Interview with Ruth Timm
EMS: Let’s start off with some basic things: When did you first come to Vassar? What was your position when you first arrived? And why did you decide to come to Vassar?
RT: I came in 1944 as Fitness Instructor in Physical Education, and I think I was a little old for that at that time, because I had worked before – not as a physical educator- and I had gone back to school to get prepared for physical education, and I had gone to Smith for that. And this was one of several jobs offered me, and I took it. My home at that time was in Yonkers, so I wasn’t too far away from home.
I wasn’t the youngest in the department; I was rather old to be beginning, I was almost 30 at that time, and my job was to do what we called the Four Fs. And the Four Fs were people who were limited in what they could do in activity. The Four F was derived from what they were then using in the Armed Services; this was a World War II program [for individuals] that were limited in what they could do, as far as activities were concerned.
Swimming at Vassar, 1951
EMS: What did the Four Fs stand for?
RT: I have no idea! (Laughs) That was the term we used in the Services for fellows who were not able to join, you were before then just pushed aside. So we just picked up that term and used it. They didn’t attend regular classes, and had special work assigned to them.
Class included exercises that were designed to help correct whatever the difficulty was, or if they were post-operative or something like that, there were limited activities that were made up for just that particular case. We did the work for girls with postural scoliosis [curvature of the spine], and post-operative would be limited exercises. Also people with very poor posture for posture correction. That was just about learning how to stand up straight, really. (Laughs)
EMS: So, was that like what you see in the movies, where the girls have to walk with books balanced on their heads?
RT: No, we never did anything like that; it was really just my hollering at them (Laughs).
Dance at Vassar, 1951
EMS: Today, the term “physical education” conjures up images of dodge ball and other such games, but I understand that it was a lot different then than it is now. Could you talk about that a bit?
RT: They were required then to take physical education; every student had to take it. And if there was something wrong with them, they ended up in one of my classes. They had a two year requirement, and they had to pass a swimming test to graduate. I don’t know of anyone ever – my time or any other – who didn’t graduate because of that. (Laughs)
EMS: How was the department organized?
RT: There was a Chairman who was appointed by the president of the college, and the one we had when I started was a graduate of Vassar and had taken up physical education when she finished. The professors’ training [included] some specialty in sports, anatomy, and chemistry. It wasn’t just going out and playing games. And in our department all had art’s degrees or science degrees, with physical education as a specialty on the side line.
EMS: When they conducted classes, were there written assignments?
RT: Well, there were written tests, usually. There was one basic course they called Fundamentals, that everybody took, that was a requirement, and then they took up a sport, if they so wished. And special classes, in Fundamentals, were given to people with very poor posture. We took posture pictures of side and back views, people get the idea that we took a frontal view, and we never did. Those pictures were kept through the requirement of two years, and then they were burned under supervision over at the furnaces in the powerhouse. Every year when this was being done, there was always this story that pictures had been (laughs) stolen by Yale, and were being distributed all over the place (laughs). Well, that was false (laughs). But it was a story that went on always. And there some pictures that were revived by Mrs. Daniels, and the Special Librarian, and were kept on file, I think, in Fran Fergusson’s office.
EMS: How did the introduction of co-education change the department?
RT: When the men, the first group came from Trinity, from Hartford, and that was really just a handful of men, and think they were only difficult ones. And then when the whole group came, they would have to get in on what we had going, because this came on, well, rather fast. There were some things they could do right away anyway: dance - and that was real popular, quite a few men chose dance - swimming, tennis, badminton, I think those were the first things that were already existing that they could go into.
Men's rugby at Vassar, 1982
EMS: Were there things that were already existing that they weren’t allowed to go into?
RT: Well, they wouldn’t want to (laughs). They didn’t have any [exclusively] men exercise classes, but these other classes they could fit into easily. And they did.
EMS: So there was always integration, then, of the men and the women?
RT: Mm-hmm. There was one male instructor during my time there...actually, towards the end there were two, and they taught mixed classes, never all male or all female.
EMS: And what about the posture pictures? Is that when those ended?
RT: No, men took those, too. The men wore trunks, and they had their pictures taken.
EMS: When did all the changes occur so that, for example, physical education is no longer a requirement? And swimming is no longer a requirement?
RT: No, no, there’s no requirement anymore, and that’s been so since I left, and I left in ’78. But they do still get credit for whatever physical education they do take.
EMS: About what time did team sports and intercollegiate competition emerge?
