes. There are 24 of us still-mobile survivors present out of a class that numbered about 900. This year’s first-year class numbers 2,300, and that’s just seven percent of those who applied. We all agree we never would have made it in today. Everyone in the class of 1944 was lily white. Now there are centres for black, Chicano, Native and Asian students, and more than half the class of 2013 is “of colour.”

Women were once required to wear silk stockings around the complex of buildings housing most of the non-science classrooms. We were the first to be permitted bobby socks; in wartime, silks were not to be had. With the socks and saddle shoes we wore discreet skirts and twin sets (remember twin sets?), preferably cashmere. Today’s uniform is cut-off jeans, sweatshirt, running shoes, backpack and cellphone.

Women and men now share the residences. Ten o’clock curfews? Lockouts after midnight? Today’s students looked at us as if we had dropped from another planet. They come and go when they please. They were almost equally surprised to learn that we were served all our meals, sitting down, at white-cloth-covered tables. “Appropriate” dress was required.

Even 65 years ago, this was a prestigious private university. We whose parents were financially able to send us there — although tuition was $300 an academic year compared to over $37,000 today — were a privileged group. The women of the class of 1944 graduated into a wartime economy that offered jobs and training seldom possible before. Law schools and medical schools, with few men to fill their classes, threw open their doors to us. The men who left to serve in the Second World War came back to a nation of expanding opportunities for all.

“I’ve been lucky,” Bill says to me. “I’ve never lacked a reason to get up in the morning.”

“I’ve had a good life,” Phil agrees. “We were a fortunate generation.”

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