Shaun Illingworth: This begins an oral history interview with Deborah ...
Deborah Rickards: Deborah or Debby.
SI: … Deborah Rickards on March 26, 2022, with Shaun Illingworth and …
Gill Woody: Gill Woody.
SI: Thank you very much for speaking with us this morning. To begin, can you tell us where and when you were born?
DR: Sure. I was born in New York City, on July 19, 1955.
SI: For the record, what were your parents' names?
DR: Harriette Polansky Harris and Alexander Tobias Harris.
SI: Now, we want to know a little bit about your family's background. Starting with your mother's side of the family, tell us a little bit about what you might know, where the family came from, anything about your grandparents or even great grandparents, that sort of thing.
DR: Yes, my great grandparents immigrated from a little town in Russia. I think it's in Belarus, from the Pale of Settlement; they were Jews. They immigrated in 1902, and they went to Salem, Massachusetts, which I think is kind of unusual. There was a community of other people who they knew there, and they went there. My grandmother was two. This was my mother's mother's family. I don't know as much about my mother's father's family. My mother grew up in Salem, and there was a thriving Jewish community there. So, she was, I guess, second generation. I'm third generation from that side. They were a pretty volatile bunch. They liked to talk and do things. Do you want me to tell you about my father's family now? [Editor's Note: The Pale of Settlement, an area on the western frontier of the Russian Empire, was a region designated to Jews in czarist Russia between 1791 and 1917.]
SI: Sure, that would be great.
DR: My father's family immigrated from various places in Prussia and then from England. They were Jewish. They immigrated sometime in the 1840s into New York City. I know that my great grandfather was born in this country in 1870-something. His mother was English. The family had moved from Prussia to England, and she was born in England. Then, my great-great grandfather, I'm not exactly sure where he was born, but they came to this country in maybe the 1850s or '60s--it's not clear exactly when--and lived in New York. They raised their kids in New York. They lived in what's now Yorkville. My father was born in New York City. His parents were part of one of the first Reformed congregations in the city. They lived in Queens. [Editor's Note: At this point, the interview becomes inaudible. However, Ms. Rickards tells the story again once the connection is restored.]
SI: I think we had a little trouble getting the last minute or so. There were some problems with the signal. Gill, were you able to hear any of that?
GW: Some of it.
SI: Would it be possible to say that again, talking about your grandfather's and father's family? Yes, we are having a glitch, I think.
DR: Is it better now?
SI: Yes, I can hear you a little better now.
DR: My granddaughter sometimes turns off our wi-fi.
DR: All right.
SI: Gill and I will turn off our video and see if that helps with the bandwidth.
DR: I am just checking to see if the booster is on.
DR: Yes, it is.
SI: Okay. You are a lot clearer to us now.
DR: Oh, really? Good. My granddaughter probably did something to it. She's only two. Are you ready for me to talk?
SI: Yes. Can you go back and tell us a little bit about your father's family? I think we got cut off there.
DR: Sure. My father's family, the people we know who came from Germany, what's present-day Germany, though it was Prussia at the time, immigrated in various ways. My father's father's family immigrated in probably around 1850. We're not really sure, maybe a little bit later than that. Then, my father's mother's family came in the late 1800s. My father's father's family settled in New York City, in Yorkville, and then eventually they moved down into Queens and then onto Long Island. They were involved with the Reform movement, the Jewish Reform movement, in New York. My grandfather owned an electronics store, a radio store, for a while. They had a variety of occupations, but none of them were very educated. My father's mother's family, I think, was a very different kind of class, but I don't know too much about them except that the family went on to be more successful financially. My grandmother died when I teenager. So, I don't know as much about her. You still there?
SI: Yes. It's still a little glitchy. Can you tell us anything you might know about your parents' early lives, such as where they went to school or how World War II affected them?
DR: My mother grew up in Salem and went to Salem High School. She started college but never finished. She met my father when she was sixteen. She had gone to visit an aunt of hers who lived in New York, and my father's family had a summer bungalow nearby. I'll tell you about that. My father grew up in New York City. He went to Bronx Science, I think, for high school, and then went to college. [Editor's Note: The Bronx High School of Science, Bronx Science for short, is a specialized public magnet high school located in the Bronx, New York City.] He graduated college--I think it was Queens College--but he had to accelerate because of the war. He enlisted and became a pilot. He started as a second lieutenant and fought in the Pacific Theater. My parents dated here and there before the war started--she was in Massachusetts and he was in New York, so they saw each other infrequently. During the war, my parents managed to meet up, and they married. She was nineteen, he was twenty-one. They married in Washington, DC, where he was stationed. Then, she moved in with my grandparents on Long Island, in Queens, and lived there. She always had clerical jobs. My father was a physics major in college. He came back from the war and they started a family. They lived in Queens and then moved to Nassau County on Long Island. But he, at some point, went back to night school at Rutgers-Newark, interestingly enough, which I didn't know until I was older, and got an MBA [Master of Business Administration]. With that, he became a systems engineer, which he did for his whole career. He did lots of programming. As part of the systems work, he was one of the first computer people. He was one of the guys--Gill, you wouldn't know this, but [in] 2000--I don't know whether you would know it even, Shaun--but in the year 2000, people were very afraid that computers would crash. [Editor's Note: Y2K, short for the "Year 2000," refers to the computer programming shortcut that was expected to cause widespread problems as the year changed from 1999 to 2000.]
SI: Yes, the Y2K bug.
DR: Right, and my father actually knew COBOL [common business-oriented language]. So, he was interested in helping out with fixing any of the Y2K glitches, but he died in 1997. So, he died as they were recruiting people, and he was one of the people they were recruiting, even though he was seventy-four years old at that point.
