Golden years

MSU alumna reflect on five-plus decades of friendship as Spartans

About once a year, Clinton Township, Mich., resident Mary Gay Jolly receives a packet of letters.

Without even looking at the address, she knows exactly who it’s from. Rather than tearing it out of the mailbox and pillaging through its contents, she finds herself a quiet corner with a glass of wine and a place to prop her feet; then, and only then, will she begin to read about the lives of her seven closest friends.

Jolly met the women while living in Gilchrist Hall as a freshman at MSU in 1955, and the eight have maintained their friendship for more than 50 years. After living thousands of miles apart, six of the eight women, who now are in their mid-70s, returned to MSU on Oct. 5 for what will be their last reunion because of conflicts with travel.

James Ristau / The State News
MSU Historical Archives / Courtesy Photo

“We thought … it would be very cool to end where we began,” Jolly said. “It’s like we picked up where we left off; it’s like we were together all the time.”

The women began holding reunions every two to three years in the ‘90s. Aside from their various encounters, their primary source of contact is their letters.

“You write your letter, and you put it in (the envelope), and it goes around to everybody,” MSU alumna Deanne Tomsic said. “When it comes back to you, you take your old letter out, read the rest (and) put a new letter in.”

Tomsic said although they call and email each other occasionally, they’ve found the letters to be the most enjoyable way to keep their friendship strong.

“This letter has kept us in touch through all these years, through babies and husbands and exes and deaths and everything,”
she said.

Where it all began
Initially, five of the women met in the fall of 1955 living in Gilchrist Hall. Jolly and Edwards, Colo., resident Terry Wahl decided on MSU despite previous plans to attend Western Michigan University.

“I was all set to go (to Western), and I came to visit a friend of mine from home,” Wahl said. “She and I were walking the campus one night, and it was snowing, and it was so beautiful. I thought, ‘I don’t want to go to Western; I want to go here.’”

Rochester Hills, Mich., resident Barbara Dickinson said she overlooked her family’s wishes to send her to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and came straight to MSU.

“I had six lady friends who came here, and six who went to that other school in Ann Arbor,” Dickinson joked. “I was one of the six who came here, and I’ve never been sorry.”

The five met and became close within a matter of weeks; Mary Erickson, who now lives in Burt Lake, Mich., followed suit in 1956 and fit right in.

“I was from Lansing, so I grew up knowing the Michigan State campus,” Erickson said. “The diversity of being on a large campus was exciting.”

House rules
While living in the dorms, Jolly said the girls had to abide by a strict set of rules regarding everything from how they dressed to how they greeted other students.

The most pressing matter, Jolly said, was a strict 10 p.m. curfew on school nights.

“For every minute you were late, you got one late minute,” she said. “If you accumulated 15, you were campused, and you couldn’t go out of your room for the weekend except to eat.”

Wahl said the strictness brought the girls closer, if nothing else, by inspiring them to cause trouble.

“One thing (that made us close) was having to be in the dorm at a certain time,” she said. “We still were not ready to go to bed for the night and we would get together and we would talk.”

The two most crucial rules, Tomsic said, could get students expelled — no booze and no boys.

She learned the hard way when a fraternity brother came up to her room to accompany her to a Halloween party.

“No men were allowed in the dorms, not even your father,” she said. “I had to go before the student board; I almost got kicked out of school because of those guys.”

Although it came with sacrifices, Jolly said nothing outweighed the validation of being out on her own.

“You kind of thought you were independent, even though we had all of these rules,” she said. “You felt freedom.”

Spartans for life
At the time, Jolly said, it was not common for women to attend college. As an MSU alumna, she said she hopes MSU students will appreciate their time in college.

“When we graduated high school, we had about three choices: you could be a nurse, a secretary or a teacher,” she said. “You just hope that young people understand how important education is, and I think it’s ongoing your whole life.”

Scott Westerman, executive director of the MSU Alumni Association, said the closest friendships are built outside of the classroom.

“Spartan friends are amazing because you can not see them (for years) and pick up right where you left off,” he said. “For a lot of these folks, (MSU) was their first time being far away from home, and their college friends were the first time they experienced diversity outside of the small towns they lived in.”

In the end, Wahl said it is crucial to make close bonds in college and keep them for the future.

“The most important thing is to make friends,” she said. “Other things may change, but friends are forever.”

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