How She Became an Astronomer (and Got a Telescope Named in Her Honor Postmortem!)
Interviewee: Vera Rubin
Date: Nov. 5, 2011 (final edits 4 June 2012)
Interviewers: Carl Lankowski and Pam Lankowski
Location: Rubin residence on McKinley Street in Chevy Chase DC
Transcribed (from audio recording) by: Carl Lankowski
Very Rubin passed away Dec. 25, 2016 at age 88
This interview will probably be different from many you have done, because it’s not about the science, it’s about the neighborhood.
VR: that’s what I expect.
So we are interested in where you are from, how you came to be located in Chevy Chase DC, and what your experiences have been here. Let’s start with where and when you were born.
VR: I was born in Philadelphia in 1928.
Let’s talk about your family a little bit, the pre-Chevy Chase time. Tell us a little bit about your parents and their experience.
VR: My father was born in Europe and he made gloves. The family wanted to go to the U.S. so his father left alone when he was about three years old. He went to Gloversville, New York and stayed there for a few years until he had enough money to bring his wife and three children. They weren’t in luxury, but they didn’t have to do anything complicated. They had a room and so forth. They all changed their names. My father had some long, complicated name and it was changed to Phillip. He was about six or seven when he came over. He remembered arriving in New York City and taking what he called trolley cars, one after another, to get where they were going. He went to school there through high school in Gloversville and then the family moved to Philadelphia. He went to the University of Pennsylvania and became an engineer.
What kind of engineer?
Did he do engineering as a profession?
VR: yes. And my mother was born in Philadelphia, but her mother had come over (from Europe) at the age of sixteen. Her family had an apple orchard. She came alone. She wouldn’t eat, because the food was not kosher. She said she almost died, until one of the attendants started bringing her apples. She got off in New York and had to get to Philadelphia herself.
So, this was on the ship that she wasn’t eating.
VR: Yes. She had virtually no money. She had relatives, so she knew where to go. Then she married someone. He made men’s clothes for a fancy store.
That was your grandfather.
When was your mom born in Philadelphia?
VR: 1900. And my father had been born in 1897.
Do you know where in Europe he was from?
VR: yes, from Wilna.
My ancestors came from Suwałki, not so far from Wilna. Wilna was an important town—it was called the “Jerusalem of the north”.
VR: That’s right, I think so. They had lots of friends and relatives in Gloversville. One of the relatives made bread—he baked bread and sold it—about three miles from where my father lived as a child. And I and another brother used to walk there because he would give them pieces of bread. His wife was very stingy and would tell him not to put butter on the bread. So what he would do was put it on the bread and have them eat it upside down.
Did he continue eating his bread upside down later in life?
VR: no, but he thought this was important enough to have told us about it. Of all the stories, that’s the one I remember.
People left Europe for the U.S. for a variety of reasons. Do you have some insight into why they came?
VR: Not really. They did have friends that had preceded them to the U.S. And my grandfather knew he could probably make it as a glover. I guess it just looked like a good thing to do.
Everybody was moving at that time—it was the great age of migration. Politics sometimes played a role. The Russo-Japanese war was on the horizon and my grandfather was of draftable age and lived closed to a large Russian army base. But this is about you, not me. Your parents are no longer around, I guess.
VR: That’s right. My mother was about 80 when she died. My father died in 1992. I can remember a 90th birthday celebration in this house. He and my mother had moved from Washington to Florida. She became ill and returned to Washington, where she died. He stayed in Florida until 1986 or 1987. We did a lot of travelling with the kids in Europe and we got a call in Europe from him to say he was coming to Washington. He arrived the day before we returned or the day after—can’t remember now. I have a sister in Washington who lived in Georgetown. My father was meticulous and picked an apartment halfway between us. He didn’t say that but we understood it. He had quite a happy life. He had lots of grandchildren and he enjoyed watching them grow up.
How did the family get from Philadelphia to Washington? Tell us something about that transition.
VR: The transition came when I was about 9 years old—it was the end of the Depression. My father and mother met because they had both been working for the Philadelphia telephone company. He had quite a good job, but he didn’t like it very much. He found it very boring. He went to his boss and told him he was going to quit. It’s funny the things that I remember. There were very few Jewish people working there. His boss said to him “that’s the trouble with you Jews—you’re always too impatient.” The company was building a plant in New Jersey. If my father would wait a year or two, they were planning to send him other there. My father said no, he wouldn’t wait. So, with a family and not much money around, he took a job in the middle of Pennsylvania—there was a little college there. It was very nice. And then he was offered a job in Washington. And that’s how we got to Washington.