DR: It was kind of funny.
SI: I am curious, did he ever talk about his experiences in the Pacific during the war?
DR: He didn't talk a lot about it. He came back from the war seriously affected by it. I have heard from other relatives that he had been fairly congenial--he was always a congenial person, kind of a funny guy, and he came back pretty serious. He didn't talk about it until my husband was interested in it, and he talked about it a little bit with him. He crashed a few times. He flew a bomber and flew many missions. It was a hard time for him in many, many ways. He was just a young guy. They fought their way up through the Pacific. He was eventually in Japan after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it deeply affected him. I know he came back in 1946 through Seattle. That's about all I really know, other than that he would talk a lot about the plane crashes, but the everydayness of it, he just refused to talk about.
SI: That is not unusual. Where were they living when they started the family, out on Long Island?
DR: Yes, they lived with his parents--actually, with an aunt who lived next door--when they had their first child, my oldest sister. Then, they moved to Flushing, which is part of Queens, and lived there until their second child was born. Then, they moved to Roosevelt, Long Island, when I was born in 1955. I think they moved the year I was born. They lived there until 1968, when they moved to Ridgewood, New Jersey.
SI: What are your earliest memories of growing up in that area?
DR: I have a quick question. I thought this was mostly about being at Rutgers. I mean, I'm happy to talk to you about all these things, but I am just curious. You're just trying to get my background?
SI: Yes. We like to get a sense of who you are going into Rutgers and then afterwards, how it affects your career. But also, this is useful information, I think, for looking at your generation in more broad terms. But we can move on to other subjects, if you would like.
DR: No, that's all right. Roosevelt is a really interesting place. I don't know how much you know about that area. Roosevelt is a one-square-mile town. It had been part of the Hempstead Public Schools and set up its own public school system at some point. They had elementary schools as part of the Hempstead system, but they built their own high school sometime in the mid-'50s. The elementary schools would feed into the junior and senior high. That high school, that building, was a real model at the time; it even had a planetarium in it. That's where I went to early elementary school. They had a little wing on it.
Then, this is my memory, it may not be true, but somehow New York State decided to use the town as an experiment in integration because each quarter of the town had its own kind of--profile I guess is the wrong word--a quarter that was a white Jewish quarter, a quarter that was white Catholic, a quarter that was Black, and a quarter that was mixed. So, they decided, since each quarter had their own elementary school and were mixed anyway in the high school, that they could mix this town up. They started this experiment of making each elementary school one or two grades. Children were bused to schools not in their neighborhood. After that was legislated, the real estate people kind of moved in and said, "This is really going to be a bad thing for you. Move out now." This is in the white sections. I lived in the quarter that was mixed. There was a lot of movement of people out of Roosevelt. My family stayed for a fairly long time while that was happening. My mother was affiliated with the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] at that time. But eventually, everything kind of broke down. My father got a job transfer to western New Jersey, and so they moved. It gave them a legitimate reason to move. You can look up about that town. I don't know that much about it. I mean, this is my memory; I was twelve and a half when we moved. But Howard Stern is from that town, and he was part of my mother's and father's friendship group, his family. He talks about it a lot, though not quite so nicely as I did. Anyway, eventually, the town changed quite a bit, but we had moved to North Jersey at that point. For me, we moved to a town that was--go ahead.
SI: Oh, I was just going to ask, when you were growing up there, was it a case where you did not leave your quarter, or was there a lot of free association?
DR: Well, by the time I went through the schools, the schools were all integrated because what they did is they bused kids. They made each school a couple grades. So, they were pretty integrated by the time I [went]. I was young enough, I didn't really think much about it. We were all kind of friendly, and it wasn't really a problem until I got to junior high. Then, there were less and less white people, and it just changed. I don't really know exactly, but I know that things got a little rougher and eventually became pretty rough. That, I know from talking to my friends who were still there.
For me, personally, what happened is we moved to Ridgewood, New Jersey, which was almost the exact opposite in terms of the mix of people--it had been restricted until at least the late '50s, if not the early '60s, and I was only one of six Jews in my high school. That was really bizarre. And there were very few Black kids. It was almost all white, mostly Protestant, some Catholic. I just had never met people like that, pretty wealthy, which was not the case in Roosevelt. Roosevelt was not a wealthy town. So, that was a real shock, a real cultural shock. I think that framed who I am, because I had this wonderful little community that we really loved that sort of fell apart for reasons I didn't fully understand at the time. Then, we moved to this community where people like me were just not welcomed. So, that was a very strange way to grow up. It made me more politically active than I think I might have been normally. I don't really know.
SI: When you say you were not really welcome, are you talking about the restrictive covenants that had been in place, or were there more personal things that you felt?
DR: Oh, restrictive covenants and lots of personal things, absolutely. I mean, blatant things, saying, "We don't want Jews around. You're going to go to hell because you're not baptized." Kids said things like that to me. It was just shocking. I had never met so many blonde people in my whole life, and it was just really a surprise. I mean, that's not to say--there were a number of people who were very welcoming, and it was a really good experience with those people. But I know I had one friend whose mother was extremely religious, and she was really appalled that I was as smart as I was. She could not believe that I could be such a nice child. She kept saying, "I can't believe that you're not a Christian." [laughter]
DR: It was a very strange experience. At one point, there was a thing--this is not funny--but all the Jewish kids were targeted and there were signs posted--people wrote "Dirty Jew" and stuff like that on our lockers. There were some pretty creepy things that happened. It was a strange place and a strange time.
