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The group:  their 50 year friendship was formed in BC's first coed class.  But it was forged by life

Photograph of "the group" today


What a motley crew we were . . . and are for that matter. Friends for over 40 years. We met as day students at Boston College, members of the first coeducational class to be admitted. By sophomore year we had emerged as a particular group. We called ourselves "Now and Then." Back in the Fifties coeds were still called girls, and girls cancelled everything for a date. We all understood and that's why we could get together now and then. It's hard to imagine now.

–Beverly Ross Metcalf '56

I never met Beverly Metcalf. A few years ago, however, I read an essay she wrote that began with the paragraph above. I called her and so began a telephone correspondence that, however slender, felt much like friendship. Beverly had graduated from Boston College's School of Education in 1956--in the first class to admit women--and her essay was a tribute to her old friends, the Now and Then group. Since college, the group's number has thinned; cancer has taken a toll, and Beverly died January 1, 2000, of emphysema. But 13 of the original 17 remain, meeting as they have from the start, now and then. They allowed me to join them last December when they got together for dinner at the Newton, Massachusetts, Holiday Inn where they've been meeting for years, outlasting several of the restaurant's reincarnations. Arriving late, I had no trouble identifying their table: their laughter gave them away.

In a neat bit of symbolism, the Newton Holiday Inn lies smack at the intersection of Route 128, the beltway linking the suburban towns in which most of the group now live, with Route 30--Commonwealth Avenue--which runs straight to the campus where they met nearly a half century ago. Among the 110 young women handpicked as BC's first coeds, the girls who would become Now and Then arrived on the Chestnut Hill campus September 22, 1952, driven by parents or taking the trolley from Boston's in-town neighborhoods and surrounding towns: Dorchester, Hyde Park, Brookline, Roslindale, Cambridge, Lynn, Belmont. They were real Boston girls, most of them from Irish Catholic families with a smattering of German and Italian and French ancestors in the mix. They were not the kind to go to Seven Sisters schools, and it's hard to picture a budding Communist or atheist among them. The "Universal Skeptics" was the name they gave their peers at Radcliffe.

Although BC's existing schools of social work and nursing were already training women, those programs were based downtown. The new School of Education was truly coeducational, with male and female students taking the same classes and receiving the same degrees. To accommodate the women, BC had created a ladies' lounge and a locker room downstairs in the college's flagship building, Gasson Hall, where almost all of their classes were taught. "We were cloistered in Gasson," jokes one of the Now and Then members, "the Jesuits did not want coeds roaming the campus."

The arrival of women on the hitherto all-male campus was big news. "Coeds invade BC; decide men are nice," trumpeted the front page of the Boston Daily Globe. Several Now and Then members recall things differently, however. At lunchtime on the first day, when the girls ventured into the Lyons Hall cafeteria, male students began hammering out a fussilade with salt and pepper cellars on the refectory tables.

The Jesuits called the boys on the carpet, but that couldn't erase the discomfort. "Coming into the cafeteria each day," faced with 900 unwelcoming men, "you sought out a familiar face fast," says Now and Then member Jean Riley Roche. At 18 Jean Riley was a knockout ("skinny as a rail and white socks up to here!" says one of the group, vamping a leg). She had the advantage of carpooling to school with several other girls from Belmont, so she had a ready group of lunch partners, which formed one germ of Now and Then. Plus, over the summer she'd met Janet Ohrenberger (now McCarthy), who lived across town in Dorchester; their fathers had introduced them. Then, says Jean, "you knew the girls you sat next to in class." Education students were assigned to sections, and "all of the girls in the Now and Then club were in either Section Four or Five," she recalls. "They sat us alphabetically: Ohrenberger, Regolino, Riley, Ross . . ."--all Now and Then members. Jean recognized Beverly Ross--Beverly Metcalf--from "coasting" at Brigham's soda fountain while in high school.

Born of alphabetical happenstance and the need for moral support, the Now and Then group blossomed in the women's lounge in the basement of Gasson. "Singing was the hook," says Nancy O'Hara Regan. Louise Burke played the ukelele and the others sang, with Connie Regolino harmonizing. Once the boys had accepted their presence on campus--the freshmen and sophomores came around quickly, the upperclassmen more begrudgingly--the girls invaded for real, insinuating themselves into every activity they could. "If we didn't find something," says Connie, "we created it." They performed in variety shows. They decorated floats. Since cheerleading was an all-male purview, the girls donned football uniforms and poured out onto the fields to cheer. "I remember dancing the Charleston to 'I Want to Be a Football Hero,'" says Nancy Regan, not a little wistfully.

Their first get-together away from campus was at Joan Carroll's house in Hyde Park. The girls played dominoes and Joan's brother jumped out of a casket (the Carrolls ran a funeral parlor). After that the group went to New York City for the St. Patrick's Day parade and stayed at the Barbizon Hotel for Women (without the dean's permission, which had several of them worried they'd be expelled). Junior year, 10 of them drove to Daytona Beach for spring break. One disappeared with the mayor's son--at church. The girls met some boys from Wake Forest who got themselves arrested; Louise Burke and Mary Lou Sheehan raised bail money. "I was always drawn to troublemakers," Louise says with a shrug.

