Stories

O Pioneers!

by Scott Brown

Freshman women
Crossing the Rubicon in autumn ’61: Toni
Amsel Rossi, Muffy Regan Bui, Suzanna
Russell Hanselaar, and Kathy Doherty
Paredes.
When Santa Clara opened its doors to women to enroll as undergraduates in 1961, it made headlines across the nation. The women who soon arrived on the Mission campus needed courage and humor. And as life lessons soon taught them, they needed each other.

At 8:30 p.m. on March 21, 1961, Santa Clara’s admissions office received a telegram from alumnus and regent James O’Malley ’34 of Phoenix. The message was concerning his daughter.

President of the University of Santa Clara, Congratulations. Please accept Martha Patricia O’Malley’s application for first co-ed.

That very evening, President Patrick Donohoe, S.J., had decreed the University would break its century-old practice and admit women in the fall, making it California’s first coeducational Catholic university. The next day, Santa Clara’s student newspaper published a special edition with a 60-point headline that screamed “TRADITION SHATTERED.”

A copy of the student newspaper was sent to the O’Malley household, and Patty was rushed to the offices of the Arizona Republic, where she posed with the headline blazing over her shoulder. The photo was picked up by the wires, beckoning a group of women who would pioneer a new era at Santa Clara.

“A great benefit to the Church”

Donohoe’s proclamation was a seminal event. But the attention it garnered has tended to overshadow the earlier steps that made coeducation a reality.

When it was founded in 1851, Santa Clara was—like most colleges—an all-male institution. The vast majority of Catholic and private institutions remained committed to single-sex education well into the 20th century. True, women appeared on campus for social events and as employees in the 1930s, but it was World War II that ushered in the first significant change, when Santa Clara opened courses in engineering, science, and management to women. To put that in perspective, the wartime shortage of teachers also led Harvard to first admit Radcliffe women. Notre Dame would not go coed until 1972.

At post-war Santa Clara, women were admitted to the business school’s evening program. And the first married student housing went up on campus to accommodate returning veterans and their families.

What drew national media attention, though, was when President Herman J. Hauck, S.J., announced in fall 1956 that student nurses from neighboring O’Connor Hospital would enroll at Santa Clara as non-matriculating students the following year. Some faculty and administrators had been pushing for years to have Santa Clara admit women as undergrads. Hauck was on record as supporting it; Academic Vice President Joseph C. Diebels, S.J., lauded coeducation as “a great benefit to the Church.” And in the fall of ’57, two dozen student nurses arrived on the Santa Clara campus for their first classes—which included physics, biology, philosophy, and religion.

Without quite the same fanfare, Santa Clara’s law school had gone coed in 1956. The business school enrolled women into its graduate program in 1958. That same year, Patrick Donohoe, S.J., took the helm as president of Santa Clara.

While attitudes were shifting in favor of coeducation, and while a contingent of Santa Clara alumni saw its clear benefits, there were other concerns as well—concerns that had less to do with what Santa Clara wanted than with not stepping on the toes of nearby Catholic colleges for women. By order of Jesuit Superior General John B. Janssens, S.J., before Santa Clara or any other Jesuit college for men began admitting women, it first had to obtain permission from the local bishop. Donohoe set out to obtain exactly that. He offered two basic reasons to San Francisco Archbishop John J. Mitty: economic and moral.

In a nutshell, the College of Arts and Sciences lacked a sufficient number of students to make its wide array of programs financially viable, let alone build new programs to meet the needs of a changing world. “A mixed university is a much more accurate mirror of life,” Donohoe said, “and better preparation for the society the student is entering.” After a year of negotiating, permission was granted.

Donohoe’s announcement came as a shock on campus. Some students reacted with histrionics—even lowering a flag to half mast. In an editorial, the managing editor of The Santa Clara envisioned additions to courses offered to include “Shopping A,” dealing with “the fundamentals of basket pushing, tomato squeezing, and cereal prize selection.”

Reached by telephone by a student reporter the night of the announcement, Richard Lautze ’39, then the national president of the Santa Clara alumni association, called the change necessary; he also noted that coeducation had been on the alumni association’s agenda for the past couple years. What about his personal feelings? “I am very happy,” he said. “I have four daughters.”

Not surprisingly, there were other alumni like Lautze, proud of their Santa Clara education and eager for their daughters to enroll. Joseph Russell ’33, from the agricultural town of Pond in California’s Central Valley, would bring his daughter, Suzanna, to campus and stroll in the Mission Gardens when she was growing up. Suzanna longed to follow her father to Santa Clara. But when she entered her senior year in high school in 1960, that was not an option. She’d resigned herself to attending a Catholic women’s college instead—until she saw Patty O’Malley in the newspaper. Decades later, Suzanna Russell Hanselaar ’65 remembers the charge of that moment. “My father was so excited,” she says. “And I couldn’t believe the adventure I was about to have.”

