By Abigail Bainbridge
The space was filled with a happy buzz of noise as 18 sorority “girls,” mostly from the Indiana University Bloomington chapter of Alpha Omicron Pi’s classes of ’69 and ’70, as well as five of their husbands came together in the event lounge of Hills Garden Inn in Bloomington, IN, just a couple blocks from the edge of the campus where they met more than half a century ago.
While some of them hadn’t seen each other in the 50 years since they graduated, they would try to identify each other before the newcomer had a chance to put on her name tag— and most of the time they were right.
During their appetizers, the women could often be found in little clusters discussing everything that had happened in the last 50 years, how they met their husbands, where they live now, their children and grandchildren, health issues that come with living in your 70s.
Beverly Farrell, AOPi class of ’69, organized the reunion. She had the idea back in January when she was catching up with another AOPi sister, Mary Lee Arndt, over a meal when they happened to be in the same city.
“It had been so long since we were all in the same place, and this is a landmark year for us,” Farrell said. “So, I started reaching out to people on Facebook, and I joined Whitepages, and it really snowballed from there.”
When Farrell was organizing the weekend’s itinerary, including a campus tour and a look inside the new AOPi house on Jordan Ave, she had to take into consideration that it might not be as easy for some of her sorority sisters to get around campus as it was when they lived in the AOPi house.
“When I told them [the tour coordinators] how old we are, they said, ‘You’re gonna need a bus!’” Farrell said, “and I said ‘Oh yes, we are!’”
All of these women started their adult lives right here at Indiana University Bloomington, and while their adult lives varied greatly, they all said that their time in the AOPi house at IUB shaped them into the women they have become.
Several of the women met their husbands on IU’s campus.
Donna Meyer, graduated from IUB in 1969 as Donna Brugh with a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry. Four years earlier, on the first day of classes in the fall of 1965, she met her husband in their very first class, Latin, in Lindley Hall. They had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary the week before the reunion.
However, a lot has changed since that fateful day in 1965.
“This is our first time on campus in, probably, 45 years,” Meyer said. “The trees are a lot taller, but it’s as beautiful as ever.”
The Meyers bounced around depending on where her job as a school psychologist and her husband’s job as a school administrator took them and their family. They now live in Brentwood, CA.
Alice Coate also met her husband at IU, although not as immediately as Meyer did.
Coate started school as Alice Brumfield, but by the time she graduated with her degree in music education in 1969 her name had changed to Alice Coate.
“We actually met through another AOPi girl,” Coate said. “She set us up on a blind date. We went out a few times after that, and I guess we just hit it off.”
Coate’s husband, Dallas Coate, was a year older than her and in 1969 was at Purdue working on a master’s degree when he got drafted to go to Vietnam.
“He called me up from where he was in Lafayette and said, ‘I’ve gotten my two weeks draft notice; let’s get married.’ I told him I would, and he came down to Bloomington,” Coate said.
“It was beautiful,” Coate said. “Very small. We were from different parts of the state. He didn’t know anybody from my hometown, and I didn’t know anybody from his. Just us and our college friends, mostly, together on campus.”
Coate’s husband made it back from Vietnam. They went on to have three sons. After returning he finished his graduate program and eventually went to medical school. Now they live in Katy, TX.
Jeannie Taylor, then Jeannie Christopher, served as AOPi’s president when she was a sophomore in 1967.
She remembers when she rushed AOPi and had an older friend already in the house.
“She told the girls in the house ‘If you pledge this woman she will be your president one day, I can tell you that.’ I guess she was right.” Taylor said.
In addition to serving as AOPi’s president, she also served as one of their representatives to the Panhellenic Association, a governing group for the wider Greek community. One of her favorite memories of AOPi comes from a Panhellenic retreat on Mackinac Island.
“I mean, it was a lot of meetings,” Taylor said. “But being on Mackinac Island with my sisters was amazing with bicycles and horse drawn carriages, right out of a history book. Oh, and that fudge!”
After leaving IU Taylor did everything from international sales, where she utilized her Spanish major and French minor, to social work before running an inherited family business for 15 years in Elmhurst, IL, where she lives with her husband Benjamin Taylor.