DR: It was right as the Vietnam War protests and stuff were really beginning. I was very much a person who was interested in that. I was fourteen. One of the other weird things that I didn't tell you, Shaun, is that I skipped a grade very early on. Sometimes, I forget about it. When I entered into Ridgewood High School, I was also extremely young. I graduated high school at sixteen, as did my father, but that was because he was part of the Regents Program in New York. So, I was pretty young when all this was happening.
SI: Were you in high school from 1968 to 1972?
DR: '68, I was in junior high, and they had very distinct junior highs. It was seventh, eighth and ninth grade in Ridgewood, two different junior highs, and then we all went into the same high school. High school was '70 to '72.
SI: Okay. Tell us a little bit about the educational side of the school. Did you enjoy it? Was there any area that you gravitated to?
DR: Yes. I very much liked--I had fabulous history teachers. I had a couple of fantastic science teachers and a couple of wonderful English teachers. There were some teachers who were a little more difficult, a couple of math teachers. I had one math teacher, who was a woman, who said, "Girls don't belong in math." One of the weird things that happened in Ridgewood High is that in order for a girl to take physics, you had to have your parents' permission, which I still can't believe. But we had to have our parents' permission, and because of that, out of a class of 650 kids, eight girls took physics.
DR: So, it was really crazy. In order to do any advanced placement in sciences, you had to have taken physics. It was like this weird way of getting the girls out of the sciences. I have no idea whose idea that was. I wanted to be an architect when I was young. I was very interested in designing things, and I was not allowed to take the drafting courses that would have allowed me to pursue anything like that in high school, so I didn't pursue it. Yes, it was a weird time. Gill, we still had to wear skirts to school. The dress codes were really tough. They would sometimes measure your skirt length! It was a fairly conservative community. I remember when we were graduating high school, the girls graduated in long white dresses and the boys wore suits. We were told that we had to wear bras. We were told that the principal, who was a man, would come and check. It's like, "What?" Now, I think, "What were they thinking?"
SI: Yes, wow.
DR: It was crazy. People were crazy; still are, I think, in some ways. Anyway, I had these fabulous history teachers, and they did an interesting thing. There were two male teachers who were absolutely wonderful. They combined English and history, and they made something called American studies. They decided that they would teach the truth to kids. So, I read books and articles in my high school that at Rutgers I was doing as a junior.
SI: Oh, that is interesting.
DR: It was really a good program. Ridgewood High School is well known as being a great high school. I think I got a pretty good education, aside from the really creepy other issues about being a girl and being Jewish. I had lots of friends. It was a good place in many ways.
SI: It sounds like you were pretty aware of what was happening in the nation and the world in terms of issues like the war and civil rights. How would you say you would follow this? Did you discuss it with your parents? Would you follow it in the media?
DR: Well, the media at that time was mostly newspapers, and I did love to read newspapers. I don't remember discussing it a lot. My mother always had a lot of opinions about this, though I don't remember discussing it a lot with her. I remember discussing it a lot with my friends. The boys were looking at the draft and worrying about what would happen to them. Up to a certain point, boys were exempt from the draft, and I don't know when that changed. I know my husband was born in 1953, and he faced the draft. They changed it, so that even college kids were eligible if you had a certain number. I don't remember whether it was …
SI: Yes, the lottery.
DR: Yes, the lottery. It was either a high number or a low number, I forget which one it was, but it was terrifying. We were all concerned, as most of us had no idea why we were fighting this war. My oldest sister was very involved in fighting against the war. Her husband ended up serving briefly and then getting taken out of it for a variety of reasons. It was a hard time, and there were a lot of protests. When I arrived at Rutgers, there were a lot of protests already. [Editor's Note: On December 1, 1969, the U.S. Selective Service held the first Vietnam War draft lottery, which was broadcast live on television and radio. The lottery selected birthdays to determine the order in which men born between 1944 and 1950 were called to report for induction in 1970. The lowest numbers were called first.]
SI: I am curious, did you have the opportunity to go to any kind of protest or any kind of action before coming to college?
DR: Yes, I remember we wore black armbands in high school and I went to several marches.
SI: Okay, you cut out a little bit.
DR: We wore black armbands. I'm cutting out. That's all I really remember.
SI: We talked a little bit about how you were facing this anti-Semitism. Would you say your family was involved in your religion? How did that affect your lives?
DR: Oh, yes. My parents belonged to a synagogue that was located in Ridgewood, interestingly enough. I am still surprised it was there. It was built in a very out-of-the-way place in the town. It was a very small synagogue that got bigger, and my dad was on the board there. They went to synagogue almost every week on Friday evenings. So, yes, I was definitely involved. I was not bat mitzvahed and I started attending less and less. I think the disruption of moving had really changed my involvement with the religion. But I have always identified as Jewish and I still do, even though I don't have an active involvement in the synagogue. My father was very active his whole life, my mother not so much.
SI: Tell us about when you were getting up to the age of looking at colleges. How did your parents or your teachers or even your older siblings affect your decision or influence you?
DR: Well, I had a pretty good transcript. I was in the top five percent of the class, and I had good boards, good SATs. But my parents really didn't really have--I was the third child--they didn't have a lot of money to send me to college at that point. My oldest sister went to Ivy League schools. My middle sister went to Boston University. And they just didn't have a lot of money. So, I looked at state schools. I thought I'd become a teacher at that point, so I was looking for good teaching programs. I applied to a few schools. I believe that I was steered away from Ivies by the guidance people at Ridgewood High, my guess, because I was Jewish, but I'm not a hundred percent sure about that. There was a lot of strange anti-Semitism at the school, which, looking back, I can see more clearly, but I think that's part of it, because I had the grades and the SATs for Ivies. I don't understand exactly why they steered me to where they steered me. But I arrived at Rutgers campus and fell in love with it, frankly. I loved the campus. It was really beautiful. The idea of being in the first class of women was kind of exciting. Remember, I was only fifteen when I started looking at colleges and sixteen when I applied. Anyway, I applied early decision and I got in, so I was pretty happy. I was already accepted by January. I was pretty excited about it. I think Rutgers College was a good place.
