Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Shirley Harris at Wellesley Project

 Shirley Harris in 1950
I started a wonderful project about a month ago. It came about as the result of running across an archive of letters that Shirley (Katie's grandmother, who passed away in 1998) wrote home to her parents when she went off to college at Wellesley, fall of 1950, sixty years ago this fall. When I learned from Katie that she wished she could get more "snail mail" I got the idea of sending her annotated copies of Shirley's letters home. It's turned out to be a fascinating project for me, and I think Katie is really enjoying it too. Shirley was amazingly prolific in writing letters (or post cards) home. She wrote on average once a week, sometimes more. They are full of information about her courses, her dates, college life, her roommate, lectures and concerts, etc. I'm sending Katie a photocopy of the original letter, but in addition I am transcribing each letter and footnoting it to provide background information and explanations of allusions to people, places, things, etc. I'm sending them each at the time Shirley sent them originally. So far I've sent four and am up to October 15th. If I am given the time to complete this project I hope to turn it into a book. It should be a wonderful window into the life of an amazing woman as well as a glimpse of college life in the 1950s. Here's a sample of one of the letters:


October 3, 1950

Dear Folks:

We’ve been enjoying the lamp and the rugs very much and the jelly from Aunt Grace too. (1) I bought some crackers and cheese and when I over-slept this morning and missed breakfast, it came in very handy.
I’ve started my fall sport and enjoy it to the utmost. It is tennis, and I feel I’m really improving my game. (2) I have it on Monday and Friday afternoon.
I checked on train schedules and I can get a train from
Framingham to Schnectedy (sic) on Friday at 2:33 which arrives in Schnectedy at 7:02 which is very convenient only it means that I must skip not only two of my Saturday classes, but also two of my Friday classes. These classes include Soc, Latin, English Lit and Botany. There is also a train leaving Framingham at 3:36 or so and arrives after 8:30. but I feel that that is too late. What is your opinion? If I am taking the 2:33 I must reserve a seat so please tell me which I should do as soon as possible. (3)
I sent my laundry bag today and I’d appreciate it if you would include anything of interest in the advance when you send it back. (4) Oh, incidentally Pop, how’s about my miraculous Giants? (5) I never dreamed that they’d end up where they were. I was overjoyed.
Let me know about any further details of the wedding. I can’t think of anything else except will you please fill out the enclosed form and send it to me.

See you at the wedding,
Lots of love. Shirley


1. Aunt Grace was Shirley’s mother’s twin sister, Grace (Langley) Hall. Grace lived in Goffstown, NH, and was married to Mortimer Hall (who ran an awning business), and they had three boys – Langley, Lloyd and Leonard. None of these “boys” are still living, though Lloyd died only a year ago or so. Langley was a bachelor all his life, but Lloyd and Leonard had children (their wives are still living) which are your first cousins once removed, and their children are your second cousins (see below*).  Although Grace was a twin sister, she and Florence (Shirley was actually Florence Shirley Harris, but she was known as Shirley all her life – to avoid confusion, no doubt), were very different. In her later years (when I knew her), Grace was sort of a typical farm woman in appearance – somewhat overweight, and not at all “sophisticated” in appearance or speech. She had not gone to college, though she was, I am sure, fully as intelligent as her sister (in fact, in high school, Grace was the star pupil).  Their lives just took a different direction. Florence was interested in ideas, was active in church, community and educational organizations, dressed nicely (I don’t mean she was stylish, but she took her appearance seriously), and lived her adult life in New York City. Grace was more “homey,” lived in a small NH town, and was known in the family for sending people homey gifts like pot holders, dish towels, and jars of jelly --  things she made or bought at the local church bazaar. I am guessing that Aunt Grace had sent Shirley a jar of jelly to mark her arrival at college.  Shirley and I visited Aunt Grace and Uncle Mort in Goffstown on several occasions, and I at least met all the boys and their children, at least once.  Ellen and I visited Lloyd and his wife Betty in Piermont, NH a couple of times before Lloyd died. Many years ago, your mom met some of her first cousins in this branch of the family. I haven’t kept in touch with the cousins, I’m afraid, but will call Betty Hall and get some updated information.

