The Last Dance


For members of the Radcliffe Class of 1943, the Real World arrived much sooner than expected.

As spectators and participants, Radcliffe women of the time watched as the Great Depression of their childhood gave way to the horrors of World War II, as both male and female friends joined the services and as the work force, at least temporarily, offered women new opportunities and new expectations.

From the time of their arrival in September 1939, as Hitler rolled over Poland, to Radcliffe President Ada L. Comstock's 1943 Commencement announcement that Radcliffe students would thereafter attend Harvard classes, the world--and Radcliffe--changed dramatically.

"We were the last of the dinosaurs," says Eleanor Doermann Larrabee. "It was really sort of nineteenth-century there--its attitude about how one should behave in public, how one should be shepherded, and many Harvard professors didn't want to teach at Radcliffe. I wished the place would enter the twentieth century."

But as Harvard men left for overseas duty, as Radcliffe women joined the services and as the standard maid service began to disappear, it became clear that even the Ivory Tower was not immune to the turbulence of the times.


Lillian Kasparian Derderian still clearly remembers the fear she felt when news of Pearl Harbor broke.

"It was just pandemonium," she says. "We were in the biology labs. The men came running into where we were, and we were all wondering what to do, whether we should leave college. It was very traumatic."

Like many of her classmates, Derderian chose to "accelerate" and graduate in three years by studying straight through summer, in order to pursue marriage, national service, or wartime careers. By graduating a year early, however, Derderian left behind the friends from her entering class.

"Whatever joy was going to be was kind of taken away," she says. "Some of us were '43, some were '44. It was important to have the umbrella called Radcliffe."

Class Reunion Committee Chair Ruth Bocholtz Helman recalls the words of President Comstock urging students to continue their education despite the bombing.

"Pearl Harbor was sort of a watershed in our experience, because things changed in our junior year. People accelerated out of our class, and people married boyfriends who were going overseas," Helman says. "It was an uncertain time."

Ella Jane Van Horn Hagenbuch still wonders about the choices she faced during the war. While at Radcliffe, she participated in a secret government program for coding and de-coding messages. But when she asked to leave Radcliffe with her best friend and join the Red Cross in Europe, her father refused to let her go.

Hagenbuch's friend went alone and died in Paris, asphyxiated by fumes from her stove. "I wonder if I had gone, if I would have remembered to open the window," Hagenbuch says.

But even Hagenbuch looks back to Radcliffe as "the best time of all."

"I think the best part of Radcliffe was really the professors and the stimulation they gave you for learning more," she says. "We'd get talking, and we all had different ideas. It was exhausting, but it was fun."