What kind of job did he take in Washington?
VR: it was with the Navy, designing things they were building. He was very smart. He could do many things.
So, the family arrived in Washington during the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt.
VR: that’s right.
Where did you live first in Washington?
VR: In an apartment house near Meridian Park and 16th Street. We lived about one block north of the park. It backed on the local school we attended. That’s where I went starting fifth grade (1938). The street address was on 17th Street. I wasn’t there very long because they promoted me to junior high. I don’t remember why, as I started in the fifth grade. I loved the school. Compared to Philadelphia where we had seats in which you couldn’t move. You couldn’t move and you had to sit with your hands crossed. And then I went to this Washington school and chairs were placed anywhere. Whenever someone started a conversation the kids would cluster their seats around. It was just a different world and I loved it.
A Dewey school maybe.
VR: yeah, we were studying houses and we went out in a bus and would look at different places that had different kinds of houses. It was great. It was really a wonderful place.
Where did you go for junior high?
VR: The junior high that was off 16th Street. It’s still there, although they rebuilt it several times. There’s a library on the other side of the street, or there used to be.
In Columbia Heights then.
VR: I guess so, it was near Columbia Road.
You were in junior high for three years there?
VR: In junior high, yes, but not entirely there because we moved. We moved further north. We moved to 5th and Tuckerman Street. Takoma Park DC—three houses from the new high school that had recently been built.
What years were you there?
VR: 1942 to 1945.
Exciting years to be in Washington, I guess.
VR: Yes, 5th Street was a well traveled street. In my senior year, I had to leave school early one afternoon in February or March, 1945 for an interview because I had won a scholarship. It was raining. I left the school. I crossed the street in the rain and looked up. A long line of cars was coming down. I decided it must be someone important. Six or eight cars in a row. I stood in the rain waiting so I could see what it was. I was getting wetter and wetter. Therefore, when it passed I must have looked very funny. As it turned out, the person sitting in the first seat next to the driver was the president. He laughed when he saw me. He was coming home, I figured out, from the Yalta conference [with Stalin and Churchill]. So, that’s how I saw the president in the rain.
You mentioned that you had this experience when you were on you way to collect a scholarship. Tell us about the scholarship.
VR: I got a scholarship to Vassar. There were not many places in this country where a girl could study Astronomy and we didn’t have a lot of money. I applied to Vassar and Bryn Mawr. Bryn Mawr had someone interview you at some fancy hotel down town. She and I didn’t get along very well. She asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to be an Astronomer. And she said, well, is there anything else that interests you? I responded that sometimes I paint. I still remember this: she then said “well, why don’t you consider a career where you paint pictures of astronomical objects?” (laughter) Yeah. Believe me, I felt like laughing. I realized we weren’t doing very well. And I wasn’t accepted.
VR: Well, yeah, but I have met people who have gone there. In fact, I have given many talks there by now. Of course they later said you shouldn’t have listened to her, you should have written to the Biologist or the Astronomer. But I wasn’t knowledgeable—I was sixteen years old and didn’t know how to get scholarships. I knew from the beginning that we just weren’t talking to each other. I even thought of telling her, but I decided that would be worse.
Passing space ships in the night…
VR: That’s right. So, I went to Vassar. And that was wonderful.
Before we get to Vassar, let me ask you where the notion came from that you wanted to pursue a career in Astronomy?
VR: Yes. When we moved to the little house in the Takoma Park section of Washington, it had one big bedroom for my parents and two little rooms. So, depending on how friendly my sister and I were at that particular time, we would either each have a room, or we would sleep in one room and turn the other room into a sewing room, or to a painting room, or whatever. When we would sleep in the one room, it was a double bed. My sister was older. She could choose where to sleep. She always chose the outside. I was always against the window. That was facing north. Unbelievably—because I have gone back to look at it—my window was above an alley with an unobstructed view of the stars. So, I started watching stars and after a while that was more interesting than sleeping. I would essentially spend the whole night. Sometimes I would see falling stars. I couldn’t turn the light on, because my sister was there. So I would just remember everything of interest I had seen and write it down in the morning. And my parents started complaining that I shouldn’t spend the whole night with my head out the window. Then I started going to the library. I assumed that some people knew everything. I really thought that if I read enough books I would learn everything I wanted to know. I was about ten when this started. We lived four or five blocks from the library. My mother had to write me a note so I could take books out. There were no Astronomy books, only kiddy books on the subject. But I wanted real Astronomy books. I can remember reading them walking home. And then I learned that there were some things that people didn’t know. That was quite a revelation. So, that’s how I became an Astronomer.
