Home / Fall Table of Contents / Radwa Ashour '75G / Rob Racicot '82 / Rachael Splaine '94 / Sarah Baker '96, '97G
"If I've heard from one person I've heard from eighty-seven," Vice Chancellor Royster Hedgepeth told us on Homecoming Weekend, "that Doris Abramson's convocation speech should be reprinted in the magazine." Delivered during the ceremony in which she and five other alumni and friends received the Chancellor's Medal [see "Around the Pond," page 7, and class notes], the speech should be imagined in the rich and resonant tones of which this professor emerita of theater is a past master.
When Jim Leheny called from the chancellor's office to ask me to be today's speaker, he suggested that I "dip into the reservoir of my memories." He may not have known how deep that reservoir is. The first recollection I'm going to share with you is one from nearly seventy years ago. The occasion? My father took me to work with him one spring day in 1930. (No, it was not Take Our Daughters To Work Day. Long before such an event.) I'll never know what prompted him. I only know that it is the most vivid memory I have of my father, who died in an auto accident a few months later. Unless Dutchy Barnard '28 is here, no one in this audience will remember him. He was the first janitor of Memorial Hall. A veteran of World War I, he had been at that job for about ten years. On this bright day, he took me to his building. I held his hand as we walked from our home on Fearing Street. Memorial Hall was a special place indeed: There was a bowling alley in the basement. I like to think he rolled a ball to show me what it meant a bowling alley. And there was a barber shop. The barber, Nap (Napolean Mercier) lifted me up, and I could smell the sweet smell of was it witch hazel? And my father showed me his mops and brooms, the closet where they were kept, and the floors that were his to keep clean. Then perhaps because he was called away, or perhaps as part of his plan for the day he parked me across the way by Drill Hall, where Mrs. Hicks was teaching a class outdoors. (Drill Hall was a wooden building that stood approximately where the south wing of Bartlett is now; it was used principally by the ROTC.) On this day, Mrs. Hicks was teaching calisthenics on the lawn to young women/coeds in gym bloomers. I remember that I was put on a folding chair and told to be quiet. In the self-creating fiction of memoir, I may sometime write how the chair felt, what I wore, whether or not my stockinged legs were stretched forward or one was tucked under me where I sat. For now: I sat on a folding chair. I hope I was quiet. I'll bet I was enthralled.
My father collected me and, before taking me home, took me to Flint Lab for ice cream. They made it there then and for some time to come. In the 50s, when I taught a speech class on the top floor of that building, I passed a room that had ice-cream-making machines in it. Wonder if they're still there.
But before I go on to other buildings and memories they evoke, let's buckle back to Memorial Hall. Long the student social center, this building was a gift of alumni to the college, following World War I. George E. "Red" Emery '24 headed the Associate Alumni of Mass. State College when I was a student and was in that office for many years. I couldn't begin to count the alumni activities now, let alone name the movers and shakers in those busy offices these days. When I was a student at Mass. State, in the 40s, we had dances upstairs. When I first started teaching at UMass in 1953, faculty meetings were held there. I don't mean Faculty Senate meetings the entire faculty could fit into that room. I remember late afternoon meetings with the sun pouring in through those tall west windows.
And let us not forget The Massachusetts Review, now about to celebrate its fortieth volume; the MR office was in the basement of Mem Hall for thirty-five years. I was a theater editor for much of that time. When I pull out names from the past, I come up with Barney Troy '31, Leone Stein '75G, John Hicks, Bob Tucker and most important to all of us and to the magazine Sid Kaplan. I remember spirited meetings in that cramped room that resembled nothing so much as a set for the movie Front Page. One name that appears on the earliest and on the most recent masthead is Jules Chametzky. Yes, he is still an editor-in-chief, along with Mel Heath '74G, '86G, and Paul Jenkins. The MR office is no longer in Mem Hall, having recently moved, sensibly if reluctantly, to South College. I have no doubt that ghosts were left behind. Listen for the sound of an old Underwood or a banging screen door. (What other office ever had a screen door?)