In 1969 Carol (Singer) Viau graduated with a degree in Radio and TV Production, but her professional interests had already taken a slight turn by graduation. She had already interned during her undergraduate career in the press department of successful Democratic candidate Birch Bayh (D-IN), and in his office once he was a senator.
Upon graduation, Viau took a position in the press department of the office on U.S. House Representative Andy Jacobs (D-IN), although, she quickly began to question whether or not the world of politics was for her.
Within a few years of graduation, she accepted a position in the creative department of Leo Burnett World Wide, Inc.’s Chicago office, which is still one of the biggest advertising firms in the world.
Once she started working at Leo Burnett she quickly realized men were being promoted and women were not. She considered filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but with no other women in her office willing to join her, she gave up the idea for a couple of years.
But Viau said that eventually she felt that she had to sign the complaint and submit it to the EEOC. Even two years later she was still the only woman in her office willing to take the stand, but this time she did it, alone. The EEOC immediately issued a decision stating that Leo Burnett was breaking the law.
Eventually, Viau left the Chicago area and took an advertising job at a different firm in southern Florida to be closer to her sisters.
“My husband actually worked for a rival firm we ‘stole’ a client from,” Viau said. “That’s actually how we met.”
They got married just a year after she moved to the area and lived there for 20 years before moving out to the mountains of Waynesville, NC, eight years ago. Now they’re both retired, but Viau stays busy by doing public relations for a local nonprofit animal rescue, and her husband has a weekly food and drink column in the local paper.
As we finished our interview, Viau was already getting up from the table to greet a woman who had just arrived, saying, “Oh I haven’t seen her in years! I was in her wedding party!”
When planning the reunion Farrell had designed a presentation titled “Then, When and Now” to demonstrate how sorority life has changed throughout the years. Current AOPi house mother, Nancy Russell, volunteered to speak on the “now” portion and Farrell’s college roommate Trish Branam spoke about “when” these women had been on campus. Farrell, said she felt incredibly lucky when Gayle Cook agreed to present the “then.” portion.
Cook, co-founder of the multibillion-dollar Cook Group, which includes Cook Medical, and member of AOPi’s class of 1956 is arguably one of AOPi and IU’s most famous alumni.
Back in the 1950s, when she went by Gayle Karch, she was in the first group of girls to live in the original AOPi house, now a campus building.
“At the time we really thought it was the cat’s meow,” Cook said. “All that limestone!”
For Cook, who came from the humble beginnings of a family farm in Evansville, IN, IU and AOPi have always had a special place in her heart.
When she came to IU she studied nursing for a semester before realizing it wasn’t for her and she switched to fine art.
“Little did I know I would spend my life producing medical equipment!” she said.
However, she doesn’t regret the decision to switch.
“Coming to IU I was exposed to so much art. It was so important for my cultural development and understanding of the world. I think being exposed to all kinds of art is important for all college students.”
After college, she moved to Chicago and got an apartment with one of her AOPi sisters. They both worked downtown for a year until she married her husband, William Cook.
In 1963 the Cooks moved back to Gayle Cook’s college town of Bloomington, IN, to be closer to the IU Health University Hospital in Indianapolis, which was one of the only hospitals in the country doing the experimental treatment which would use the cardiovascular catheter the Cooks were building.
“We were in this tiny apartment making these catheters in our bedroom with a baby in the other room,” Cook said.
Even now as an octogenarian, Cook tries to stay active in the AOPi Alumni Association.
“I’m very grateful to AOPi and the alumni association,” she said. “When we first moved to Bloomington it was really how we made our friends.”
The women at AOPi’s 50th reunion all started out on Bloomington’s campus. And whether they met their husband on the first day of classes on campus or in South Florida nearly 20 years after graduation, whether they brought thousands of jobs to the local community or ended up halfway across the country teaching music to children in Texas, they all had something similar to say.
When it came to their experience with AOPi and IU, there were many memories, but even more than the memories, the women agreed, what sticks out to them when they think of their time in AOPi is a feeling. A feeling of comradery, of joy, and of love. A feeling of family. It’s clear that, even 50 years later, at least for these women, the old adage, “It’s not just four years, it’s for life” rings true.