It’s a wonderful story. There’s a sense of wonder there. Where did this curiosity come from?
VR: My parents were very interested in lots of things. During that time, maybe during our first year in Washington, there were astronomical occurrences—occasionally, some colorful lights. By then my parents already knew what I liked and they would drive us to the end of the parkway where you’re facing the water.
The George Washington Parkway on the other side of the Potomac?
VR: Just so. We would just sit there and watch. Therefore, I certainly had help. My mother had a friend – her closest friend from Philadelphia had moved to Washington – and they were the people my parents knew when they moved to DC. They were both scientifically involved. They had a car with a rumble seat.They would drive me and my sister into Virginia. My sister wasn’t interested at all, but she was a good sport.
So you only had one sibling?
VR: that’s right. Oh, and there’s another story that comes to mind about high school. The Physics teacher was very macho. He didn’t know what to do with one or two girls in his class. Essentially what he did is just ignored us. I remember the very first day of his class. He started out by saying that there were two sorts of physicists. There were those who were very smart, very famous and he mentioned all those that immediately come to mind. And then, he said, there are those who work well and do things but are not up that level. The example he gave of the latter was Marie Curie. That was the only woman he ever even mentioned.
Curie was not quite up to snuff.
VR: That’s right. She was the kind who could do it, but then anyone could have done it.
I sense a kind of determination building in you.
VR: Well, yeah. With a single exception, I absolutely never said another word to that man. All through the class I wouldn’t ask a question and half the time I wouldn’t even take my book home to read. I was just so angry. I was angry the whole term. And then I met him in the hall the day I learned I had gotten the scholarship. So, for the first time in my life I said something to him. And he said, well, as long as you stay away from science you should do okay.
Oh, dear. He must be ruing his words somewhere now.
VR: That exchange I haven’t forgotten. I remember where he was standing at that moment. Otherwise, I couldn’t tell you one word he ever said.
There is a more general issue I want you to discuss, but first let us know how you made it to Chevy Chase. Where did you go next?
VR: We were living at the 5th and Tuckerman place at the end of the war. Then I went off to Vassar. My parents then moved. We never had lots of money—you could buy houses in our neighborhood for five thousand dollars, but we didn’t have that kind of money—but my mother had lots of friends. She knew someone whose family built apartment houses, including one to the south of where we had been living, and my parents got an apartment there between my second and third year at Vassar.
What happened next?
VR: One day not long thereafter, my mother met a neighbor who said she had a son at Cornell and my mother revealed that she had a daughter at Vassar. The next summer we were introduced. With some friends I had gone out on a ship in the Potomac for a couple of days right after the fourth of July. When I returned home I walked into a party designed by my mother, who had invited the neighbor and her whole family over—husband and two sons, one in college, the other in high school. The elder son looked very interesting. I was working at the Naval Research Lab. It was my third summer there. The young man was working out at the University of Maryland. He was at one end of the city and I was at the other. He starting meeting me when I got off the bus coming home and we started going out. We returned to school for the fall semester. He would come to Vassar a lot. Once or twice I visited him at Cornell. Three months after we had met, we wrote a letter to our parents saying that we wanted to get married when I finished that term, as I would be done. So that’s what we did. We got married. In fact, we had plans to continue working in the same way.
Where did you stay after you were married?
VR: A friend of mine offered us an apartment for the summer, as she and her parents were going to the beach. So, we proposed moving up the wedding date to earlier in the summer. Invitations for a later date had already been printed. My father complained that by moving the date forward everyone would think that we had to get married. But we did it.
Was that in 1948?
VR: That was ’48—that’s right.
What is your husband’s name?
VR: Robert Rubin.
And what is your maiden name?
What a great love story. So, you were married in Washington in 1948. Where were you living?
VR: We were living in one of the apartments in the same apartment development.