SI: Well, before we get into Rutgers, let me see if Gill has any questions from your earlier life.
GH: I do not have anything from your early life. I do have questions prepped on Rutgers, actually.
GH: When you arrived, what was your first impression? How did it actually feel to be one of the first women in Rutgers College?
DR: You mean when I first arrived as a student on campus?
DR: Well, it was a really strange time. I'm going to say it was just weird. What was weird about it is that I think there were 475, including transfer students, out of, I think, six or seven thousand students at the time. Dorms had just been desegregated by [sex]; there were women and men, and I chose to live on a floor with women and men. Is that right? I know what it was. It was one wing was women and one wing was men. Is Tinsley still a [dorm]?
DR: So, I lived in Tinsley, and one wing was women and one wing was men. It was a little strange, a lot of fuss made about it at orientations and stuff like that. Everybody assumed everybody would be having sex, which didn't really happen because you got to know each other almost like brothers and sisters. That was really nice because you got to ask all those questions that people didn't really ask usually. I remember a whole group of us, men and women, discussing periods, which the men really didn't have any knowledge of, which was kind of interesting. It was kind of a funny way for people to begin to understand each other, but it was really great.
There were some really sketchy things that happened, too. There were some professors who were absolutely against having women on campus. In those classes, women would not be called on, or women would be singled out in uncomfortable ways, which did happen to me a couple times. The fraternity system was really scary because there were no sororities, there were only fraternities, and the frat guys were kind of scary. You really had to be careful going over there. There were a couple of women who were really frightened, I'm going to say. I don't know more than that. I, in fact, had a frightening experience, where I ended up having to leave very quickly from a fraternity, which I could take you to, but I don't know the name of.
On the other hand, when I ran for the University Senate, which was my sophomore year, I did go to all the fraternities and they were fine, but it was during the day. It was a different situation than going over there to meet friends or go to a party or something like that. But it was fun in many ways. It just was stressful to constantly be singled out. I didn't expect that. The admissions people had presented Rutgers College as de facto coed because of Douglass, and that absolutely was not true. It was not de facto coed. It was very clearly male and kept that way for a long time, I think even after I left. I don't know. Did they ever change the alma mater? [Editor's Note: The lyrics of the Rutgers alma mater, "On the Banks of the Old Raritan," have been changed several times. In 1989, seventeen years after Rutgers became coed, the phrase "my boys" in the first line of the chorus became "my friends." In 2013, the lyrics were revised again. The first verse now reads: "From far and near we came to Rutgers /And resolved to learn all that we can," instead of: "My father sent me to old Rutgers /And resolv'd that I should be a man" ("On the Banks of the Raritan: Music at Rutgers and New Brunswick," Rutgers University Libraries exhibit, 2013-2014).]
SI: Yes, they did, in the early 2000s or so, I guess.
DR: So, that's twenty-five years later. There were things like that. That was a little thing compared to some stuff, but for the most part, I found it to be a good experience. I made a lot of friends, some of whom I still have. My cousin was also a freshman at Rutgers the same year I was, and so I'd meet him sometimes and that was helpful. Do they still have the Commons? Is it still where you come down those long ramps?
DR: Yes. Okay, so, a woman coming down those long ramps, that was an odd experience, I just have to say, because you were really looked over. You got to look over, too, but it was a bit intimidating. You had to steel yourself against it.
SI: You said it was about 450 or so women?
DR: I think it was 475. I think it was four hundred freshmen and seventy-five transfers is my memory of it, but I may have that wrong.
SI: Did that ratio change much over the four years? Did you get the sense that more women were coming to Rutgers College?
DR: It was limited all through the time I was there, but there were definitely more women when I graduated than when I started. We had a class of fourteen hundred, so we weren't even half of the class; we were just a small portion of our class. I don't know how it changed over time. I'm under the impression that Rutgers eventually became seriously coed, that the ratio became fifty-fifty or less. But I honestly don't know that. I think you need to look that up somewhere else. [Editor's Note: At the time Rutgers College celebrated being coed for twenty-five years, women made up fifty-two percent of the student body. ("'Resolved that I should be a man:' Rutgers College Goes Coed," Gallery '50, Rutgers Special Collections and University Archives, September 26-October 26, 1997).]
SI: Gill, do you have any questions?
GH: Did you notice any difference between the Rutgers women and the Douglass women or the Livingston women? Were you able to talk to people about those experiences?
DR: I only knew a few Douglass women, Gill, and I knew them through the University Senate. Do you folks still have the University Senate? Is that still a thing?
DR: Okay. My friend Melanie Willoughby and I were the first two women--what happened is that in a protest over some policy that I don't really know about, the student government dissolved itself at Rutgers. I don't really know what happened. There was a big thing that happened. It had to do with race. That's all I really know. Anyway, my friend and I decided that since there was no student government, that we would run for University Senate. So, we did, and it was us and two men. Then, there were some women from Douglass, who I knew vaguely but not really, and I don't even remember whether we had representatives from Livingston at the time. I didn't know them, if we did. Livingston had just started, or it was a small thing. I don't remember anybody from Cook, which was its own college at the time. The women from Douglass were not friendly towards us at all.
