S. Riane Harper ’09 interviewed Professor Emeritus of Mathematics Winifred Asprey on July 30, 2007
SRH: Ms. Asprey, thank you for agreeing to speak with me about your work and your career in teaching. I know that you were raised in Iowa and that you graduated from Vassar in 1938. Tell me a little about your time as an undergraduate at Vassar.
WA: Well, I came from Iowa, and both my mother and grandmother went to Vassar. My grandmother died before I knew her, but my mother filled me with tales of Vassar. My mother was in the Class of 1905. My grandmother graduated in 1882. I was brought up on Vassar.
I lived in Main the first year I was here with three girls. We became very good friends and had a very nice time with that. In my second year we went over to Cushing, and there’s where I spent the next two years. Then Vassar had a system where all the seniors went over to Main their last year in hopes of getting the class to act as one, so we went back over to Main. None of us, as I can recall, had any violent reactions to that. Cushing was nice. Cushing had mainly singles, and a single pleased me very much because then I could schedule my own time. I wasn’t any kind of athlete at all. There were only eight of us that were math majors. Well, the college was half the size that it is now—less than half. No class that I can remember except Art 105 had more than 15 students. It was gorgeous. With a math faculty with just eight majors, we were very well taken care of and got to know each other very well. Math still doesn’t have that many majors—well, with the computer department they have many more, and with men.
One of the things I’d fight all the time with when the men first started coming in—I liked them, I had brothers, it seemed very natural—but they were coming back from World War II, and they came proud of themselves, as they should be, and they also came thinking no woman would be any good at science. They were shocked beyond belief because they found out that not only was it science, it was theoretical science, so you had to think through the logic of a theorem. Oh those poor boys, they came thinking they were going to be first in everything. I remember a faculty meeting: the discussion came up about what we should do about grading—most of them were straight back from the war field and some not very bright to begin with, certainly not by Vassar standards. The question came up, “should we grade them on a different scale?” The answer was, “No,” because if we did and a student went from here with a B average and they did D work at a respected school, the respected school wasn’t going to respect Vassar. So we graded them right along with the women, and it was sad. Some were okay, some are still around now—they went to work for IBM. When we have reunions for the classes of that time, I’m usually invited because I’ve been here for so long. They usually have some of the veterans of that time come back for reunion, and we all know each other.
SRH: When you were here as a student, did you have a favorite teacher?
WA: I had about seven of them. I had one unfavorite teacher, in English. The last semester I ever took of English was in my freshman year. Fortunately I had a good vocabulary and my English grammar was fine, but she and I did not agree in the least. I was scared to death anyway: it was freshman year, and I had to keep up my academic record. I had a regional scholarship given me. Tuition, room and board was only $800 a semester, and I had a scholarship from Iowa for $700, but poor Mother and Dad had to scrape together the rest—it was the Depression. They’d tried to be far-sighted, and when the First World War was on they’d purchased war bonds, and those were supposed to take all three of us through school. Well, in the twenties that was a lovely idea. In the thirties, during the depression, it was a horrible idea. But Mother would hear nothing but that I would go to Vassar, and I was delighted. Scared but delighted
I graduated from high school at age 16, and so Mother got in correspondence with Vassar and they told her that they thought it would be a very good idea if they could send me to some kind of prep school and be away from home. I wasn’t the homesick type. My mother wouldn’t have allowed homesickness. I remember her saying, “After all, you know perfectly well that your father and I adore you and love you. It’s not going to hurt you to be away from us for a few weeks.” And it was true; I never did feel homesick, though I did look forward to coming home.
SRH: Was Grace Hopper a teacher when you were here?