When did you migrate to a more permanent domicile?
VR: When summer ended we went back to Ithaca, because Robert was getting his PhD. And I got a Masters degree there. So, we stayed there from ’48 to ’51. And we had a baby in early ’51.
What mix of children did you have?
VR: Three boys, one girl. The first was a boy. It was boy, girl, boy, boy.
In what field did Robert earn his PhD?
VR: In Physics. We returned to Washington because Robert was offered a position at a branch of Johns Hopkins University. There were very interesting people there—have you heard of Ralph Alpher? [Alpher’s 1948 publication provided calculations to support the big bang hypothesis of the origin of the universe-CL] There were some brilliant people doing all kinds of interesting things. After four years he was offered a teaching job at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Our third child was born there. After two years we decided to return to Washington just because we liked it better.
You left for Illinois about 1955 and returned to Washington about 1957?
VR: Right. We came back to Washington, bought a house.
Where was that?
VR: This very house on McKinley Street. In fact, I came here with the three kids and he was still working in Illinois. He had been spending his summers with the Johns Hopkins group and they wanted him back. People were always very happy to have him. In 1960 we had our fourth child.
Did you have time to have a job outside the home during the decade when your children appeared?
VR: Yes. Yes. Throughout this period. Sometimes weird things. But wait, we’ve skipped something if we have gotten to ’57. I have to get my PhD sometime in there.
You did that while you were having three, then four kids?
VR: Yes. I had a two year old and four year old come to my PhD commencement at Georgetown. Well, that is what we wanted to do. I wanted to do both.
Talk about that. How did you do both?
VR: Well, at Georgetown, all the classes were at night.
Good for an astronomer, I guess.
VR: Indeed. And my parents were still living in Washington. I will tell you—I will answer the question you just posed: how did I do it. My husband left the lab at Johns Hopkins and he would pick up my mother. My father was still working in Washington at the time. She would come with supper for her and her husband. I would have fed the children. I met my mother at the car, she got out, I got in with a sandwich for Bob. He would drive me to Georgetown, because I didn’t know how to drive. I was always pregnant so never learned. Up the hill we drove to Georgetown’s Astronomy department. I would go to class and he would sit in the car and eat. He was invited to come in, but he never wanted to come in. I attended two classes. Then we would drive home and then my parents would go home. This was the pattern for two years. I got my degree. Then we moved to Illinois. We came back with three children.
Surely, you had more than two years of classwork for the PhD. You had to write a dissertation, too.
VR: I already had a Masters, so I only needed to write the dissertation. I had to pass exams. I had to pass a language exam.
Really? What language did you do?
VR: The one in whatever book I had at hand. (laughter) Probably German. Because it was a science book. And the chairman of the Astronomy department was very pleasant. He knew the book I was reading and as I recall, all I had to do was read pieces he designated, translate them into English. I passed. What I also forgot to say is that I got my degree at Georgetown in ’54 and in ’55 they asked me to come as a faculty member. So, I stayed there from ’55 to ’65.
How long were you at Georgetown?
VR: About ’63 I started observing [peering through a telescope-CL] in Arizona. By ’65 I decided I needed to give up something, so I gave up teaching.
How did you get down there? Did you fly?
VR: yeah. Most of the time I flew to Tucson. It was Kitt Peak. Kitt Peak National Observatory started about ’63. It was the first place in the United States for astronomers to go. Until then, universities had private observatories.
Did your family stay here when you went to Arizona?
VR: Yes. Almost always. They weren’t allowed on the observatories.
Typically, how long were your observatory visits?
VR: Well, in the new year of ’65 I wrote a letter to the department chair at Georgetown and told them I was leaving. I had been very connected to Georgetown. But I began to consider other opportunities. I decided I wanted to work at Carnegie Institution of Washington located at Broad Branch Road and Nevada Avenue, where I now work. I didn’t want Carnegie to say they wouldn’t take someone away from Georgetown. I knew one person at Carnegie. I used to talk to him. There weren’t many astronomers in Washington. He was a radio astronomer. There were three kinds of astronomers at Carnegie: the one I knew, a radio astronomer, a solar astronomer, and then there was someone else who did something not very typical. So I went to my friend and told him I wanted a job. The Carnegie Institution, the place I now work, was founded in 1904 and until the second world war they had never hired a woman. Even the cooks were men. During the war they hired women secretaries, but they had never hired a woman scientist. So, I told my friend early that January 1965 I wanted a job. And I remember after I came home from work that day and told Bob that my Carnegie friend wouldn’t have been any more startled if I told him I wanted to marry him. I mean, he was just flabbergasted. No one had ever thought of hiring a woman, I guess. So, he invited me to stay for lunch, which had never been done before, as the Carnegie staff ate their lunch together. During the lunch, the director, who I knew a little bit from my thesis-writing days at Georgetown…
You’re talking about the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism? When was that put up?