I remember some of the professors who were involved. We had big meetings and we would go. I did that for a couple of years, and I then decided to stop. I had been in The Targum, explaining some issue, and some man, a Rutgers student, started harassing me. He decided that if he wrote me interesting letters, I would fall in love with him. The Rutgers Police helped track him down eventually, and the case went to court. He stopped harassing me, but because of that I became much more leery about becoming a public figure. That lasted most of my sophomore year in college. Anyway, my senior year, what I did was--Dr. Bloustein was the president of the University at the time, and he had a University Council. He appointed me to that council, and so I did that rather than being an elected person.
SI: Going back to your freshman year, were you involved in any activities that year, or was it only in sophomore year that you started?
DR: Yes. I think the student government must have dissolved my freshman year, and I don't really remember what I did my freshman year. I just don't remember, besides making friends and socializing. For me, educationally, I had been a teaching major, and then that didn't work out. I got sick my freshman year, now that I remember. I had mono, and so was out of classes for a long time. Anyway, I left that major. I became an economics major very briefly, and then I moved to history. That's what I really did my whole time at Rutgers, most of my time, that and art history and art courses. I really don't remember whether I was involved in anything freshman year. I must have been, but I just don't remember the timing.
SI: Did you have to work while you were on campus?
DR: Oh, yes, I did. I forgot about that. Yes, I did. My parents paid for room and board and tuition, which was then only two thousand dollars for a year, which was inexpensive even then. But for any expenses I had, I had to work. So, I got a job and I worked an evening and two days at a local bank in town, Family Savings. I'm sure it doesn't exist anymore. It was right in the middle of New Brunswick, and I used to walk there. I worked Thursday nights, all day Friday, and three-quarters of a day on Saturday. I worked the entire time I was at Rutgers. As a matter of fact, I wasn't able to take some of the prerequisites, because they were offered only on Fridays. I had to take one course my last semester senior year because it was never scheduled on a day when I could take it because of working. So, that paid for all my expenses.
SI: You mentioned there was the fraternity scene. What other extracurricular options were there, or social life options for students, or was it just getting to know people in your dorm?
DR: Well, there was Patti's. I don't know whether Patti's still exists, but it was a pizza place that was two blocks off of College Avenue. That was a great place to go, and I often would go over there with my friends. There were some great concerts at the gymnasium. Bruce Springsteen played there. Don McLean played there. Those are the two I really remember most, because I had friends who came in from other schools to see them. There was basketball; we'd go to the games. That's really what I remember. Lots of sitting around the dorm and talking. I'm trying to remember, I think you could drink at eighteen when I was still in [college]. That doesn't sound right, but I know I was able to drink once I was a junior because I remember getting drinks at a bar. I don't remember tons about my social life at school. My friends and I would just meet in rooms and talk. I didn't go to parties at the fraternities after my one bad experience. I only went to a few football games that I remember. The stadium was gorgeous, the old Rutgers Stadium that they had. I don't remember a lot about that. I'm sorry. [Editor's Note: In New Jersey, the legal drinking age was eighteen between 1973 and 1983.]
SI: No, that is fine.
DR: I always had a boyfriend. Virtually from the time I landed at Rutgers until I left Rutgers, I almost always had a boyfriend, sequentially. [laughter]
SI: Were you involved in Hillel or anything like that?
DR: No, I was not.
SI: Gill, do you have a question?
GH: Where did you live after your first year? Did you stay in dorms, or did you go downtown?
DR: I stayed in the dorms. I lived in Tinsley for two years, and then I went to Demarest for a year. I loved Demarest. That was a great time. Then, I moved off campus to a place about three-quarters of a mile from campus. It was called Brookside Apartments, and I'd walk back and forth.
GH: How did you feel about New Brunswick in general? Was there anything that made you feel unsafe, especially if you were walking that far at night or anything?
DR: You were supposed to be very careful in certain areas. I had to walk home every Thursday night from downtown New Brunswick. I remember that it was supposed to be bad, but I don't remember ever encountering anything that was bad. There were certain areas you would avoid, I guess, but I don't really remember that being a problem. I mean, living in New York was way worse after I graduated. I don't remember New Brunswick being that bad. Now, you have to remember, I grew up in communities that were a little shaky, except for Ridgewood. So, I was used to that. As a woman, you always have to be cautious, Gill. There was always that piece of it.
SI: Well, let's shift over to the academic side for a moment. Do any of the professors that you had stand out in your memory?
DR: Oh, sure, absolutely. I had this really flamboyant art teacher named Billie--I don't remember his last name. Oh, it's funny. I really need to find out the name. There's an art teacher, who I also had, who wrote the textbook we used, and he was phenomenal, but I don't remember his name. My senior year, I did an independent study with Michael Adas, I think his name was, A-D-A-S. [Editor's Note: The art history professors being referred above are Bill Pritchard and Matthew Baigell.]
SI: Yes, an history professor.
DR: In my senior year, I did independent study work. I think it was under the aegis of the Rutgers Scholar Program. I did that work with Michael Adas, who was an inspiration to me. The work I did with him taught me so much about research and how history was constructed.
There was a professor who was this incredibly flamboyant person--he was head of the History Department at the time. I think his name started with a J.
SI: It wasn't Warren Susman?
DR: Warren Susman. It was Warren Susman. You're exactly right. Man, he was crazy, and he was a great teacher. He was tough on women in his classes. There were only a few, I think there were only three women history majors when I was there, so it was really kind of shocking to be singled out. Gene Bishop was the dean of the college at the time. I think Richard McCormick was head of the college, and they were both lovely to me, especially Dr. Bishop. He was really an important figure for me when I was at Rutgers, and helped me out. I had an incident when I was harassed by a professor. The way that was handled at the time was that Dr. Bishop got me out of the class. You notice the professor was not dealt with; it was me who got out of the class, yes, but that was how things were handled at the time. It was a very different time. Anyway, he did help me. He was a very, very kind and courtly man. I remember having many encounters with him that were very positive, and Dr. McCormick as well. [Editor’s Note: G. Reginald Bishop, a long-time Rutgers professor and administrator, served as Acting Dean of Rutgers College in 1974. Richard P. McCormick held the post of Dean of Rutgers College from 1974 to 1977.]