It was Frank Prentice Rand who used to say in an orientation lecture to incoming freshmen: "There are ghosts on this campus." (The older I get the more I believe in them.) FPR he was a character English "prof," head of the English department, later liberal arts dean. There may be some here today who remember his Shakespeare classes. (I've moved on to Old Chapel in my recollections of places and persons.) He gave daily quizzes, asking such questions as: "How many times are flowers mentioned in Act II of As You Like It?" I suppose it made us read the plays but with an eye trained peculiarly to details. As he gathered up the papers, he sang a hymn: "Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves"
My first office was in the Old Chapel basement, a kind of broom closet, with scarcely room for a desk and two chairs. The Old Chapel classrooms were lovely and light, and there were wonderful oak columns to lean on while lecturing. I remember an English history class that I had in that building, with Professor McKimmie. In his later years, he could lean on one of those columns as he lectured in a way that allowed him to fall asleep mid-sentence. We loved him so much that we busied ourselves with reading or with writing letters home until he awoke and continued his lecture. We used to say that he picked up right where he'd left off.
Across the way was Goodell Library now Goodell Building. The librarian in my student days was Basil Wood. He didn't just sit in an office marked Librarian. He regularly walked through the library and gently (not always so gently) tapped legs to get feet off tables and chairs, offered bits of paper for gum to be spat out in and thrown into a proffered wastebasket. We were there to read, to take notes; he was there to see that we did so with decorum. I wonder: Does Basil Wood's ghost visit offices in Goodell Building? Or has it found its way to the Du Bois Library? I vote for the latter. If you see a boy (I've decided that I'm old enough to call students boys and girls) if you see a boy self-consciously take his sneakered foot off a table at the library, you'll know Basil Wood's ghost is paying a call.
South College has many memories for me. Everything has gone on in South College at one time or another. Deans, drama, whole departments have resided there. Someone should be writing a history of that building alone. I want to tell you about one special woman who had an office there for years: Mildred Pierpont. There is, as you know, a low-rise dorm named for her. There's her name, along with other names improbably attached to those dorms: Coolidge and Thoreau and James. Mildred Pierpont. She ran the schedule office from a tiny room in South College. She was there when I was a student had been since 1921 and was there when I started teaching in 1953. German professor Fritz Ellert '30 said she was "a saint with the face of a clown." I'll just say that she had red hair she probably tried to tame, but the bun at the nape of her neck was always awry and a pencil stuck there was all that seemed to keep it in its place. She was patient and friendly with students and faculty alike. I remember going to tell her that a classroom I'd been given in which to teach speech to twenty students had room for only fifteen. She unrolled a chart, studied the buildings and their seating capacities, and made a decision on the spot. I was moved from a room in, say, Flint Lab to one in French Hall. Oh, yes we taught everywhere then. And Mildred Pierpont kept track of it all. I wonder how many computers and their operators have taken her place? And her ghost? Must it be at the low-rise dorm that bears her name? I think not. She may take a turn at a Whitmore keyboard now and then. On one of those days when, quite by chance (it seems), things go right.
I just mentioned teaching classes everywhere. We had offices everywhere too. When I was in the English department, I was in Old Chapel. When speech became an independent department (four of us: Arthur Niedeck, Henry Pierce, Tony Zaitz and me), our first office was in the basement of this building, Stockbridge Hall. We shared space with the agronomy department! (I remember wondering if we had to talk dirty.) One of my favorite offices was in the old Math Building. Was that building ever named for anyone? It was a wooden building on the east side of campus, near French Hall as I recall. I remember in spring the smell of lilac bushes outside the second-floor office I shared with Vera Sickels. Our fire escape was a rope that hung in the corner of the office. We were given instructions for its use, but there was never a fire drill.
