Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Remembering Joanie Weston

It's one of the best research questions ever: "Wikipedia says a Roller Derby star named Joan Weston went to the Mount. Can you check it out?"

As I said at the time, you can't make this stuff up. And it turned out to be true -- Joan Weston did indeed attend Mount St. Mary's College but never graduated. She left during her sophomore year to join Roller Derby, and the rest is literally history; besides her Wikipedia entry, see the New York Times obituary and a fine tribute by her friend Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated.

Last week, I got a letter in the mail (the kind with a stamp) from a friend of hers during her Mount days. Kay Kemp '55 and Joan Weston were close during Joanie's freshman year (1952-53) and were teammates in water ballet. The 5'10" Joanie was a Physical Education major in the days when the College briefly offered it, and clearly a standout athlete in the pool and softball diamond before she started roller skating. In these photos from The Mount yearbook in 1953, Joan Weston is the one bending over a chair at the right in the upper photo (of the Women's Recreation Association), and is the blond seated at far left in the lower picture with some fellow freshmen.

Kay's touching note tells the story of Joanie's struggle to attend college:
Her mother was a waitress, and Joan's college spending money came out of a huge bottle filled up with tip money. Her mother emptied her apron pockets every day when she arrived at home from a corner [lunch counter] in downtown Los Angeles. [Those] wages kept the two of them in a very small apartment right next to the train tracks off Florence in South L.A.
In the fall of 1953 Joanie cajoled a Mount freshman with a car into driving her over to the old Armory in Exposition Park, which had a roller rink. By Christmas she was good enough for professional skating and left the Mount to join the brawling sport. According to the May, 1997, obituary in the New York Times,
Miss Weston could easily hold her own in the hair-pulling, face-slapping, roll-around brawls that became one of Roller Derby's most crowd-pleasing attractions.
This is the same tall, pretty girl who once smashed eight home runs in a single softball game -- and was finally told to stop when the opposing team was verging on tears. But Joanie was also kind and a little shy, not the bruiser that these images might suggest. Frank Deford wrote that she "was sweet and utterly genuine, a good Catholic girl whom everybody loved." In 1969, still going strong in Roller Derby, she told Deford,
All I want out of it is to make good money, get out of it in one piece, and years from now when I say I was in the Derby I want people still to know what it is. I want that.
I think she got her wish. At one time she was the highest-paid woman athlete in the world, and escaped without permanent injury, although she died at 62, strangely enough, of mad cow disease.

But Roller Derby itself lives on in various forms in mostly all-female teams who have embraced the bruising, showy high-camp of two generations ago. Joanie will probably always be considered one of the all-time greats.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The men of the Mount

One of the questions I get all the time is some form of "who were the first men at Mount St. Mary's College"?

This came up in the article on the Archives in the current Mount Magazine. It notes that the first male nursing student I've been able to find graduated in 1993, although men were allowed to apply to the program 20 years before that.

Sometimes we Lone Arrangers have to throw a "factoid" out there and see what happens. I'm delighted to report that I have now heard from the official First Male Nursing Graduate, complete with a fax of his diploma and the article above.

He's Michael Clannin, Class of '75. He had served in Vietnam as a Navy corpsman with a unit of Marines in a field hospital. (Think M*A*S*H.) After that heroic work he had plenty of experience but lacked the degree for an RN, and the Mount was a perfect fit.

Around that time the College started accepting what were called "capitation" grants, part of an effort by the U.S. government to cope with a shortage of nurses. As recipients of federal funds, institutions can't discriminate on the basis of gender, so single-sex schools like the Mount had to adjust admissions policy. Mike was one of the beneficiaries and can't say enough about the support he received, especially from the renowned Sister Callista Roy.