SI: I would imagine that most of those were through the University Senate and your work there.
DR: Yes. I think I took a course with Dr. McCormick, but I don't really remember him as a teacher. Who I remember as a teacher is Dr. Susman and Dr. Adas, and this very flamboyant art teacher whose name is escaping me. I think he called himself Dr. Billie. I just don't remember.
DR: The art teacher who taught the survey courses was phenomenal. I can picture him, but I don't remember his name. He did write the [textbook]; I'm looking because I think I have the book up [there], but I may not any longer. He was really good. He was a professor of American art history.
SI: We can try looking him up and putting him in later. Turning to the University Senate, what motivated you to do that? What was it like running at that time?
DR: What motivated me to do that? I don't really know. I always put myself forward for things like that. I had lots of ideas, and I was interested in how things run. I wanted to be politically active and saw that as a good way to achieve that goal. For example, I live in a condo, and I'm part of the HOA [homeowners association] board. I've always been interested in making sure that my voice is heard in subtle ways. So, I ran for it. I don't really remember why. I ran alongside Melanie, who you may be interviewing or probably interviewing.
SI: Yes, my colleague interviewed her.
DR: Yes, she's an amazing person. I ran a really good advertising campaign, and I think that's how I got elected. I've always been good at that. Melanie, I think, knew three thousand people personally, and they voted for her! It was a great experience for me. I learned a lot about how the University worked. [Editor's Note: Melanie Willoughby, RC '76, also served as the president of the Rutgers College Student Government Association, the first woman elected to the position.]
GH: What types of things did you try to focus on while you were in the Senate?
DR: I know that I was very involved with redoing how the academic system worked. I don't remember what it was before, but the group that I was working with came up with the idea that every student would have a major and a minor and what was called a "mini." I don't think you're still doing that.
DR: But that was what we did. We put that system in place, and it was a great system while it worked, I think--I don't know. But it was really interesting being part of that process. That's what I remember about my time doing all of that. I really don't remember what else we addressed. The students weren't given much of a voice on the University Senate. It was mostly faculty. I mean, we were there, I think, in an advising capacity. It's possible we may have had a vote, but it was the only student government at Rutgers at that time. It wasn't until my junior year or maybe even my senior year that student government was regrouped and reconvened. Because of that, we got asked a lot of questions about things that students needed--we were the student representatives of Rutgers College. I really don't remember exactly what we were asked to do.
SI: Would you say that the faculty members in the Senate, along with other factions in the Senate, were open to listening to you or welcomed your thoughts, or were some dismissive?
DR: I don't remember that. I remember people being welcoming. That's really all I remember. I don't remember people being particularly dismissive of us. When I served on the President's Advisory Council, which is where we redid the academic thing, they were very welcoming to listening to students' experiences.
SI: Now, coming in as part of this pioneering class of women, Rutgers is still dealing with a lot of issues and inequities regarding race and even maybe some vestiges of anti-Semitism. Did you see any aspects of that when you were there?
DR: Yes. There was a big protest that happened. I think it was my sophomore year maybe, it might have been my freshman year, where the Black basketball students walked out. There was some big thing that happened. I remember that. I don't remember exactly what the issues were at the time. As far as anti-Semitism went, yes, there was definitely some. The art professor who I loved so much, he claimed he had a grading system where women and Black people--he was Black himself--would get either an "A" or a "B," that he guaranteed us that in the class, which seems crazy to me now. But he viewed it as his way of holding the line against all the racial problems at the school. Yes, there was definitely a lot. I think for me, at Rutgers, most of the issues that came up were because I was a woman rather than because I was Jewish. At Rutgers, there was a much larger Jewish population at the school than I had ever been a part of since I had moved to New Jersey. So, it was kind of refreshing for me to move to a place where there actually were Jews around. But the big problems I encountered were because of being a woman.
GH: Did you have a lot of women faculty? I know, in general, there weren't a lot at the time, but did you have any specifically that you remember?
DR: I don't remember having any women faculty.
DR: There must have been someone, maybe, but I don't remember having anybody. Going back through my head, I don't remember having any women faculty at all, because the women I know who mentored me were after college. Yes, I don't remember having any, Gill. There probably were some there. You know what? Wait a minute. I took a women's history class, which was really fantastic, but I don't remember who taught it. My guess is that was taught by a woman. The readings in that class really awakened a lot of things in me. I still have some of the books, oddly enough.
SI: Can you describe a little bit of that for us? What changed in your thinking as a result?
DR: I learned about things. I learned about Margaret Sanger and her work; I didn't know that birth control had been so restrictive up to a certain point. I just didn't know anything about it. There was a whole part where we learned about the Grimké Sisters, who were very involved in social work, I think the beginning of social work, and getting women's rights to vote. So, there was a lot of women's history that just hadn't been explored in my history classes in high school, that just weren't mentioned. So, that was an eye-opener for me.
SI: You mentioned getting asked to go on this presidential council. First, I want to ask, what did you think of Bloustein in general and with your interactions with him?
DR: I didn't have tons of interactions with him. I remember his house. I remember being [there], because we used to meet sometimes at his home in the Heights. I don't really remember him well. I remember Dr. McCormick and Dr. Bishop much better, but I can picture him. I can hear his voice, but I didn't have tons of interaction with him.
SI: How many people were on this university council roughly?