The School of Education required that its coeds dress modestly, as they would need to when teaching. That meant full skirts and nylons; sweaters were allowed only with a blouse underneath. "We had to wear deodorant! Can you believe there was a rule about that?" laughs Joan Carroll Donovan. Massachusetts required two years of physical education and BC had no athletic facilities for the women, so they trotted up Commonwealth Avenue to take gym at a nearby girls' school; in even the hottest weather they were required to wear long coats over their skimpy gym suits.

"We were not to drape ourselves about and seduce men," Jean Roche said over dinner at the Holiday Inn, hoisting a shoulder and draping herself about. But among the Now and Then group, several admit that meeting men was a high priority. Louise Burke, who dated her high-school sweetheart and now husband, Dick Toland '56, all through college, took a pragmatic approach: "I'd line the football players up on the field and match them up one by one with girls."

The academic and professional ambitions of the Now and Then group seem to have been both fostered and limited by the Irish-American culture in which most of them were raised. "For me it really was teach or work in the five-and-dime," says Nancy Regan. Her mother, a widow, had supported four children by teaching. "My father had graduated from BC," Nancy says, "and my brother. My mother said, 'Why don't you try BC?'" At their pre-Christmas dinner, the group thrilled to this theme, seemingly unanimous that their only career options had been teaching, nursing, or making change at Woolworth's.

Later Connie Regolino, the lone Italian-American in the group, telephoned me to voice her disagreement: "My parents thought I'd go into business. I thought I'd go to law school. I chose BC for the Jesuit education," not the teaching degree, she says. But once she started student teaching "it was all over"--she fell in love with the classroom.

"After graduation we scattered around the country," wrote Beverly. "Within three years all but three of us were married. Our new lives ran the gamut from starving graduate students to wives of 'moving up the ladder' businessmen." Initially they all taught. Having promised her parents she'd go to graduate school, Connie received her master's degree in education in 1960, from BC. Miss Regolino, as she was known in the Newton schools, taught for 37 years, turning down all opportunities to advance her career in administration. "I wanted to be with the kids," she says. "If I were going to be an administrator, I'd go into business." Janet Ohrenberger McCarthy taught first grade--"it's like ironing a handkerchief," she says--and still substitutes on occasion. Louise Toland found her home not in the classroom but in special ed, working one-on-one with the troublemakers she always loved. "She's our advocate," says Joan Donovan.

Joan was the first to become pregnant, which meant the first to quit teaching. Although Massachusetts permitted married women to teach in the late 1950s, pregnancy was still taboo in the classroom. "I only lasted two years," she says with a laugh. Joan had two daughters, 11 months apart, and when she came out of anesthesia after her second childbirth, she learned that her uterus had ruptured, requiring a hysterectomy. "It took me two years to recover from that surgery," she says. "I was lonely. Depressed. I was raising two babies. I was exhausted. So I started writing to Beverly."

"Just as every family has its historian, every group must have a Joan," Beverly wrote. "She is the one who always knew where and how everyone was. We would disintegrate without her." A short woman with cropped gray-brown hair, a quick tongue, and a contagious laugh, Joan runs the group's emotional switchboard. It is she who starts the chain of phone calls from friend to friend, lining up dinner dates, rallying the group when someone is in trouble.

It was at midlife, Beverly observed, that the women who had never married came to the fore, teaching their newly single friends the ropes of household finance. "There was never any sense of competition or envy."

Despite Joan's efforts, the harried years of raising young children and the frightening ones of trying to safeguard teenagers in the 1970s took their toll on the group. Busy with careers and families, the friends fell out of touch. But all that changed the day before Christmas, 1982, when Beverly called Joan to say that her son, Teddy, 20, had killed himself. The word went out, and Christmas preparations took a backseat. That afternoon the group coalesced in Beverly's kitchen as if not a minute had passed. They've been meeting ever since.

"We never shared the same social circle," wrote Beverly. "Occasionally we would have dinner and some of us skied together but as couples we were never part of the same crowd. Our husbands' career paths didn't cross. Now and Then was and is 'the girls from BC.' It was a women's support group long before the name was coined."

To mark their 50th birthdays, the women spent a weekend at Waterville Valley ski resort and took stock, Beverly reported: "By that time three of us were divorced. Cancer had made its first appearance, as had Sudden Infant Death, various degrees of depression, losses, career disappointments--in short we had all been part of the human condition but we kept on laughing, loving, and accepting [one another]." It was at midlife, she observed, that the women who had never married came to the fore, teaching their newly single friends the ropes of household finance. "There was never any sense of competition or envy," she wrote.

The Waterville Valley weekend led to another, in the Berkshires, where Joan Nobis Toner and her husband had opened a bed-and-breakfast. This time husbands were invited, which was a first. "The men had a better time than we did," Jean Roche says. Nancy Regan pronounced the weekend "a bonding experience."