The Mount article mentions music students going way back to the 1930s. I had a phone message today from another male alum (as in alumnus), Hank Alviani, a music graduate in the Class of '74. I sent him an email with the following brief history: The earliest male students would have been Roman Catholic seminarians and priests studying Gregorian chant at the Bishop Cantwell School of Liturgical Music. The director of the school, Dom Ermin Vitry, OSB, also directed the College music program. Master's degrees in music were conferred as early as 1932 and expanded with the opening of the Graduate School in 1955. One of the most celebrated music programs in the city, the Mount's Department of Music began admitting male undergraduates around 1961. By the time Hank graduated, many men had received Mount degrees.

There seemed to be not much more than a handful in any given year, however. The article above, an undated story from the Los Angeles Times, mentions just three (ca. 1974): Hank, Mike Clannin, and Paul Gibson. The story says there were a dozen male undergraduates on campus at the time.

Our president, Jacqueline Powers Doud, likes to say we're a women's college "with a few good men." That has been the case for a surprisingly long time, and three cheers to our alumni for reminding us.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Connections and coincidences

Since The Mount Magazine came out the other day with a feature on the College Archives, I've made several new friends. My new friends have come bearing information about Mount history, so these phone calls have been wonderfully educational. And some of those "mystery photos" with no information can now be explained. Two of them provide us with a really special coincidence.

All archivists, not just Lone Arrangers, struggle with large numbers of beautiful old photographs that lack any kind of "provenance" -- important facts like who's in the photo, what was the occasion, when was it taken, where was it published and who took the picture. Thus we Lone Arrangers are always excited when someone has information.

The Summer/Fall 2010 edition of The Mount Magazine has a group of small photographs on the back cover under the heading "Commencement Through the Years." One of the photographs, showing one of the Sisters with a couple of students in cap and gown (top photo, above) is labeled "date unknown."

Now, one of the great techniques for dating pictures is to look at clothing and hair fashions. No help here! Because the students are in cap and gown and the Sister in traditional habit, the picture could have been taken any time between 1925 and about 1967!

So I was tickled when the phone rang and the caller identified herself as the Sister in the picture -- Mary Frances Rebel, or Sister Alfred Mary as she was known in 1955 when the picture was taken. She couldn't identify the students, but she told me that they were all in the nursing program.

Sister shared the interesting tidbit that students and faculty wore white for their morning Clinicals, and then the Sisters had to rush back to Chalon to change into black habits for teaching their afternoon classes. "Things were so strict," Sister told me.

The next day the phone rang again and it was Helen Antczak Sanchez, '71, whose mother Helen Fitzpatrick Antczak '45, is in the photo labeled "1940s," the second student on the right (lower photo).

Here comes the coincidence. When Helen Sanchez was 4 years old, something happened requiring an emergency trip to Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital, which at the time was operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

"You know who my nurse was?" Helen asked excitedly. "Sister Alfred Mary! The one in the 'date unknown' picture!"

Needless to say, little Helen -- whose aunt Sister Mary Brigid Fitzpatrick '47 was hospital administrator at the time -- received very special TLC from Sister Alfred Mary and the CSJs.

Sister Mary Brigid is a Trustee emerita and had a long, wonderful career at the College, and Sister Alfred Mary herself went on to become admin at Daniel Freeman.

All these connections are one of the things that make the Mount so special. I'm looking forward to tapping into them more and investigating more of these mysterious photos. By the way, Sister Mary Frances/Alfred Mary offered to come up to the College help go through them, and I'm hoping to take her up on her offer.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Rose Alice Wills, Class of 1931

Found a tiny photo of who I think is Rose Alice in the 1931 graduation program. The 15 graduates are listed in alphabetical order and their photos appear in the same order on the next page. The original is about an inch wide.

Our Rosie was one of the most distinguished graduates of the Mount's very distinguished Music Department, chairing the Santa Monica City College music program for many years. For the 70th anniversary of the Mount in 1995, well in her 80s, she contributed this reminiscence:

I was one of the few students with a car, and the Sisters were always asking me to take them up to what they called "the site." The upholstery on the front seat was a little dilapidated, and one time a Sister got her rosary caught in the springs and we couldn't get her unhooked...