2. There was a period of our lives when Shirley and I played tennis fairly regularly in the summertime. This was when we went to the A-frame, a summer camp we built in Dummerston in 1960-62, near where we live now. Our neighbors, the Baldwins, had a tennis court, and we played tennis there (and occasionally on courts in other places). Shirley had one maddening ability in tennis – she almost always managed to return the ball. Maybe not gracefully or with speed, but she just got it back over the net, again and again!

3. Since Shirley says, “see you at the wedding” at the end of this letter, this discussion of trains to Schenectady must be about her going to a wedding, and the only person whose wedding could take her away from classes, and be in Schenectady, would be her brother, Ladd. Ladd worked for the General Electric Company in Schenectady. (Shirley’s father worked for GE also, all his life, as Administrative Assistant to the President of GE. He worked for three presidents in that capacity. He worked in the corporate office in New York City).
            This wedding ended up being cancelled. I don’t know who the woman was, or why it was cancelled. I remember Shirley telling me once that Ladd was in love with a girl who was a Catholic, and that her parents “broke up” that relationship (i.e., they didn’t approve of it and I guess Ladd honored their feelings). I don’t know if this is that girl or not. It is a sad story, and I think that Shirley’s parents came to regret very much that they broke it up, because the woman Ladd ended up marrying – sort of on the rebound from this break-up, as I recall – was not the right person and they were pretty miserable. Ladd died in 1960 at the age of 39 – he was given hepatitis by an osteopathic physician who was giving him vitamin shots with an unsterilized needle, and the disease proved fatal. His three children were very young. I’ve sort of kept in touch with them. These are, again, your first cousins  once removed– Robbie, Patty Ann, and Jim. Robbie’s son, also named Ladd, was married a few years ago and I went to the wedding. Jim lives in Haddonfield, NJ and has a boy, Matthew, by his second wife (whose name is also Patty, I think).  Patty Ann is in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and Robbie is in NJ somewhere I think. Patty Ann has a son, Josh (I don’t know where he is) and Ladd, Jr. has a sister Kelly. (I remember one time we visited Rob and his wife Maureen (now divorced) and we watched a video of Kelly, who was starring in a high school production of Annie. Don’t know if she has kept up her interest in musical theater or not. These are all your second cousins.
            Shirley idolized her brother, and she grieved his untimely death all her life. Writing this inspires me to see if I can reach Jim and find out where all these folks are today.

4. Those were the days when you sent your laundry home from college for your mom to wash, dry, fold, and send back!! Imagine that! I did the same when I was in college – at least at first. I think by the end of my freshman year I was doing my own. It was cheap – as I recall, it cost just $1 or so to mail a laundry case – they made special cases just for that purpose. When Shirley says, “send back anything of interest in the advance” she is referring, I’m sure, to the Staten Island Advance, the local newspaper. She was probably interested in news clippings about her classmates at Curtiss High School, or her church, the Brighton Heights Reformed Church, or anything of general interest about events or changes or controversies in the community.

5. The New York Giants were a major league baseball team (now based in San Francisco, a move made in 1957). One of their star hitters, Bobby Thompson, graduated from Curtis High School on Staten Island about 8 years before Shirley did, and that may have been one reason why the Giants were her favorites. I’m not sure why she is so excited about them in the Fall of 1950 – so far as I can find out, they finished in third place at the end of the regular season, and they didn’t win the pennant and certainly not the World Series. But in 1948, Leo Durocher had moved from the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the Giants manager, and by 1950, they were on the way up. They ended the season just 3 games behind the Dodgers, which was pretty good. Now the 1951 season – that’s another story (but you’ll have to wait till next year to hear about that!).


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