Campus & Community

At 80, Radcliffe graduate comes back for diploma

4 min read

Her memories are faded by the years, but also sweetened, perhaps, by the romanticism of times gone by.

Graduate Ruth Brunner. Photo by Peter Lennihan

It was the fall of 1943, in the midst of World War II, when the trains were crowded and gasoline was rationed, that Ruth Brunner, fresh out of George Washington University, came to Radcliffe to pursue a second degree. She completed her coursework in English literature in two years, but left the college without her diploma. Anxious to follow her husband to New York City, following his graduation from Harvard Law School, Brunner settled into an apartment to begin raising a family.

“The degree itself didn’t matter to me, but the contacts I made and the education I received meant everything to me,” Brunner, now 80 years old, says. “I should have been more aware that I needed that degree, but I didn’t regret it because my life was pretty full.”

Brunner’s life was filled with a long, happy marriage to a successful attorney, raising the five children they had together, and cultivating a flourishing academic career marked by a master’s degree from George Washington University, and additional study at the University of Southern California, where she completed all but the dissertation while working on a Ph.D. Brunner taught at San Francisco State University and California State University at Long Beach, and later became chair of the women’s Physical Education Department at Oberlin College in Ohio.

Accomplished, yes, but still no diploma from Radcliffe.

It was only recently, Brunner explains, when she really began to think about it. “My nephew, Sam Seymour, graduated from Harvard, and when I went down to visit his family in Texas [last year], I spotted the Harvard Magazine on the table,” she says. “The magazine was filled with articles about the Harvard/Radcliffe merger. It brought to my attention that Radcliffe wasn’t going to last as a separate college, so it got me thinking that I should have gotten this degree before all this happened.”

With encouragement from her daughter, Mary Blessing, Brunner sent a letter to Mary Maples Dunn, the acting dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, inquiring about the possibility of acquiring her diploma. “She was very receptive to the idea,” Brunner explains, “and pleased that I would want to get my degree.” Soon, plans began taking shape to bring Brunner back to Harvard to attend the commencement ceremony she missed 55 years ago.

“It surprised and pleased me that the Governing Board of Harvard was willing to grant me the degree I had earned as a registered Radcliffe student,” Brunner explained. “I had a choice. They could have just mailed [the diploma] to me, but I was pleased to be invited to enjoy the festivities of commencement.”

So today, Ruth Brunner will march into Tercentenary Theatre along with the Class of 2000 as part of the University’s 349th Commencement. “I’m beginning to get very excited, and I’m not a person to jump up and down and show my emotions,” she says. Without a doubt, there will be others in attendance who will perform those functions – namely Brunner’s son Bob and his family, and Brunner’s sister and nephew, who graduated from Harvard. (Brunner’s husband John died in 1984.)

As she contemplates the enormity of the occasion, Brunner also reflects back to those days so many years ago, when she became one of the first women to cross through Harvard Yard to attend classes. “I didn’t know at the time that ’43 was the first time that women students were allowed to go to classes at Harvard. It explains a lot. There were a few other women around, but I didn’t know it was such a big deal until recently.”

Brunner also recalls performing with the Harvard-Radcliffe orchestra, and playing with the Radcliffe women’s basketball team. She remembers the night when it was snowing so hard the streetcars stopped running, and she and her teammates had to slog their way home after a game at the Tufts gymnasium. She also recollects the riveting Robert Frost lectures she attended in the English department.

It’s all coming back to her now, as 80-year-old Ruth Brunner dons the cap and gown one more time, not as a professor marching with her students, but as a student herself, going back in time to relish the moment she never had.