I remember driving up on a beautiful day in 1929, and we sat on some lumber and had a picnic. There was nothing up there but a big hole, and some sawdust. If my car stalled going up the hill, we'd get out and push. Going down, I'd just turn the motor off and slide, kicking up dust all the way to Sunset."
That sounds like a fun-loving Mountie of the early 1930s. Someone crazy enough to roar down the mountain on a dirt road in neutral might just be someone who'd come back to leave a "memento" and cement-crusted beer can in the basement. I'm glad to make her acquaintance!

And who knows... Picnics at the 1929 construction site -- the "big hole" -- would sure explain how milk bottles and other relics ended up buried in the basement.

Aren't archives cool?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Rosie and the wet cement

Our John Deeb is relentless as a good bloodhound. Checking my webmail, I see this:

So here’s my latest find…. It appears to be a metal can encrusted in cement. So far the cement that I have removed definitely shows a can that was not produced recently. It’s fun to think that maybe it was used by our friend Rosie to carry the wet cement from a wheelbarrow outside of the newly completed Mary Chapel to Brady basement where she slathered it on the wall before writing her name in it……..
Mary Chapel and what became Rossiter Hall were just finished and nearing completion, respectively, in 1940. With the poured-cement construction of the college there would be plenty of wet cement to go around.

John said he found the can about 15 feet from the memento blob. He goes on:
I've already identified the can and dated it to the late 30's, early 40's. It's a Golden Glow Ale can produced by Golden West Brewery out of Oakland... Rosie could have tossed it across the space on her way out.
I'm liking this girl. More questions. What brought her up to the Mount in 1940? Did she bring a six-pack of Golden Glow? Was the basement crawlspace a familiar hideout from when she was a student? Was she the one who tossed the milk bottle? What the heck else is down there??

I'm going to try to find a picture of Rosie from our very limited collection of pictures of the class of 1931. I want to see what she looks like. This is all conjecture, of course, but can you spot a beer can-tossing, cement-smearing, high-spirited alumna?

As I wrote back to John, "Doesn't it seem a little strange that 8 years after graduating she'd come back just to smear cement on the wall? And that decades later she was still telling people about it?"

What the heck else is down there?

Rosie revealed

The saga of the milk bottle began a few days ago with the visit of two old friends of Rose Alice Wills Smith '31, who had told them about a "memento" she'd left behind "in the basement" at the Mount. The basement had to be Brady Hall's, and our intrepid archaeology sleuth John Deeb set out to try to discover what she was referring to.

The excitement over the milk bottle had hardly subsided when John showed up unannounced in the Archives with a big smirk on his face and this handsome artifact. Rosie's memento.

He came across it in a narrow gap near what might have been a coal chute in the 1930s. John managed to squeeze into the passageway and noticed the blob of cement some distance up the wall with the magic word "Rosie." It was hard to get a good look at it and even harder to take a picture, so he somewhat reluctantly pried it off and brought it to the Archives.

Besides "Rosie" and "1940" it seems to have "Jun '31," which would have been when Rose Alice graduated. But 1940? Did she come back 9 years later to leave her memento? And where did she get the wet cement?

Don't we love the way one mystery is solved, only to reveal another?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Message in a bottle: postscript

We don't need a glass expert - we have John Deeb! He reported this little factoid:

I was able to identify the manufacturer of our milk bottle. It was made by the Illinois Pacific Glass Co. and was either made in 1917 or 1927, as indicated by the single number 7 next to the logo. In the 1930s they used two-digit date stamps. So... I'd be willing to bet the bottle was made in 1927, shipped to a dairy sometime after that and made its way to our basement in the early '30s.
John ("now that I'm an amateur archaeologist") mentioned that some years ago he found a 1950s-era vodka bottle in an area that was once a rubbish heap near the CSJs' convent. The area is now a shrine. That's another fun one to muse on -- how did it get there? (And who consumed the contents?)

The larger point, though, is something I tell my San Jose State library students: Given enough passage of time, virtually anything will become valuable. That makes preservation decision making interesting, because you can see the easy argument for trying to keep virtually everything. We all know people who do this. Lone Arrangers know better.