DR: I don't remember. I think it was called the President's Advisory Council, and I know there were only two students, me and a guy. I don't remember where he was from. Maybe there were more than that, but it wasn't a lot of students, and there were a lot of professors. It was probably about twenty people, twenty-five people maybe.
SI: Were there other issues besides the curriculum issue that you dealt with there?
DR: That's all I remember was the curricular issue. It was only a year that I was a part of it.
SI: I know that Susman was part of the effort to try to revamp the curriculum. Was he involved a lot in that?
DR: Yes, he was on that council.
SI: Was it more a factor of trying to figure out that you should have so many of this type of class and this type of class, or was it getting into subject areas?
DR: It was the idea that people should be exposed to things outside of their own course of study and that that was really important. Up until that point, there were distribution requirements. You had to have PE [physical education] and language. It was six different things that you had to have, and I don't know how else to explain it, but that was what it was. The new idea was that you took a major. The minor had to be in contrast to it. It could not be a related field, and then the mini, which was also from a different area. I think that the mini was only a few courses. The minor was four or six courses maybe. Maybe it was more than that, I don't remember, and then there was your major. I don't really remember how it worked, but the idea was to get away from--when I came to college, some colleges were still requiring things like deportment. When my older sister, who was five years ahead of me in college, started college, they still had teas for the women. There may have been stuff like that at Douglass. But this was going to change things university-wide, not just for Rutgers College. It was not Rutgers College alone that was affected by this.
SI: Yes. I know the Douglass faculty and deans tried to keep up these traditions for a very long time, but I was wondering if there were any traditions that they tried to create or keep up on the Rutgers College side when you were there?
DR: Not that I know of. I can't think of any. I think the women were just slotted into what had been going on with the men.
SI: Were there any traditions in general, not necessarily related to gender, that you recall?
DR: I really can't. The only thing I remember is walking through Queens to be graduated. The graduation was always held right in the quad [Voorhees Mall], the main grassy area there, and you would walk through Queens with the bell tolling, as you would go down to the area where you would be graduating. I don't remember any other--I'm trying to remember. I can't think of anything.
SI: Let me see if Gill has any questions.
GH: I just have a silly question. I was doing some internet research just on college life in the '70s, and one website decided that every single person had a Peanuts poster in their dorm. Do you know anything about why that was such a big deal?
DR: I don't know anything about Peanuts posters in the dorms, and we didn't have anything like that. I mean, none of my roommates or I had anything like that, and I don't remember seeing stuff like that. I don't know anything about that, Gill. [laughter] I think that's a huge generalization that's anecdotal and probably not true. I did not encounter that at all. We had lots of posters.
We didn't have phones, Gill. The phones were down the hall, and there was a phone booth. People would get phone calls, like you see in the movies. They'd say, "Deb, it's for you. It's your mom," stuff like that. You had to pay to have a phone put into your room, and it was expensive. Some people did and some people didn't, but we all used the phone booths, which was kind of funny.
The other thing was that when we entered Rutgers, they hadn't really thought anything through, so there were gang showers for all the women, and they very quickly had to get shower curtains. They put up these wild shower curtains, so that women could have some privacy. That was a little crazy. In my second year, we lived room by room coed, which was actually a wonderful experience. But they had to make adaptations pretty fast. I mean, there were no ladies' rooms on some of the floors in the academic buildings. Nobody had thought about that. But that was just part of being a woman. When I started working, you sometimes would have to take an elevator to a different floor to go to a ladies' room. It was a very different time.
SI: I am curious, did you have any dealings, other than the normal dealings, with preceptors, resident advisors, people involved in directing students?
DR: I had good relationships with my RAs and preceptors. I got to be friendly with a TA [teaching assistant] who was in my dorm at one point, but that's all I really remember. I don't really remember a lot about those people.
SI: They were not trying to be overly involved or overly protective of anyone?
DR: Not that I remember.
SI: During the summers, what would you do?
DR: I worked every summer. I always had summer jobs. Eventually, I think my senior year, I started temping instead of working at the bank. I often would work temporary positions over the summer, filling in. I could operate--you see them in the movies--the switchboards, where you use the plugs.
SI: Oh, yes.
DR: I knew how to do that. I had been taught that early on at one of my jobs. That technology was waning. To have the ability to do that as a temporary was great, because you could go into a business and run their switchboard while they gave their normal switchboard operator some time off. So, I did a lot of that. I could type, and that was always a marketable skill. At the time, there were typing pools, so being able to type was a good thing. I always worked.
SI: You mentioned the bands that would come and perform at Rutgers. Do any speakers stand out? I know there were a lot of people speaking on politics or social issues.
DR: I can't remember. I have a memory of a couple things, but I just don't remember who they were.
SI: You mentioned how women were singled out in different ways. Do you remember other examples, maybe not things you experienced yourself, but that you would hear about or that you saw happening in classes or elsewhere?
DR: I really don't remember a lot about it. It was just the kinds of things I already described to you. My own experience with harassment, that was really scary because, at the time, I was eighteen, and this was a professor. I'd go to his office hours, and he'd touch me in really uncomfortable ways and say really weird things. When you're young, I don't know whether this is true for you, Gill, but you don't really understand what this adult is doing, and they have some power, so it becomes scary. I think it would be very different encountering it now, but that was a little scary. But I really don't remember.
SI: That's okay.
DR: It was a long time ago.
SI: Does anything else stand out about your time at Rutgers that we have not asked about?
DR: I think the rest of the stuff is about friendships and things like that, which were very valuable to me and important to me. I'm trying to remember some of the things.
SI: You mentioned on the survey that there would be protests for issues related to women. Do any of those protests stand out?