Inspired, Elaine Evans Bresnahan invited the group (just women this time) to her house in Arizona for a February vacation. Eleven of them came, with Anna Wall Oda flying in from Hawaii. The group rented three cars and drove all over Tucson, Scottsdale, Sedona, rotating passengers to mix themselves up each trip. They played golf. They shopped. They sat by Elaine's pool. "It was talk therapy," says Jean Roche. "Just to talk!" She sighs melodramatically. "I'm the kind of person who when things get bad needs to talk. When something is bothering me, I need everybody's opinion. My husband goes to sleep," she adds dryly.

Beverly, housebound with emphysema, was unable to attend, but she sent a stack of essays she'd written and the group decided to end each day with a reading. "It was our time with Bev," says Connie, who was chosen to read aloud. "Well, I read one the first night, and we just had to keep going."

One morning in March the group gathered at Joan Donovan's kitchen. Two weeks earlier Connie Regolino's younger sister, Anne '75, had died. Born in Now and Then's freshman year, Anne had suffered from congenital heart troubles, and Connie, who lived alone with her sister after their parents died, was bereft. The group had been planning another Holiday Inn get-together, but Joan understood Connie "might need to cry in the bright of day," as Connie put it, without a bunch of strangers gawking.

"This is what we do," said Joan that morning, spooning green olives out of a jar. Janet and Nancy arrived early, as did Kathie Gosselin Wingsted and Denise McCabe Thompson, who drove in together from Cape Cod, where they both now live. Denise carried a pot of clam chowder, and when asked if she'd made it herself, her face froze momentarily. "I was thinking about lying," she said with a little smile.

Kathie, who hadn't been in Joan's house in years, poked around the house volubly, oohing and aahing over new pink velveteen swags in the dining room windows. "Those are from Building 19 and 3/4," Joan called out from the kitchen, naming a local salvage store.

When Connie arrived, each friend waited to hold her in turn. They talked a bit about the wake, the funeral, the flowers. Then they moved into the dining room, where Joan had set the table with linens and crystal--and the aqua-rimmed china that had been all the rage when they were setting up housekeeping in the late 1950s. "Oooh, I remember that china!" they chorused.

"Have you seen Joan's mink coat?" needled Janet. "They had to have the house air-conditioned so she could wear it."

Beverly Metcalf's essay about the Now and Then group ends with a story they all treasure. Late one night, in the nearly empty Holiday Inn dining room, they were making their usual racket, laughing and talking over one another, when the waitress appeared with an announcement. Two men in the corner wanted to buy them dessert; one, a recent widower, said his wife would have loved their spirit.

"You just know how much they really like one another," says Beverly's daughter, Clare Fox Ringwall. Now in her forties, a mother of young children and a teacher herself, Claire keeps in touch with her mother's old friends. They rallied around her when Beverly died last year. "They will drop anything for one another," Clare says. She contrasts them with the characters in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which was on best-seller lists a few years back. The book is about a group of Southern Catholic women, of the same generation, who were very funny and very down-to-earth, and in some ways very much like the Now and Then group. But Clare finds a key difference, and I agree: "the Ya-Yas were about spacing out," she says. They cracked jokes and drank gin and ignored their kids. "Now and Then," says Clare, "is about being there."

What may most distinguish Now and Then is their refusal to judge. This is not to say that there is uniformity of opinion among them. They're an outspoken group and differ widely both socially and politically. "Joan and my mother would be on opposite sides of the protests outside Preterm," says Clare, naming a Boston abortion clinic. "Joan's a real right-to-lifer and my mother was pro-choice. But my mother always respected her. Joan put her money where her mouth was; she adopted two children and she was always helping out unwed mothers."

Similarly, Louise Toland, a practicing Catholic, describes long and heated discussions with Beverly about confession, divorce, faith. "My parents left the Church slamming the doors behind them," Clare says. Joan left the Catholic Church, too, but to join an evangelical Protestant church after being born again. Her efforts to proselytize fell flat among her old friends, who jokingly recall her "babbling in tongues." But they say that fondly.

"There's safety in that group," says Jean Roche. "My mother always said you're lucky if you have one good friend, and when I was young I told her I had lots. She said, 'No, a real good friend accepts you in the good times and in the bad times and doesn't judge you ever.' Now I know she was right."

Clare Ringwall and I talked about this for a long time on the phone one morning, comparing the quality of the Now and Then group's friendship to those we see among our peers. We are from a harsher generation, I think. Too many of us cherish the illusion that we exercise control over our unruly lives. Perhaps, having made such deliberate choices to hold down careers, or to stay at home with our kids, or to try to manage both, we are defensive about those choices. Secretly many of us long for the greener grass we imagine in our neighbors' yards. And in our defensiveness, rather than throwing up our hands and laughing in solidarity, we too often judge.

"I'm sure Now and Then means different things to each of us," wrote Beverly. "But I'd bet the rent money that if you asked each of us what she most remembers from our times together the answer would be the same as mine, 'We laugh.' We laugh at ourselves and at each other; we laugh at this crazy, terrifying, arbitrary world we live in: this absurdity we call life."

When I last touched base with the Now and Then group, they were planning a trip to Cape Cod.

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is a freelance writer in Westwood, Massachusetts. Her article on Boston College geologist James W. Skehan, SJ, appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of BCM.

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