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Thetas thrive for half-century

  Dee Ann Rexroat  

Kappa Theta alumnae are celebrating their milestone during Homecoming 2004 Oct. 8 and 9. Highlights are a kickoff picnic on campus at noon Friday, a dinner and program Friday evening at the Cedar Rapids Marriott, and the annual Theta reception during halftime of the football game.

Kappa Theta’s colors, brown and yellow, and its original flower, the brown-eyed Susan, were based on this dress worn by Kathryn Falb Gutz ’57.

The Theta alumnae and actives are working to raise $25,000 to establish the college’s first social group endowed scholarship. The scholarship will be awarded annually to a “woman student(s) who exemplifies the ideals of Cornell College” demonstrating academic, social, and personal leadership skills.

The year was 1954, enrollment was up, and Cornell’s dean of women called in five women, hand-picked from the sophomore class, with a secret mission.

Her charge to them: Form a new social group.

The women returned to Pfeiffer Hall and met into the night. “We made a list of people we absolutely couldn’t do without, and if anyone said no, we agreed not to move ahead,” recalls Kathryn Falb Gutz ’57, who would later serve as the group’s adviser and whose daughter, Julia Gutz ’88, would become a future president. “All of them said yes.”

Roommates Donna Mease Nicholson ’57 and Patricia Overhulser Rohovit ’57 got a surprise visit that night.

“I got this midnight rap on our door and they said, ‘Come on, we want to tell you something.’ We followed them to their room and they told us, ‘We want you to be part of it.’ The campus was in for a real surprise on pledge day,” Nicholson recalls.

The women spent about a week organizing the group, choosing a name (based on the national sororities Kappa Kappa Gamma and Kappa Alpha Theta), colors, symbols, and writing a constitution. On pledge day, recalls Rohovit, “We wore our new brown-and-yellow ribbons to breakfast. All the waiters were looking to see who was in the new group.”

Fifty years later, the Thetas are one of the largest women’s social groups on campus with 41 members (after graduating 13 seniors), which includes the current and past presidents of Student Senate, members of Mortar Board, captains of sports teams, resident assistants, and recent Phi Beta Kappa graduates.

“Our members are respected leaders within the Cornell community, and we make a conscious effort to maintain that respect as a group of classy, independent women,” says president Megan Woodman ’05. “Thetas are visible and active in numerous aspects of campus life. We do our best to maintain the original ideals and traditions of Kappa Theta and continue to be an influential group.”

Comments from more than 90 alumnae who returned Theta surveys described the Theta influence.

For Melissa Santana Wiegand ’85, a technical environmental manager in Maysville, Ky., Thetas “added fun and laughter to a somewhat stressful time.”

Founder Marianne Swath Kollasch ’57, of Fort Myers, Fla., wrote that she experienced “friendship, loyalty, and pride in belonging to a group of outstanding young women. It was a great security to be part of a group like that at a time when major decisions were being made about my life and what I would accomplish.”

Being a Theta gave balance to Cornell trustee and Cedar Rapids family physician Wendy Buresh ’74, who wrote: “Without the Thetas, I would have spent all of my time with my books as a compulsive pre-med student. Without Thetas, I would probably have no female friends!”

Tania Mahinda ’95, who does pharmaceutical research in San Diego, wrote that “being a Theta helped give me a lot of confidence, enthusiasm, and drive to pursue my goals.”

Many wrote about the continuing influence of their Theta experience.

Thetas raise money for breast cancer research in the 1995 Especially for You Women’s Race (from left: Becky Yeung Lew ’96, Keighly Ballje Appel ’97, Kelly Gehrke Manning ’96, and Erica Osmundson Reimers ’98). Theta projects for 2003-04 included the Women’s Race and other fund-raising walks, the Lunch Buddies program with elementary students, Valentines for Veterans, Meals on Wheels, and Adopt-A-Family.

Founder Phyllis Hogle Newton ’57, a retired elementary school teacher in Lompoc, Calif., and the group’s third president, wrote that “knowing that I had been accepted and liked by a group of outstanding girls gave me confidence to be more outgoing and willing to try new ideas and friendships. I have moved 19 times in my adult life and have adjusted to these new adventures, made many new friends, and become involved in many communities with little trepidation.”

Rebecca J. Wearin Pulk ’62, a Glenwood, Iowa, farm owner, says she “respected the Thetas and being one gave me self-respect. It made me a better person. The thought of being a Theta always makes me want to be better—to ‘straighten up’—to do more.”

Maleah Farnam Stroud ’01, a student at the Indiana School of Optometry, credits her social group experience with helping her “be a stronger woman academically, socially, and more driven overall.”

Thetas of all eras reported that they nurture their Theta friendships with periodic reunions to celebrate milestones, to comfort a friend in need, or for no reason at all.

“The Thetas connected me with a lot of fun, classy girls, many of whom are still my friends today, 38 years later. Sisterhood through the Thetas reminds me today how important the women friends are in my life,” says Carol Busch Telling ’66, a Rockford, Ill., fund-raising consultant and member of the Cornell Alumni Board.

Among those planning to attend the reunion is Julia Gutz ’88—former Theta president and daughter of founder Kathryn Falb Gutz ’57—who even changed her wedding date so she and her mother could attend the Theta reunion.

Kathryn remembers Julia initially rejecting the idea of being a Theta. “First, she wasn’t going to be in a group. Then she told me, ‘Don’t think I’m going to be in that group you were in just because you were in it,’” she recalls. “Two or three months later she told me, ‘Mother, that group you were in is really the best group on campus.’

“The shocking thing to me was when I came back years later to work at the college and became the adviser. I couldn’t get over how similar they were to the group we founded.”

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