One more building: the one we're in at this moment, Stockbridge Hall. Bowker Auditorium such a fine theater space has been particularly important to me over the years. As a student, in 1948, I stood on this stage as St. Joan, in a production of Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Lorraine. I took it as a great compliment when my then-professor Fritz Ellert came backstage afterwards in tears. When I got to know him later, I realized what a sentimental man he was and easily moved to tears. This is the stage on which Esther Terry '74G directed her Black Theater productions. I'm so glad grateful that I was in the audience, particularly for her productions of Theodore Ward's Our Lan' and William Branch's In Splendid Error. My first productions were here, too. In 1964, I directed Romulus by Friedrich Duerrenmatt (translated by Gore Vidal). In the title role was a student named Larry Wilker '65, '67G, a business major attracted to theater. He went on to earn an M.F.A. in theater (here) and a Ph.D. in theater (University of Illinois). Currently he is president of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. For that, of course, he needs both his business and his theater training.
I have rather neglected the east side of campus. Sorry. I have vivid memories of botany classes with Dr. Torrey, who separated males from females (maybe he said boys from girls, but I doubt it) in his classroom. Then he addressed his lectures to the males; we females listened in. And he was worth listening to. I remember Dr. Woodside, zoology; Dr. Gordon, geology. That was in my student days. When I was teaching in the late 50s, early 60s each spring I had a call from the School of Nursing. (No, it couldn't have been "school"; it must have been a division then.) Anyway, I was asked, in my capacity as a speech teacher, to train the nurses who were graduating to speak a kind of pledge that they said in unison at graduation ceremonies. We took it seriously, the nurses and I; I arranged them according to dark and light voices, helped them to project, to speak clearly. Wonder if anyone engages in this kind of collaboration these days. (Notice that I don't send a ghost to coach the nurses: I'm not ready to go.)
Seriously, I'm pleased to have had this chance to celebrate the University of Massachusetts, a place that has meant so much to me for so long. (You now have some sense of how long.) I've been retired since 1987. My students are beginning to retire now. (Oh, well I retired one year before one of my favorite professors did Leonta Horrigan '36.) My last office was in the Fine Arts Center; if I ever haunt it, it will be to find a way to open some windows. So my classes are being taught thank you, Harley Erdman; thank you, Julie Nelson. My office has been enjoyed by professors making their own history. Dick Trousdell was there for a time; I'm pleased that Penny Remsen is there now. It must be so all over campus. There is a continuity of persons and places. The university seems to be in good hands. Bless it bless you all.
Having absorbed the English canon from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, Radwa Ashour might have deemed her literary education complete. The young scholar saw gaps, however, where the African-American writers should have been.
As a university student in her native Cairo in the early 1970s, says Ashour, she'd found no one who considered writers in the African diaspora worthy of study. But in 1973, a joyfully-cultivated friendship with Shirley Graham Du Bois world traveler, litterateur, and widow of W.E.B. led Ashour to UMass. Madame Du Bois, as the école-educated Ashour still calls her late liaison to Amherst, was living in Cairo at the time, and pointed the young Egyptian toward the then-infant Afro-American Studies department here.
"She said, 'the best department in the United States is at UMass,' says Ashour, remembering how Du Bois returned from a visit to Massachusetts with an application and a scholarship for her protegé.
Here Ashour became the first doctoral candidate in English to specialize in black American literature. Afro-Am didn't have its own graduate program until 1996, but founding faculty member Michael Thelwell '69G says Ashour is regarded as his department's first Ph.D. Today, as chair of English Language and Literature at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Ashour has watched her field blossom into one of the most popular in the department. She remains a vital link between UMass and Cairo, sending two of her proteges stateside recently: one to write a dissertation on playwright Amiri Baraka, another to research the influence of the Vietnam War on theater.
Why the interest in African-American literature in Africa in the last decade or so? Because, said Ashour on a visit to UMass last March, works on oppression and the overcoming of oppression speak deeply to readers in the Arab world.
Ashour found a receptive audience at her alma mater, where graduate students from several departments and many of UMass's Palestinian students turned out to hear her lecture, entitled "Eyewitness, Scribe and Storyteller: My Experience as a Novelist." For Ashour is now a creative writer as well as a scholar; a decade after her sojourn in Prince House, she turned to historical fiction. Her trilogy Granada, Mariama, and Al-Rahil (The Departure), which deals with the 1492 expulsion of Arabs from Spain, was named as Best Book of the Year by the General Egyptian Book Organization in 1994, and won first prize in the first Arab Women's Book Fair two years later.