DR: No, I can't think of anything. That really was later in my life. I got more involved in the women's movement as I got older and definitely was involved in some protests.
SI: Before coming to Rutgers, in high school, maybe even earlier, had you been reading some of the feminist classics like Gloria Steinem's works and Betty Friedan?
DR: No, but I do know that I can remember people making fun of me in high school for being a feminist, though I don't think that was the word that they used. I don't remember doing those readings until I was older, which is interesting, considering that I was telling you about this wonderful history teacher because, clearly, he did not have us do those readings. Nevertheless, it was the beginning of the big feminist movement, [which] started really in the late '60s. When I went to college, I didn't expect to graduate college without being engaged. I knew I was going to want to work, but I never saw my work as being primary. By the time I left college, only four years later, I knew I would work my whole life, and I was not as worried about being married. So, there was a real, for me, anyway, a real cultural shift in those four years.
SI: Were you looking at graduate school at the end? Did you take some time off in between?
DR: No, I didn't have enough money. I went right to working. Because of my experience at a bank, I was able to use the Rutgers Recruitment Office, where people would come to recruit Rutgers graduates, and I got a job as a management trainee at one of the big banks in New York. I worked there and then moved into marketing within that bank. Then, I worked for advertising agencies or banks, all in bank marketing, until I was in my mid-thirties, when I left to get a graduate degree in teaching and went back to my first career that I wanted to be in, and then was a teacher for most of the rest of my life.
SI: Did you move to New York right away?
DR: I went home and saved money. I moved back in with my parents for about seven or eight months, and then I moved to Brooklyn, which at the time was cheap. [laughter] I know it sounds funny. I lived in Park Slope, and it was kind of sketchy, the part of Park Slope that I lived in, which is now so astronomically expensive. I mean, my boyfriend's cars were stolen from outside my home, and I was mugged twice. It was not what Brooklyn is now, but I loved it. I lived there for a while until I had a bad breakup with someone, and I moved to Philadelphia to be near some friends from Rutgers who lived down here. I met my husband five days after I moved to Philadelphia, so I've stayed ever since.
SI: Working in these kinds of more corporate environments, did you find that women were pigeonholed in particular jobs, or was it difficult to break into new areas?
DR: Absolutely, constantly. I had a couple of women who were wonderful and really helpful along the way. I remember at twenty-two, I headed a task force that was revamping the checking products of the bank I was working for at the time. I was two years out of college at that point. When I walked into the room, sometimes people would burst out laughing. One of my friends on the committee told me that I had been late once, and somebody said I was making my way there by Eighth Avenue, which is where the prostitutes were at the time, that kind of stuff. I went to this woman, who was senior to me, and I said to her, "I don't know what to do about this." She said, "If you were a twenty-two-year-old man, nobody would notice you." She said, "What you have to do is use the fact that they're noticing you in your favor and just keep using it." That was great advice. It stood me in pretty good stead. But I encountered a lot of prejudice.
When I was pregnant with my oldest child, I was a vice president of the bank at that time down here in Philadelphia, and a friend, a good friend, took me aside, a man, and said, "You have a great career in front of you. If you continue this pregnancy, it will not be that career. So, you need to make a decision." I was pretty shocked. My son was really a wanted baby, and we had planned it. But for somebody to do something like that was really outrageous--and he was my friend. He was giving me that advice because he knew that it would have an impact, which it did. I think young women still are encountering things like that, maybe less. I was right behind the first group of women who were integrating into these things. Maybe I was even part of that first group of women, but it was hard. There were times it was just really, really hard.
I was talking to some friends last night. I went to a bank marketing conference in Atlanta at some point. There were a thousand attendees, and out of that thousand attendees, I think there were six or seven women who were part of the group. There were a lot of other women there, but they were wives. They had dancing girls to open the meeting, I mean, scantily-clad dancing girls. I can't tell you how many times I'd be in a meeting, and somebody would open it with a really dirty joke or a rape joke. There were things you just had to sit through. But I did the best I could and stayed with it for a pretty long time until I decided it just wasn't worth it anymore. Teaching has its own ways of putting women in certain positions. I mean, if you look at education, most of the people who are in administrations in schools are male, which is amazing since it's a mostly female career area.
SI: That was in the early '90s when you left banking and advertising and went to UPenn?
DR: In 1989, when I was pregnant with my second child, I was caught in one of the big bank mergers. All of the women who were pregnant were laid off, but because there were five hundred people laid off at the same time, I was not able to challenge it as prejudicial to pregnant women (I did look into that). When I thought about going back to bank marketing, I realized that I had these two little boys, and I was in this career that really didn't suit me well. I thought if I was going to give them permission to do what they wanted to do, I needed to do what I wanted to do. So, I went back to school and became a teacher. It's a little bit longer a decision point than that, but I became a teacher and had an amazing career and just loved what I did. It was the right choice. I chose happiness over money because when I retired from teaching, I still was not making, in absolute dollars--not in 1990 dollars--but in absolute dollars, I was making less than I made when I left banking. That was hard on my family, as I had been the principal wage earner before changing careers. I'm going to have to go very soon.
SI: Sure. We can wrap up here and maybe have a brief follow up at a later date.
SI: For today, thank you very much. I really appreciate all your time and your candor. Gill, do you have anything else you want to ask for this session?
GH: No, not right now. It was really fun getting to talk to you and hearing your experiences.
DR: Yes. If you have any other questions, just let me know, and you can always email me. That's an easy way to do that.
SI: All right. Let me stop the recording.
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Reviewed by Molly A. Graham 6/20/2022
Reviewed by Kathryn Tracy Rizzi 6/27/2022
Reviewed by Debby Rickards 4/26/2023