Cornell holds first-ever 80th class reunion

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Posted: Jun 10, 2011 12:18 AM
Cornell holds first-ever 80th class reunion

Rosemary Hunt Todd sang the alma mater and the school fight song and was greeted by a standing ovation from four returning reunion classes at Cornell University.

And why not.

Soon to be 102, Todd represented the Class of 1931 at Cornell's first 80th class reunion on Thursday evening, and she was struck by the adulation.

"It's overwhelming," Todd said after presenting the Class of 2006 with a spirit banner. "I appreciate it to no end. I just can't believe this would ever happen."

Not many would.

Although Todd, who lives in Hollis, N.H., was the only member of her class to make the reception, classmate Ruth Laible Tallmadge, of Lyons, N.Y. was due in town on Friday.

Even as people are living longer, this class boggles the mind _ 30 members are still alive. No coincidence they were dubbed "The Thirty-Wonders" decades ago.

"This is absolutely amazing," said Krystyn Tendy, a member of the class of 2006. "It's wonderful to have them back. We're honored to be part of this ceremony and be part of a university that brings people back after 80 years."

Another member of the class of 1931 _ Bill Vanneman _ wrote in longhand to his classmates and encouraged them to return for the reunion. He also had planned to attend, but Vanneman, class president since graduation, died April 26.

"I think there's no defining their spirit," said Alice Katz Berglas, Class of 1966. "They were a Depression class. The first thing they say to you is, 'You know, we were a Depression class, so our class didn't give as much money. We gave Cornell all our spirit instead.'"

Centenarians are the fastest-growing demographic group in many developed nations, including the United States. There are about 100,000 centenarians in this country, according to the Gerontology Research Group (GRG), and Cornell's Class of 1931 has way more than its share. The yearbook lists 922 members (670 males and 252 females), which makes the total of 30 centenarians off the charts.

"That is unusual," said Robert D. Young, a senior claims investigator for the GRG. "I've never heard of something like that before."

So what's the secret?

Tallmadge, heading toward 103, was the first person in her family to attend college and should have graduated a year earlier. But she contracted tuberculosis during her sophomore year at Cornell and was in bed for nearly a year before returning to school and earning a degree from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with an emphasis in home economics (now human ecology).

"She landed a teaching job in Pennsylvania, but when she told them she was a Catholic, they said they didn't need her," her daughter, Alice Tallmadge said.

Ruth Tallmadge also served as head of the homemaking department at Richfield Springs High School in upstate New York and worked in the Catskills at a camp for Macy's store employees.

Tallmadge and her husband, Edgar, whom she met at Cornell, raised seven children and were married for nearly 60 years. Alice Tallmadge says her mom has never smoked, and the only regular exercise she got was climbing up and down the stairs in their home countless times while raising seven children.

"We were always given balanced meals," Alice Tallmadge said. "We had a huge victory garden. Her home economics training was oriented toward nutrition and balanced meals. She preached moderation. They were both farming people, close to the earth, and my mom's an emotionally independent person. She loves it when we come to visit, but she doesn't ask us to. She takes charge of her own emotional being.

"She's also cultivated a whole bunch of friends younger than her and she plays bridge once a week," Alice Tallmadge said. "In the Depression, that's what they did. She remembers how to play, but she can't tell you how she did."

Ruth Tallmadge survived breast cancer and had a double mastectomy two decades ago, but skipped radiation because she didn't want to drive across town. She also travels every year to family reunions in Mexico, where she and her husband vacationed for many years. She only stopped driving last year.

"We finally took her keys away," Alice said. "It was time to stop. She was not happy with that decision."

Today, Tallmadge still lives in the same house she's been in since the 1930s and has 14 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren, aged 1 to 18 years old.

"I think it's great," Alice Tallmadge said. "I asked her about living this long. She said, 'I never expected this, but I try to take what each day brings.' "

"Stay healthy and enjoy life. That's the best you can do," added Todd, who has 12 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.

And then there's 109-year-old Helen "Happy" Faith Keane Reichert, Class of 1923.

"She swears by her beer, her cigarettes, and a couple of tablespoons of lemon curd," Berglas said with a laugh.