This is Vassar: The newsletter for Vassar College Alumnae/i and Families

Photos © Vassar College / Cesar Cervantes.

Vassar Remembers Veterans

More than 100 people—students, faculty members, staff, administrators, as well as middle and high school students from the Highland and New Paltz public schools—packed into the Villard Room in Main Building on November 16 for “Conversations Across the Generations.” The event was a tribute to Vassar’s—and the nation’s—veterans, and was sponsored by the Vassar Bookstore Author Series and the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development.

Vassar president Catharine Hill welcomed the crowd before turning the microphone over to psychology professor Randy Cornelius, who moderated a panel discussion that included Vassar alumnae/i Christine Vassar Tall ’47, Leila Levinson ’76, and Forrest Cousens ’50.

Tall was a child in England when World War II began. Family lore held that she had some distant relation to college founder Matthew Vassar. And so, concerned for her daughter’s safety, Tall’s mother telegraphed Vassar College to see if anyone would take in her daughter and care for her until the war was over. College president Henry Noble MacCracken agreed.

Christine Vassar Tall

Tall (pictured, left) took a boat to North America in 1940. She lived in the president’s house, attended nearby Arlington High School, and eventually graduated from Vassar. Sixty years later, the book London War Letters, a compilation of correspondence between her and her family, was published.

She read from a letter home dated July 1943. The note said that at Vassar she was “living with people who are broad-minded.” However, she thought highly of her native England, and questioned her need to stay in America. Family urged her to remain at Vassar, and ultimately she agreed that it was best to stay. “I was safe here at Vassar,” she told the crowd. “I’m proud of growing up here and of associating with my class.”

Though she was displaced from the horrors of the war, she was also torn from her family for seven long years. That separation emphasized war’s impact on children, something Leila Levinson (pictured, below), author of Gated Grief: The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma, knows too well.

Leila Levinson

Levinson’s father was a WWII U.S. Army doctor who helped liberate Nazi concentration camps, and stayed behind to treat and aid survivors. The experience left him with what today might be characterized as post-traumatic stress disorder. It heavily impacted his relationships back home, including with his daughter, Leila. She only realized the depths of his struggles after his death, when she stumbled upon a box of photographs from those concentration camps.

“We want to believe that if the war is just and good, that the combatants come home unscathed, that they become civilians again ready to get on with life,” she told the crowd. “Everyone who goes off to war comes home with invisible wounds.”

“We left veterans—who wanted to protect their children from the horrors of war—with nowhere to tell their story,” she continued. “What do we need to do to honor veterans? Ask for their stories. Storytelling should be part of soldiers’ coming home. Warriors need rituals for processing grief. We need to bring them home in soul as well as body.”

Forrest Cousens

Forrest Cousens (pictured, left) was one of those WWII veterans who shared his story. The recipient of two Purple Hearts fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle of the war for U.S. soldiers. As a member of 75th Infantry Division, he was part of a forward observer battalion. The group determined when and where U.S. guns should fire. As the battle raged on, and ammunition supplies dwindled, the post and its mission—prioritizing targets—became more and more important. He spoke of what was then called "Battle Fatigue," a precursor to today’s PTSD, and recalled that it was characterized by “long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror.”

Cousens eventually came home and attended Vassar under the GI Bill®. Many of the nation's all-female colleges, including Vassar, temporarily opened their doors to the country's returning male soldiers looking to complete their educations that had been stalled by the war. “The gender ratio was better then,” he joked, adding that academically Vassar was a tough place. He was one of 170 men to attend Vassar, and just 16 to earn degrees, as one of the Vassar Veterans prior to the arrival of coeducation.

The two-hour-long event concluded with Sangeeta Laura Biagi, a visiting professor from Italy, leading an Aum Healing Sound Practice, borrowed from the breathing exercises of yoga. It proved a fitting end to a discussion in which panelists and guests alike remembered the difficult legacy of war, and the veterans who fought its battles.

– Peter Bronski

December 2011


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