VR: That was put up in 1914. Just one building until 1990. And then two more big buildings were formed. So, I went and asked for a job, was invited to lunch, and then was asked what I did. I told them. And then I was introduced to a young man who I had never seen. He had just come back from Arizona. He had built an image tube, a device to take pictures. Previously, it took three days to take pictures—even later it used to take at least 20 hours. The young man’s image tube could do it in an hour. So, they handed me the spectrum he had just taken and they asked me if I could develop them and I said, sure, and took them home. About two months later the director called me at Georgetown during the day about a position. He asked me when I could come and I told him I could be there in ten minutes. He said, no, I meant sometime in the coming week. No, I said, I can be there in ten minutes. So, I drove up in ten minutes and he offered me a job. I accepted, but then I said, well, I have to go home at 3:30. Okay, he said, we will pay you two-thirds of a regular salary. I then added that as usual, the family would be leaving for the summer, so maybe I should start in the fall. To which he replied that Carnegie doesn’t hire by the day or the hour, we hire you by the year. So, I said okay. That summer the family went to Upstate New York, but I took a week from that vacation to go to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona to make my first telescope pictures with that image, and then returned home to develop them and do all the work. We published our first paper six, maybe seven months from the time I entered Carnegie. After that, the director increased my salary. (laughter) Yeah—he must have decided I was working a full day—which I surely was.
Still, a big challenge.
VR: We have an enormous dining room table, almost as big as this room. I would come home and work there. And Bob would work there in the evening. And the kids started working there.
There are three areas we wanted you to address before we wrap up this morning. One of them is how your family lived in the neighborhood. The other area builds on the theme you already introduced—the idea that women weren’t supposed to be doing things. You wanted to break through this. Still another area. You’re Jewish and haven’t said very much about that. I’m wondering whether that was ever an issue and how these two things played together.
VR: OK. Let’s start with the children. They went to school around the corner to Lafayette. Then when they got old enough they walked to Deal, then to Wilson. And my husband was working at the Bureau of Standards then, so he would walk with whatever child was going that way. They loved that because they got to talk to him, asked them their geometry questions or something, they had a good time. I came home at 3:30. We had help and essentially, they would just play with the children, I think. We used to go away in the summer. (Grinning) My husband accused me of wanting to go away in the summer so I could hire the person who was working with us. In general, they didn’t want to miss the summer. We had fine women. Their treatment of the children was fine. But their help with the house was pretty poor. I didn’t complain, because I thought they were doing the right thing, but it would have been nice if they could have done a little more help (around the house-CL). It all worked. I started in 1965.
I remember one day being on the phone with Allan Sandage during my first year or two at Carnegie—do you know that name? Well, he was probably the most famous astronomer we ever had [his empirical research led, inter alia, to significant revisions in the estimated age of the universe-CL]. He died a year or so ago. Years before, it was he who had asked me if I would like to observe at one of the big observatories. No woman had ever been permitted. I said YES, and so, of course, I did. That was about ’63 or ’64.
What reminded me of this was that about a year ago I found in my papers a letter from Allan Sandage, in which he told me what he had observed, that none of it had worked, and knowing that I was going observing, he was asking me to see what I could do. I absolutely had no recollection of this, though it was obvious that we must have discussed it before. I don’t know what I did. He certainly expected something, so I must have done it. So, Sandage and I continued our correspondence.
Now, the professional association of astronomers publishes a paper once a year in which a person selected by the association can write anything about what they are doing. This feature is a life history. The honor was given to me this year and it has just come out. That was fun doing that.
I would love to see it.
Before we wrap up I wanted to get your impression about Chevy Chase, about the neighborhood, the community. It sounds like by choosing this house it was so central to your lives eventually.