WA: Yes she was, but I didn’t know her my first two years at all. The courses I took were standard. The first course I took at Vassar was Trigonometry, the next one was Analytic Geometry, and then your second year you started calculus. You can imagine the attention we had because the faculty was all superb mathematicians. Grace Hopper was the young one, and she had just gotten her PhD from Yale. She taught Mechanical Drawing and things she loved. The department was very formal, the way you addressed a person. Classes were small, you knew each other well, but we were very formal. It was a different atmosphere. Miss Wells, who headed the department, called me Winifred three times through my college career, and I can tell you every time she did it. Very much fun, all the things we did. I liked almost all my classes except for English. I’m sure I was pig-headed about it; I never took another English course.
SRH: You eventually taught at the Girls Latin School in Chicago. How did you end up there?
WA: The Brearley School, where I was a student assistant in New York after Vassar, would only let you stay two years and then sent you out to get a regular job. So I spent two years in Chicago. My family lived out in Iowa, and I enjoyed seeing them every summer. I guess that was the only reason I went into teaching. A woman named Millicent Macintosh was the headmistress of the school in New York; she’s very famous, and later on became a trustee of Vassar and also became president of Barnard College in New York. She was a dear, an absolute dear, and she took very good care of the student assistants at Brearley. She put them with the very best teachers and really saw to it that they had a chance to see what was going on.
I had been to public school all my life, except for a short time, and it really was terribly funny to be at this school in New York. It was very solemn, six stories high, a beautiful school, students entered only on examination and they were as bright as our Vassar students, sometimes brighter, and that was all fun to see. In the morning you came in and went to a homeroom. The homeroom I was assigned to was with the eleventh grade teacher.
‘Tim’ Asprey at the blackboard
The students came in each morning, shook hands with the teacher, and then, to my absolute astonishment, they curtsied! I don’t think I’d ever seen a curtsy before in my life, except in a book. In Iowa we never curtsied. Nobody had ever curtsied to me before. I was entranced. Then when you went into a class, no student was to sit down until you told them to be seated. When class was over, it was an absolute sin for any student to rustle their papers together in a “class-is-almost-over” kind of thing. You had to wait until they said, “You’re excused.” They had rigid rules. They were marvelous, no misbehaving there.
They were daughters of the very famous people—screen and science, everything else—it was a liberal education, and the parents would send tickets that they weren’t using to the theater or to the opera or something over for those of us to use who might be free enough to do it. It was really something. I still have some of my very good student friends from there.
SRH: And then you went from there to the Chicago Girls Latin School?
WA: Yes, and that was a place where they gave you presents. They’d invite you out to dinner with their families and then the opera or one of the plays that were going on. Totally different atmosphere. One time we were out in the reception area in Chicago, and many of the full-time teachers had come from the Girls Latin School in Boston. We’d conduct a spelling contest, and the teachers had very strong Boston accents. One time, one of the teachers looked at this little seventh grader and said “fawty.” The girl just looked at her. She repeated it to her three times, but the girl couldn’t understand. So finally she turned to me and said, “Miss Asprey, pronounce it for her.” I said, “forty,” and “Oh, forty,” said the student. They’d take you out, the families would take you out, you’d go out on picnics all over the place and the chauffer would follow behind with all the food you’d be eating. Oh, I loved it.
SRH: You were there how many years?
WA: Two years.
SRH: And then you came here?
WA: Nope, they didn’t want me here. I had a Master’s degree almost at the time, not my PhD. But I liked being out by Chicago and near my family. I still wasn’t anywhere near home, home was the other side of Iowa, but Chicago was nearer than New York. I loved teaching eighth, ninth, up through twelfth grade. The students were old enough so you could have conversations with them and old enough to make sense, and they were very kind to you, those of us who were teaching there. It was just a fun kind of thing. There were ups and downs, but I was lucky, I had a whole bunch of nice ones.
