A Walk in Someone Else’s High-Heeled Shoes

Last weekend marked the occasion of the second Pima Hall Zoom reunion. Only forty girls at a time made it into that dorm at the University of Arizona, they generally stayed on for all four years.

We mostly came from small towns, many of which were places where the populations were smaller than our freshman class in 1962. In order to land in Pima, girls had to be nominated by a teacher, and potential Pima Hall girls had to have good grades. In other words, although no one actually said so, Pima was an honors dorm—one that involved doing our own cooking and cleaning. For the most part, we all worked our way through school, with a few scholarships thrown in on the side.

People who have seen me do live appearances know that I often close my presentations by singing Janis Ian’s song, At Seventeen. It starts with the following words:

I learned the truth at seventeen,
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired.

Well, Judy Busk was one of those girls. I never went on a date until after I was a freshman at the U of A. (The girls at Pima Hall called my boyfriend Jerry Janc, the Jerk, which only shows how much smarter they were than I was at the time, but I digress.)

Sororities were a really big deal on campus in those days, and Pima Hall was not sorority territory. We called ourselves GDIs—GD Independents. (Pretend you’re reading a Zane Grey book and feel free to fill in the missing bad words!) For decades sorority girls had had a lock on the title of Homecoming Queen. But in 1965, that longstanding tradition took a hit when Emily Sult, a Pima Hall girl from Florence, Arizona, walked away with the crown.

We were all thrilled when she was nominated. But what we didn’t know is this: Being homecoming queen costs money, something Pima Hall girls were short on. She needed head shots from a professional photographer. She needed to print posters. And being homecoming queen required a whole new wardrobe.

At the point, Pima Hall pitched in. We held bake sales to raise money. (Please note, with my lack of cooking skills, see previous blog, I did none of the baking.) Wonder of wonders, she won! And you know what? There was always a part of Judy Busk who was a bit jealous of that.

When my one-year roommate, Virginia Reyes Kramer, was organizing the reunion, I asked about Emily Sult. Virginia told me that due to a vision issue she wouldn’t be attending because she was afraid she wouldn’t recognize some of us. I told Virginia, “Hey, we’re all in our seventies. None of us would recognize the others if we met walking down the street.”

I wrote Emily a letter, and thinking reigning as Homecoming Queen was probably the high point of her university career, I told her how proud we all were of her back then, and how much I hoped she would attend. And she did. When we signed on to the Zoom, there she was with all white, curly hair, but as beautiful as ever.

As a side note here, there were 2,500 kids in our freshman class at the University of Arizona. Emily and I were both English majors. In our junior year, seven students—five girls and two boys–were chosen to be in the Honors English Literature class taught by a full professor, Dr. Paul Rosenblatt. It was a challenging class, but during the first year, the boys seemed to dominate all the classroom discussions. When the second year came along, the boys had dropped out and only the five girls—five very smart girls—remained. Two of those were Emily Sult and Judy Busk. That class gave me a tiny glimpse into how attending an all-girls school might have been a totally different experience.

But during the Zoom, Emily gave us a glimpse of something I never knew—that there was a dark side of being homecoming queen. During the two weeks leading up to Homecoming, there were all kinds of mandatory appearances. Although she enjoyed those, especially the parade and the part about welcoming alums back to campus, the events cause her to miss several classes. One of her professors (Not Professor Rosenblatt!) forced her to drop his class because a paper was late. (I wonder if he ever did that to one of the star football players!)

After being crowned, Emily found herself stalked and jeered at on campus. She received any number of cards and letters from men wanting to meet her—including several prison inmates. What I had always assumed to be a highpoint of Emily’s life had, in reality, been a nightmare, and probably one she would have preferred to forget. I’m lucky she decided to attend the Zoom reunion anyway, despite my sending her the letter reminding her of her Homecoming triumph.

When, as a junior, I wasn’t allowed in the U of A’s Creative Writing program, I took Article and Essay writing instead—and was the first person in the class to have an article published before the end of the semester. (It was an article recounting the history of Pima Hall which was published in the U of A Alumni magazine. Guess who still has a copy of that article? I don’t, but Emily does, and she’s going to send it to me!)

But I wasn’t the only one subjected to that kind of treatment back in the Sixties. Emily wanted to earn a biology minor. One of the requirements was taking an ecology lecture. Lectures for that were held in an auditorium with probably 200 students while the lab work was done in smaller groups. At her first lecture, Emily was the only girl in the room. When the professor showed up, he took one look at her and said, “The last time I had a girl in this class, I threw a snake in her lap.”

Unfortunately for him, Emily grew up in the desert and wasn’t afraid of snakes. She got her minor in biology anyway!

I’m so grateful Emily Sult showed up at our Zoom meeting. She’s been happily married for more than fifty years. She’s led an amazing life, living and working in Washington, DC.

The end of Janis Ian’s song goes like this:

And dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me.

Turns out, the same thing is true for the girls who really were the beauty queens back then. And what my Pima Hall Zoom reunion taught me is this: You never know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.