VR: That’s true. I mean yes, it was. I think if it hadn’t worked, we would have moved somewhere else. It was so obvious to pick a place where there were schools. The fact that Carnegie had its building there [about five blocks from the Rubin home-CL] had nothing to do with it. I don’t know whether I would not have chosen to work there if that hadn’t existed. Sometimes Gamow [nuclear physicist and science writer born in Odessa 1904 and was research professor at George Washington University 1934-54 after his defection from the USSR-CL] suggested meeting at Carnegie when we had been discussing my thesis, though he had no real affiliation with them.
So, schools were very important.
VR: They were indeed. They worked out very well, although things were getting tough for the kids towards the end. The students were tough.
VR: yeah, at Wilson.
When was that?
VR: Towards 1970. Our first high school guy decided he wanted to go to college after his third year in high school. Fine with us. If he could get himself into college, he could go. So, he wrote to three or four or five colleges. Some applications asked for a picture. He had just build a musical instrument – so he sent that picture. Because it didn’t say send YOUR picture. (laughter) I thought that meant that he wouldn’t get any invitations. Anyway it was not a popular thing to do. I had never heard of anyone doing that. I really didn’t think he would get in anyplace. I don’t remember what happened except that he was accepted
Was he glad he made that decision?
VR: oh, yes, because he met his wife there. He also had a dog. He spent several summers working at Lowell with his dog.
You have produced an incredibly brainy brood. All four have PhDs, right?
VR: His wife was younger so he stayed in Upstate New York after his graduation and then got a Masters degree at Rensslaer Polytechnic Institute.
Did your son want to get out of Wilson because things were getting iffy there?
VR: No, they did it, but they had problems. I mean, if they had any money, they were asked for it. There were all these things.
Events were clearly deteriorating.
VR: They made it, but that’s what made me think of the first one leaving a year early. The principal was very angry with his decision. He said this child is never going to finish anything he ever does and you are going to come back to me and tell me you need his high school diploma. He made us sign a statement that we would not come and ask him for that.
So, you son has a PhD but not high school diploma.
VR: that’s correct. (laughter) But he doesn’t advertise that.
Is he one of your geographers?
VR: yes. And the other geographer is the youngest, at Johns Hopkins.
You’ve got a mathematician in there and I forgot what the other one was.
VR: The daughter is an astronomer.
A chip off the old block.
VR: Two or three times I gave an Astronomy course at the high school. I just walked into Wilson and asked them if I could. They said they’d have to ask the superintendant and initially the answer came back I couldn’t do it, because other high schools needed it more. If I wanted to do it, I’d have to go to a different high school. I told them I didn’t have a car, which was true. When I had discussed it with the teacher at Wilson I told him I would only do it if I could do it at 9:00 in the morning, so that I could walk there, teach it, and then walk back to my office. So I think he ultimately told me to do it anyway. I mean I wasn’t asking for any reward or even a piece of paper saying I had done it.
It’s a great story.
VR: and a true one. It was fun. I enjoyed it and I think the students did, too.
You have been a strong advocate for women being allowed to do anything any guy can do. You also have a Jewish identity.
VR: I haven’t kept that a secret. I don’t know what to say, really.
VR: Temple Sinai. Right next to where I work. Maxine Singer—do you know her? [molecular biologist who helped break the genetic code and Washington Carnegie Institute administrator-CL]
VR: Well, she was in charge of all Carnegie institutions for ten or twelve years. She worked out of the Carnegie offices on 16th Street. She was also Jewish. So she liked to joke that she and I were the only ones allowed to park in the Temple Sinai parking lot. So, it’s part of my life. Not the most important part of my life. I think my science is more important to me.
Your Wikipedia entry mentions something about there not being any kind of conflict between your Jewish identity on the one hand and science on the other.
VR: That’s so. I mean, I know what science is and what I do with science and I accept religion as a concept to have in my life.
You have a whole row of books on Einstein. One of the only things I remember that he said was Gott wurfelt nicht, God doesn’t play dice. Is that relevant in this context?
VR: Well, anything is, really. You could say whatever you wanted…which is good. I just wish there were more pleasant people. I guess to me religion is a kind of moral code. Three of my children married Jewish people. One did not and that marriage didn’t last more than half a dozen years or so. The others are still very close. But even the one who wasn’t was very close to all of us. I think if you’re a good person—and I don’t know what that is, though we can imagine—religion is not the most important thing. It’s what they do and how they do it is really more important.