But you had to devise things. I was teaching eighth grade from time to time, but mainly ninth grade, and whoever put together eighth and ninth grade math, they killed off all the math majors of the next century. It’s dull, just dull. What do children want to know about three ways of doing percentage and things like that? They don’t. They don’t. But I found a way around that. I arranged races. They got a little noisy, as teachers next door told me, but I would divide them into two sections and one section did work at the blackboard and the other did work at their seat. Whichever won got a point, and at the end of this great noisy race the winners got to leave out one problem on homework. You wouldn’t think that would have caused such a riot, but it did. Three of the students from there came to Vassar.
SRH: Did you teach them when you were here too?
WA: Yes, they came after I got my PhD. After I got my PhD I came back here to Vassar. They invited me the year before, but I said I didn’t want to until I got my PhD because it’s too hard to learn teaching and being on the faculty. Then, when I came back, I had every advantage in the world because so much of the faculty knew me and I knew them, so I got a head start.
SRH: Had you always wanted to come back to Vassar?
WA: No, I didn’t. I should say not. I thought I’d go to Alaska; it would give me a chance to travel. Well, that was doomed from the start. So my mother said to me, “You’ve tried teaching a secondary school, why don’t you try college?” and I said, “Well if I do, I have to get an advanced degree,” so she said, “Okay, go right ahead and get it.”
‘I thought I’d go to Alaska; it would give me a chance to travel.’
So I landed at the University of Iowa, which meant I was closer to home, but not close. I had a good time there, and then my mother again said, “Why don’t you try teaching some college courses?” So I did, and that’s how I ended up here. It’s amazing how a little suggestion or something minor happens, and it changes your whole life. I liked it because I had summer vacations.
SRH: So after college, you spent two years in New York, two years in Chicago, and then started teaching college students?
WA: It was one of the biggest helps in the world because when I started teaching college freshmen, I was skilled at it because I’d known them as sophomores, juniors, seniors in high school. We immediately became friends, protecting each other. It was a wise, wise decision. I think beginning college teachers ought to teach the higher high school classes for practice or something. The freshmen in college when they come in look absolutely assured, like they know what they’re doing, but underneath that assurance is not there. They’re not at all sure that this is the right thing.
SRH: When did you meet Grace Hopper?
WA: I didn’t meet Grace Hopper until I was almost a junior, and then the first class I took of hers I got to know who she was and what she was. Something just clicked, I don’t know what, and we became not only friends, but I called her almost immediately junior year by her first name. At that time you did not call a member of the faculty by her first name. I think it was because she was the youngest in the department, and she had gone through the same thing not many years before. She helped me out in many ways. She taught me how to write a book review in economics, for instance. We were good friends, but when I left Vassar I didn’t expect to see her again. As life had it, I’ve seen her a great deal. We’ve written letters back and forth.
SRH: Well, I know Admiral Hopper was one of the people who got you into bringing the computers to Vassar.
WA: She was indeed. I was Chairman of the Math Department by this time, and I had her private telephone number, otherwise you couldn’t get through to her. I’d been correcting papers in the evening and all of a sudden I thought, “Why don’t I call Grace and talk to her?” So I called her, and immediately got an answer, “Where have you been,” and so forth. We talked about computers and she said, “Well, why don’t you come down and visit me for a weekend, and I’ll show you what they are and what they do.” Well, that was a marvelous offer because I’d never had a look at them. I knew about them from the teachers in the department, who knew no more about them than I did. Later I became friends with people at IBM and learned about them there. I went down to see Grace, and boy, oh boy, she was in her Navy costume, and she was as strict as can be. There were some slang phrase at the time that she couldn’t stand. She had this little bank on her desk, and every time one of her underslaves in the Navy said this word, they had to deposit 25 cents. She was a character. Of course, the ones in the Navy under her were scared to death of her. They never could understand how I could go up and talk to her. One person down there asked, “Where did you get to know Admiral Hopper?” and I said, “Well I was lucky enough to have her as a teacher,” and she said, “Well, she’s so stand-off with all of us.” I said, “Yes, well, it’s the rule of the Navy. It’s nothing you’re doing.”