William Regan ’33, a regent and top salesman for New York Life, convinced his daughter and several of her friends from Notre Dame High School-Belmont to attend Santa Clara. Along with Muffy Regan Bui ’65, among his recruits were Patricia Pepin Dougherty ’65, Linda Biber Triplett ’65, and Sue Jertson Henderson ’65.
“He was incredibly convincing,” says Henderson—who had been planning on attending UC Berkeley before hearing Regan’s pitch. “He had more confidence in us than we had in ourselves. But in the end, I think we were all braver than we thought we were.” 

Women of their time

“The road less traveled was very exciting,” says Leanne Karnes Cooley ’65. “Many had fathers who’d gone to SCU, and the ladies didn’t see why they couldn’t have the same Jesuit education.” 

In addition, says Dougherty, “We liked that it was going to be hard to get. Plus, we had great senses of humor.”

They would need it. Incredibly, some women had food thrown at them in the cafeteria and had epithets and water balloons hurled at them while walking to class. And occasionally they faced some measure of discouragement once there.

Sue Henderson recalls taking a logic class in which her professor said aloud, “There is no such thing as a logical woman.” 

Patty O’Malley says she asked herself at times, “‘Why am I here?’ But I loved the other women. We managed to have a lot of fun sticking together. And if we didn’t break the mold, who would?”

Mary Somers Edmunds ’62 transferred to Santa Clara in 1961 as a senior and was the first woman to graduate from the University. Some of her male classmates offered to pay $1 each (a total of $250) if she would not attend graduation ceremonies. But she told herself, “‘I worked too hard for this.’”

At the same time, there were experiences at Santa Clara from the outset that wrought a deep—and positive—change upon these women. For Suzanna Hanselaar, just joining a club deepened her connection with her faith. “The first meeting, a Jesuit came in quietly and sat on the floor,” she says. “He was on the same level as we were. I was shocked. I was so used to placing religion on a pedestal.” But here was a Jesuit, reaching out to connect with her. 

The world outside

The first undergraduate women also developed a fierce loyalty to one another. “We realized that early adversity was momentary and childish,” Dougherty says, “once we’d experienced something truly hard.” 

In the spring of 1962, when Sue Henderson was a freshman, she met a senior, James Shea Jr. ’64. He was open-minded and kind and they fell in love. They married in the summer of 1964. A Navy pilot, Shea was deployed to Vietnam that December. Henderson considered living with other military wives on a base in Alameda but instead returned to school. In April 1965, she was six months pregnant.

That was the month after U.S. forces launched Operation Rolling Thunder, bombing targets in North Vietnam. U.S. planes were also carrying out air strikes on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

“I was called out of class to go to the dean’s office,” Henderson remembers. “I’d had some girls stay overnight at my apartment, so I thought I was in trouble. But when I walked in, there were five Navy hats hanging on a coat rack, and I knew.”

Shea’s Skyraider was shot down while he was on a mission over North Vietnam, the Los Angeles Times reported. The son of an executive for Southern Pacific Railroad, he was the first Santa Clara grad to die in Vietnam. Before the war was over, hundreds of American pilots would be shot down on bombing missions. Santa Clara alum Everett Alvarez Jr. ’60 had already been shot down—in August 1964—and had become the first American prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He would be held as a POW for more than eight years.

For Shea, Donohoe arranged a public service in the Mission with a Jesuit choir and a 21-gun salute. The church was filled to capacity, with hundreds more gathered outside.

“Afterward, the ladies just came to my apartment and didn’t leave,” Henderson says. “I could not have survived it without them. I knew then it wasn’t an accident we were together.”

Henderson’s old friend Linda Biber Triplett moved in permanently. Three months later, she drove Henderson to the hospital to deliver her daughter, Kelly.

“One minute you’re laughing with your friends, and then, boom, everything was so real,” Henderson says. She has another startling memory from that time: “The first person at my door the day my husband died? The Jesuit who told me there were no logical women.”

The women from that first class still gather for reunions periodically. There are plans for a cruise together this summer. A number of those pioneering women sent their daughters to Santa Clara, including Cooley, Dougherty, and Hanselaar—the girl from Pond, whose four children all attended the University.

Twenty years after graduating, Sue Shea, remarried to classmate Marty Henderson ’65, MBA ’66, and the mother of four, decided to apply for the master’s program in family counseling at Sacramento State. As a returning adult, she worried she might not be an appropriate candidate, and she hesitantly handed over her Santa Clara transcript to the school’s admissions officer.

“He sat and studied it for a long time,” Henderson says. “Then he set it down and looked at me and said, ‘What a beautiful education. You don’t see this sort of thing very often.’” This article first appeared in the Spring 2008 Santa Clara Magazine.