That’s a beautiful idea. How did it play out here in the community? Did you ever get any grief for being Jewish?
VR: Not that I know or remember. I can’t think of an occasion. It’s certainly true that most of my close friends are Jewish. And many of them live nearby. Is that enough?
Of course. Just that it’s a fact that in the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s there was a lot of anti-semitism; in some quarters there still is. And I am just wondering how that looks from the point of view of living in Chevy Chase.
VR: Um. Not important.
Has the neighborhood changed much over the years, from when your children were at Lafayette?
VR: It’s so different now. Part of that is the fact that the children are not here. And certainly the fact that my husband has died.
When did he decease?
VR: It will be four years in January. And he was sick for a few years before that, but could manage, and did. He had multiple myeloma. And our daughter has that.
I’m sorry. Where is she?
VR: Amherst. But she’s a very, very good sport, very cheerful, and we all hope that they will learn how to do better. So far, they do not know.
It’s a tough one. Any of the other kids living nearby?
VR: No. One’s a Princeton, so he’s the closest. He’s the youngest. And he is the other geologist.
Once you have a PhD, you’ve got to go where the jobs are.
VR: That’s right. They all have happy lives. We see each other a fair amount. We get together at least once a year. Always in the late summer and sometimes in the winter.
What do you think: do they generally have happy memories of Chevy Chase?
VR: Oh, I think they do.
They are obviously very brainy kids. Were they sportif as well? Were they joiners? Were they on teams?
VR: Well, they had friends. I doubt if they were on teams. They had interests and lots of friends.
School buddies from Deal and Wilson?
Our daughter went through Deal and Wilson. The changes you described before have continued when you said that things began to get a little tough. Her experience was that it was still possible to find a cohort, a reference group that has high standards and high aspirations. It’s harder, but it can still be done. Is that what you are talking about?
VR: Yes, I think so. When did she go
She graduated from Wilson in 2007. She just graduated from college this year.
VR: where did she go to college?
The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
VR: I have a cousin who went there. Did she like it?
She did, though as she has gotten older she has wondered whether she missed developing the friendship base that other schools would offer. Pros and cons. She has some very good friends she will always have, but it was intense. One room-mate was more the social butterfly; that was the year she didn’t make dean’s list. So she changed room-mates so she could return to her motivation to do well. She basically decided it was an either/or situation and she chose the academics. So she didn’t have as many personal relationships with people. I guess this was the general tenor of the college. But she did well.
VR: It wasn’t Rochester, was it?
YES! Good for you! (laughter) See, at least I knew it when you said it.
Where did the others end up for undergraduate?
VR: The kids divided themselves between those that wanted to be on the west coast and those that wanted to be on the east coast. The Princeton guy did undergraduate on the west coast, probably UC-Irvine. The mathematicians are one east and one west.
Perhaps the law of averages at work there.
VR: Maybe, though they would have gone wherever.
Was Wilson helpful in actually placing them?
VR: No, not at all.
The motto broadcast by our daughter and her Wilson friends was that they could do anything if they could get through Wilson, because they have to fight for everything they get. That actually became a kind of negative source of credibility when applying for colleges. They colleges knew that things had deteriorated at Wilson. Therefore, the students actually found it easier to get into better schools if they managed to thrive at Wilson. That’s still the case. The top 50 or so graduates from Wilson still go to the top schools in the country. When our daughter was there she wanted to avoid the cafeteria—that’s where the fights and drug dealers were.
VR: It wasn’t that bad when my kids were there. It really wasn’t, though it may have been getting worse and worse. So is it improving now?
Hard to say after the building renovation last year. We haven’t been back. Our daughter’s reaction was: why are they doing this? They needed to put the money into textbooks. She doesn’t even want to go in the new building.
VR: That’s a shame.
Most of her classes were in advanced placement, including an AP Chemistry course. They had no textbooks. The teacher had to photocopy books and hand them out.
VR: That’s awful.
Well, let me ask you if there is anything else you wanted to add right now or if there are any questions we didn’t ask you that you think should have been asked.
VR: I can’t think of any. It seemed pretty thorough.
For our part, we are just thrilled, for personal reasons as close-by neighbors and in our roles with the HCCDC oral history project that we finally managed to connect. Thank you very much for this interview.
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