"The exceptional alertness to time and place, and the need to record, are characteristics common to the writers of my generation," Ashour said at UMass. Egypt's turbulent history during her lifetime the British occupation, the struggle for the Suez Canal, and war with Israel have left Ashour with a compulsion to understand the past. "Writing is a retrieval of a human will negated," she said.
Despite Ashour's popularity at home, only two of her short stories have been translated into English. A memoir of her two years in Amherst Al-Rihlah: Ayyam Talibah Misriyyah fi Amrikah [The Journey: American Memoirs of An Egyptian
Student] is among her untranslated works. Even with the bestowal of the Nobel Prize on Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz last year, the Arab literary mind remains opaque to the West, Ashour says.
"In Egypt, we have a flag, an airline of our own, we are an independent country," she said. "But there is this feeling we are not free to be who we are in the new world order.
"I am always conscious I'm a person from the Third World. I'm an Egyptian, an Arab, and an African all in one. Also, I'm a woman. I know to be all these things is to be particularly conscious of constraint."
A fire starts without a match. A leaf falls and shatters like a china plate. A dozen rapt schoolchildren watching nature behave in these implausible ways might well believe in magic. But the man in charge is no Merlin. His is the realm of science, where the apparently inexplicable is always firmly tethered to reality.
Robert Racicot '82 is part of a road show called "The Magic of Chemistry" which travels to elementary and middle schools all across Colorado. A lieutenant colonel at the USAF Academy in Colorado Springs, Racicot's day job is teaching chemistry to Air Force cadets. But seven years ago he put on his lab coat for a group of local third-graders, and their jubilant reaction showed him that eight-year-olds, too, can be smitten by science. Since then, he and four colleagues have been putting on about fifty shows each year.
The presentation is geared for third- to fifth-graders, says Racicot, "Because they can understand the science, but they still have a little belief in magic left." The biggest crowd-pleaser is a demonstration of how chemicals can change color during a reaction. Racicot holds up a glass of a pale yellowish liquid that looks like ginger ale. He divides his audience in half. One group, he tells them, loves ginger ale, but the other half will drink only grape soda. Either side can turn the drink into their favorite soda if they call out its name loud enough. Whose magic is stronger?
The kids take up the challenge: Half of them yell out "Grape soda!" until, sure enough, the liquid turns purple. The ginger-ale-lovers shout louder and the purple fades away. Back and forth, back and forth before long the kids are on their feet, screaming with excitement. It makes a great grand-finale.
But what's really going on? When they finally quiet down, the students see that the color keeps on changing. They find out that the soda is actually a liquid containing an iodine compound that is in the midst of an "oscillating reaction." Which just means, Racicot explains, that the compound keeps moving back and forth on its own between two forms that are different colors.
In the course of the demonstrations the children learn something about lab safety as Racicot outfits volunteers with goggles and lab coats. They get a close-up view of the kind of explosion that lifts a space shuttle off the ground when Racicot ignites a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen in a Coke bottle. And as Racicot knows from his own hours in the classroom, a little humor at adult expense never hurts: the kids love seeing their teachers subjected to the "bad-breath tester."
Behind every act is a concept of chemistry which Racicot always reveals.
"Our society is becoming science illiterate," says the magic-meister. "This kind of program, we hope, will stop that trend." Sonia Ellis
Now a field attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in Boston, Rachael Splaine arrived at UMass as a scrappy, teenage athlete in the fall of 1989. She had just won a national championship with the all-star New England schoolgirls lacrosse squad, and was the lone freshman to receive a women's lacrosse scholarship here that year. But after her first season at UMass the program was axed along with volleyball and tennis because of budget cuts, and she was left without a team in the sport she loved and had played throughout her youth.
"Originally I thought, 'Yes! No more 6 a.m. practices!'" Splaine said recently. "But I soon began to feel like something important was taken away from me." So Splaine joined teammate Melissa Cellucci '95, tennis captain Pam Levine '94, and several other women from the disbanded teams, and threatened the university with a suit under Title IX, the law that requires publicly funded institutions to provide equal athletic opportunity to men and women. UMass reinstated the programs in 1992.