It astounded people that we were friends. It didn’t astound me till much later, and then the thing that astounded me was that people were astounded by our friendship. I have some letters from her upstairs. When I retired she wrote me a lovely letter. She said, “You can’t retire before I do.” She was so practical about things she did, what you should do to get things under control. Most of her students themselves were in awe of her, I think. She was a very good teacher. She spoke rapidly, but, as she told me once, “You say the same thing three times, and by the third time they’ll think they heard it.”
SRH: Vassar was pretty much on the cutting edge of computers because of you, wasn’t it?
WA: Vassar led the computer race among the liberal arts colleges. I’m not talking about the universities, the ones that had a graduate school. They, of course, were ahead. I became friends with IBM and talked them into taking me on for a year. That was the first time I ever saw a computer up close. I became friends with the IBMers. Up to that point, you never saw an IBMer on campus. They weren’t allowed on and they weren’t allowed to use the library because otherwise they’d fill it up so fast. And dating was unheard of. Well, I started the dating with these very nice men and women, and I played bridge with the IBMers and just got started knowing IBM, and it’s worked out very very well.
SRH: The first computer here was an IBM computer, right?
WA: Yes, IBM essentially gave it to us with the help of the government and a few helpers outside. And of course, I asked Grace’s advice every step.
SRH: Did you think of bringing the computer here on your own?
WA: It was just one of those things that the minute Grace and I got together… In the phone call with Grace that night, I said, “What do you think about Vassar getting into computers,” and I never forgot her answer, she said, “I’ve been waiting for you to wake up.” It’s the way she talked to you too. She spared no thoughts of your feelings; she was just so dynamic about everything she was doing.
SRH: Would you say you started the first liberal arts computer science program?
WA: Well, places like Dartmouth with graduate schools had it. I certainly did among colleges like Vassar, and the type of the computer we got—we got the best on the market. This was all trustee doing.
SRH: Did coeducation change anything about your program?
WA: When the young men joined, they became fun too. A lot of the faculty didn’t like them, but I liked them. And I loved the fact that the women stood up so brilliantly against them. The men, as I told you, had some trouble because they hadn’t been studying, but it was terribly nice to see. It worries me now that the men tend to take over the math and science. Usually the women mathematicians are very good, and they get their Phi Beta Kappas and honors. Vassar students have the great advantage of getting the department to know them so well and getting them to help them. I have a great admiration for the math department and the computer science department. The computer science department has grown in the last year.
SRH: Are you still involved in the computer science department now?
WA: Oh, you bet.
SRH: I’ve heard some people thought it was a bad idea to bring computers to Vassar.
WA: Oh, most certainly. The only reason that it had the reception it did was from my friends, and they didn’t dare not welcome it. But then it began to come slowly around and now everyone wants a computer and computer facility.
Winifred Asprey and the IBM 360, 1967
It’s a good department now, and it will rise. I retired in 1982, so I keep up as much as I can, and certainly with what the department is doing, but I don’t vote so I don’t have to run home and read memos. I’m friends with all of them and I keep up with what goes on.
SRH: What do you think about the Internet?
WA: It’s a very exciting thing. And so is your instrument here [an iPod]. I think it’s very exciting that there’s scarcely a freshman who doesn’t come in with something like this. No longer do we give courses in Fortran and BASIC and things like that.
SRH: You used to teach languages like those to faculty and staff, right?
WA: The only reason I had anyone to teach was that they were friends of mine and didn’t dare say no. They thought they wanted to learn, but once they saw what they were learning, they weren’t so sure. But they were very proud of the fact that they’d gone through an original course. And I had some good people from IBM who worked with them too. It’s all been an experiment – an experiment that has worked out beautifully. It got Vassar right up there in the forefront.
SRH: You were here during the Vassar-Yale Study. What did you think about all of that?