RT: A little tiny bit of it when the men first came, but it wasn’t very serious. Classes ended by 4:30pm, and it was after that that they had team practices and team play, but they were house teams, and interclass teams – no intercollegiates. Field hockey was very popular, and they played with some teams so the girls who were hockey pros did get to play some good hockey. But that was true of all the five women’s colleges then, but that broke down when the men came in.
EMS: Did you ever feel that there was any resentment towards the men when they came?
RT: I never personally felt it. And when they first started talking about the men coming, the majority of girls thought it was great. But there were some who didn’t.
Women's field hockey, 1982
EMS: Just out of curiosity, when the men came was there ever a discussion of starting a football team?
RT: They played touch football, but it was nothing really. And they have something like frisbee. And Vassar always had a very good women’s rugby team. Do you know Kenyon [Hall] at all? I don’t know too much about what has changed, but there were bowling allies; professional bowling allies, down in the basement. The new dance studios used to be a swimming pool – a very good swimming pool.
EMS: I also understand that you were the first faculty member to live in Ferry House, is that correct?
RT: Oh, no, I wasn’t the first, I was the second. Mrs. Buckhold was the first, and she got married, and I moved in, and loved it. I had a very nice apartment on the first floor, and the girls did absolutely everything: the cooking and the buying, and managed the books, cleaning. There were 28 students who were all cleared by the Warden, by personal interviews, and the Warden was really a social dean. Girls who had never met before were roomed together, and everyone got along really well. And I had a dog, which I kept in the house, and which was popular. In fact, yesterday I had a birthday, and there were three of the girls from Ferry back in the ‘50s who came for it. And I hear for all of them really, all the time. I enjoyed the co-op house. I had lived in Jewett as head resident for 9 years before that, and that was a chore (laughs).
They always had an interesting group in [Ferry]. Always some international students, so we had exotic dinners sometimes, and there were always very edible (laughs). We used to have good parties there. In Jewett we had parties in which the students were urged to invite their professors, which they did, and they were very successful. Back then we had cider, today you’d probably call in a big keg (laughs).
When I first came to the college I had a room and bath in Kenyon, but I never got to live in it because there was an overflow. The college had, during the war, had some accelerated classes so girls could graduate in a year and a half, and there were a few left over when I came. A few had one semester to finish off, and they lived in one of the faculty houses along Raymond Ave, I think there were 10 or 12 of them, and I was asked to live there for the first semester and then the girls would be gone, so I was there through December. Then I went into Jewett because the head resident there was getting buried. So I stayed in Jewett for nine years, and that was a chore.
EMS: Why was it such a chore?
RT: Well, there were hundreds of girls in that house! (Laughs) And then we had late permissions: if you were out later than 10pm, you had to have special permission, and you had to sign out as to when you leaving, and where you were going, and when you were coming back. And if you weren’t back, the resident had to go looking for you, and eight floors were a little bit to climb because the elevators wasn’t running then.
EMS: You just went searching through Jewett for truant girls?
RT: Yes! Right! (Laughs) That’s right, we did. Most of the time it was that they were home but they had forgotten to sign in. But it was one awfully good way to meet dates. When they signed in or out, they usually brought their date along, so you got to know them fairly well. And I lived on campus until I retired.
EMS: Wow. You must have really enjoyed living with students, then.
RT: Well, yeah, I did. I got to know to the students, and I always had good helpers, congenial helpers. But sometimes it really took a lot of time, you had to write reports on everybody and there were over 100 students.
EMS: Were they specific reports? Stuff like, how often were they late?
RT: Yeah. Were they good girls (laughs), or were they not good girls. It was just time consuming, it wasn’t difficult. But Jewett was the longest residency I had. I think I moved about four times trying to find a place that was quiet (laughs). But they were very good years, I enjoyed them. There were some difficult times, but they came and went.
EMS: Do you have a fondest memory of your time at Vassar?
RT: No, I think all of them were very nice memories. I do remember there was one storm that was predicted, it was going to be very bad, and when I lived in Ferry, it has a lot of glass, so they moved us out over into the President’s House for one night, and the dog and I had the president’s bedroom, President Taylor. And that was big time sleeping in his bed.
We used to have our own fire department [made up of] male faculty, and our own fire truck. I don’t know where that’s gone (laughs).
EMS: One final question: You’ve worked with a number of Vassar presidents, so, who was your favorite?
RT: Well, I’d rather not say (laughs). Well, I’ve always liked Ms. [Sarah] Blanding, and of course, Fran Fergusson.
EMS: Thank you so much for speaking with me today; it’s been wonderful.
Interview with Ruth Timm, November 19, 2007.