Impressed by the law's capacity to create change, Rachael plunged herself into the field. After graduating with majors in Afro-American studies and education, she studied law at Northeastern and Georgetown. "I realized the power of the law," she says now with the self-confidence of a young attorney. "That whole experience definitely motivated me to pursue law as a career."
And pursue it she has. Splaine's resume is filled with awards, scholarships and prestigious internships. Highest of the honors is the 1996 Outstanding Law Student of the Year, a national award bestowed by Who's Who. Splaine is the first black person and the second woman ever to receive such recognition. That same year she was named Outstanding Law Fellow by the American Association of University Women, and last year she received a scholarship that funded her studies at Georgetown, where she received her LL.M. in June.
Not surprisingly, Splaine's road from UMass has encompassed sports as well as courts.While studying at Northeastern she served as the first-ever legal intern for the NBA Players' Association, a marketing intern for the Boston Celtics, and a researcher for the NFL Players' Association.
Splaine stayed at UMass five years to complete her dual major and also to play under lacrosse coach Francesca McClellan, who was hired in 1994 to rebuild the storied program. Despite the two-year hiatus, Splaine's brief college lacrosse career was productive. She was a three-time letter-winner, twice selected team MVP, and is currently ranked tenth in career goals and points in a single season.
"I have no hard feelings whatsoever," she said of her battle with the university and loss of stick time. "If anything, I owe UMass for teaching me life lessons." UMass owes Splaine as well: partly because of her and her teammates' determination to save the women's lacrosse program, the university is now seen as a leader in Title IX compliance.
You're sprinting up the beach after a 1.5k swim through open water, peeling off your wetsuit and your goggles as you go. You find your bike in the transition area and stuff your sandy feet into shoes clipped to the pedals. You scorch onto the course and jockey for position.
Your heart rate surges.
For 40k you pedal madly. Back at the transition area you tear off your helmet, slap on your race number and running shoes (no need to tie elastic laces), and begin the 10k run. Legs burn like crazy, heart is pounding. Approaching the finish line, almost two hours and 15 minutes from the start, you note your swimsuit is finally dry. Your feet are bleeding, though.
It's all in a day's race for nationally ranked triathlete Sarah Baker, a member of the USA Triathlon National Resident Team who is training at the US Olympic Center in Colorado Springs this winter and entering triathlons from California to New Jersey and Mexico to Switzerland. Her current goal is to secure a place in the Olympic trials for the 2000 Summer Games. Ultimately, she wants to be one of the top ten American women triathletes.
When Baker began swimming in her hometown of East Longmeadow at the age of seven, her mother, Marilyn, gave her a notebook and pencil to record her times. "She had to tell me that lower numbers were better," Sarah recalls. In high school Sarah was a strong athlete she played field hockey, swam, and ran track and cross country but not a stellar one.
At walk-on tryouts at UMass in September, 1992, however, swim coach Bob Newcomb gave her a chance.
Baker went on to become team co-captain, MVP her junior and senior years, and the first woman in UMass history to win an individual swimming title in the Atlantic-10 conference. "It just clicked for me," says Baker of the UMass swim team. "I saw how much you can accomplish if you set a goal and work at it. The feeling you get is incomparable."
Following completion of a master's in sports studies in 1997, Baker went to work for Reebok in Stoughton and began training for the triathlon in her free time. "With three sports and two transitions to work on" that's swimming, cycling, running, and the switches of equipment in between "it's never boring," she says with a smile. She capped her short but successful amateur career with the National Age Group Championship in Clarement, Florida, where she placed second in the 20-24 group and was the fourth American woman overall. The showing qualified her for the National Resident Team and her current status as a professional triathlete.
Sadly, Marilyn Baker, who impressed on her daughter that "anything worth doing is worth doing right," died of breast cancer when Sarah was ten. In the future, Sarah plans to bring her sports-marketing experience to the fight against the disease. For now, she hopes her punishing sport will have a successful debut in the 2000 Olympic Summer Games in Sydney and that you all will be watching for her in the years to come.
Carolyn S. Ellis