WA: I thought it was interesting when it first started, and of course the students were overwhelmed by the thought of going to Yale. They thought it would be marvelous, and they would get all those dates and so on. In the study, they sent delegates from each department up to Yale to see what the departments would offer and so forth. The math department was nasty; they didn’t want any women, and here Vassar was all women at that point. There were four of us, all full professors. Finally they agreed that we’d keep our full professorships, but we would teach the freshmen. I thought that was a break for the freshmen, but still it was a very unpleasant thought. I thought the Vassar name would be gone in three years —it would just melt in and you wouldn’t hear of Vassar again. I wasn’t a bit enthusiastic. Many of the faculty were—they thought this was a good way to get things up to speed. Then bit by bit by bit they began to change and they realized that Yale was not going to be a welcoming place at all and was that what we really wanted? After the whole fight was over, the statement went round campus, “Well for the last three or four years, absolutely nothing has happened at Vassar except Tim (my nickname) got her computer and Donald [Pearson] got his organ in the Chapel.”
SRH: What did you think of the decision to go coed?
WA: I wasn’t wildly excited because I knew it would change the place. I thoroughly liked the things Fran [Fergusson] did in her regime. I think she kept the place really alive and everybody adored her.
SRH: Were there a lot of men in your classes after 1969?
WA: Well we had a number, not anywhere near the number of women. The first thing I noticed was that the men were trying to take over and show that they knew more than the women about any subject such as men should know about, but I had taught enough years I could calm that down. Some of my greatest friends now that I’ve retired and come around regularly are my old male students.
SRH: Changing topics a little, tell me a bit about your family.
WA: I had two brothers. Both of them were in World War II. One of them couldn’t be active because of his eyesight and flat feet, which I always loved, but he was a very brilliant chemist and worked at Los Alamos and had one of the three top positions. The government in Washington decided his salary for the work that he did on a special chemical there. We were not quite two years apart and grew up doing things together. You certainly wouldn’t want to live the way he lived at Los Alamos. And my other brother has become a world-known military historian. He’s written about fifteen books, mostly about wars, and World War I is one of his favorite topics. I think all his books are in the Vassar Library. His most successful book, War in the Shadows, is very popular in Poland right now, who knows why. He lives in Florida and neither of us can travel, but I talk to him on the phone every night. It’s interesting when you start thinking of past things that happened, what you’ve done, all of a sudden you remember things out of the depths that made it such fun.
SRH: Do you have anything else you’d want people to know?
WA: Well you asked about teaching in Chicago, so you might like to know that after I retired from Vassar I went over for four different periods of six months and taught in a university in Madrid. It was a branch of Washington University in St. Louis, and was headed by a priest who was the funniest man I’d ever met. He and I became great friends. I’m not Catholic, but that didn’t bother him a bit. He had been living for 25 years in Madrid and he knew every spot—every restaurant, everything else. We went out together all the time. It was just one of those things that comes around by chance.
‘Tim’ in retirement
He came over and stayed with me here and met some of my friends. He conducted the only Catholic Masses in English in all of Madrid, so his church was crowded on Sundays. Afterwards they had some kind of general meeting, and he asked me sometimes to speak at the general meeting, so I did.
He loved to eat and so did I. He was marvelous because I could ask him any question I felt like about Catholicism and he’d answer. If you were Catholic I’m sure you wouldn’t dare ask the questions I asked—I’m sure it was a break in etiquette. He certainly introduced me to places where I never would have gone. And then I had a young friend whose class I went into as a beginners’ class, he was teaching Spanish. He was 25 when I first got to know him. He took me to places outside Madrid for Sunday journeys and stuff. It was terribly nice having these people. Ray, the priest, would have gone out to dinner every night I think. He had a bunch of friends who loved to feed him too, so of necessity they had to feed me. It was an experience the like of which I had never had before. I’ve always found that fun, doing things you didn’t know existed.
SRH: Well thank you very much for talking with me. It’s been really fun.
WA: Thank you.