For many Unionites, the friendships formed during their time in Lincoln turned out to be something worth holding on to for the rest of their lives. Before Facebook, Twitter and cell phones, classmates had to find creative ways to stay in touch as they spread out across the country and the world.
The Laundry Letter
Ann Gruzensky Bauer ’36 came to Union in 1935 for her pre-nursing requirements and got a job in the college’s laundry to pay for school. “I loved my two years at Union,” she recalled. “I have great memories and I wish I could have gone back to finish my degree, but I didn’t have the money. The first year my parents gave me $100 for college and only $50 the second. I worked a lot, but I got through without owing any money.”
The summer between her freshman and sophomore years Bauer stayed at school to make money for the next academic year. Under the direction of Vernon Dunn, the laundry supervisor, she and six other students processed laundry from local businesses in Lincoln. The friendships that developed between them carried on through the year and the rest of their lives. “We worked together closely for long hours every single day,” she said. “We really got acquainted; it was more like a family.”
After two years at Union, Bauer was accepted into a nursing program in Boulder, Colo., and the group of friends began to disperse. Before they parted ways, they determined to stay in touch and devised a plan to keep connected. “We decided that wherever anyone went, we would just keep writing to each other,” she said. “We made an alphabetical list of everyone’s name and sent it to each person.”
In what was later deemed the “laundry letter,” the friends circulated a communal letter among them. Whenever someone received the letter, they would remove their old information and put in updated news before sending it on to the next person. With this approach, everyone would receive the same information and the group stayed connected. “It was so much fun,” said Bauer. “We kept in touch for years and years with that letter.”
The letter circulated around the group for many years, recording important life-changing events. “At first everyone was getting a job, then getting married and then having babies,” Bauer recalled. “We’d put in pictures of the babies and just keep in touch like that.”
Bauer finished nursing school in Colorado and married Albert Bauer, a theology major and one of the laundry delivery drivers she worked with over the summer. “He finished college at Union while I took nursing,” she explained. “We’d write letters and see each other about every six months. I had a happy marriage for 65 years and enjoyed the work we did together.”
The Bauer family would often write to the others about their ministry and various travels. “My husband was a pastor for five years and then worked in the conference office as head of the Sabbath school and lay activities department,” Bauer said. “It was interesting to write about because every Sabbath we went to a different church.”
Bauer stayed in contact with everyone for many years through the Laundry Letter. “Whenever we could, all through the years, we knew where everybody lived,” she said. “My roommate also worked in the laundry and settled in Colorado. Seven or eight years after I got married we happened to be nearby for a convention and stayed with her. I never did get to everyone’s homes, but whenever we could we would stop and see each other. We kept in touch for years and years with that letter.”
The letter took a couple months to reach each member, but was delayed even longer if someone forgot or misplaced it. “As we got older, we moved to different places and had different jobs,” Bauer explained. “I wish I would have kept track of when it completely stopped, but we had it going for more than twenty years. We were a pretty dedicated bunch.”
The letter eventually petered out and Bauer wonders if she may be the only surviving participant. “Somebody would forget to send it and then we would hear that a member of our class passed away; it just deteriorated,” she said. “I really don’t know who got the last one. We were waiting for it and waiting for it, but it never came.”
Bauer looks back with fondness at her time at Union and the friends she made there. She hopes to visit the campus again soon, though the old laundry and familiar buildings now no longer exist. “I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Union College,” she said. “I just hope that everybody who attends enjoys it as much as I did; it was two wonderful years of my life. I’m glad I had a chance to be there.”
The 50-year newsletter
“The newsletter is the one thing that has really bonded us through the years,” said Joyce Hagele Heim ’63. “Whenever we get together it’s like we just pick up from the day we graduated.”
Until 1955, nursing students at Union College traveled to Boulder, Colo., for their last two years of classes at Boulder Sanitarium; and after that a Union College Nursing Department building was built at Porter Memorial Hospital in Denver. As a small group on an isolated campus, students grew close to each other throughout their intensive coursework.
Fifty years later, the nursing graduates of 1963 still maintain their special bond thanks to a newsletter begun when they graduated fifty years ago. Despite the distances between them they continue to keep in touch and look on each other like family.
“None of us wanted to lose contact with one another, so we decided to have a newsletter,” said Lenora Wagner Werth, a Walla Walla transfer student originally from North Dakota. “Then it just kept going.”
The 26 nursing graduates started what they called The Mile Squeezer to stay informed about each other’s lives. The annual letter compiled the latest news from the participants and was sent to everyone in their nursing class to shorten the distance between them. “We all went so far away, and this brought us back together,” said Coleen Bieber Harner ’63.
“I guess we were just interested in what everyone was doing,” said Werth. “I saw my roommate every once in a while, but didn’t see much of my other classmates.”
Each year a different person acted as editor to collect the information and compile it into a letter. “Originally somebody would type it up and photocopy it,” said Joan Krause Denny ’63. “Sometimes it would be just a few pages, but then other times it could get rather lengthy. Sometimes we even included pictures.”
“Some girls would send in a full page and others would just write a half page or paragraph,” explained Heim. “It depended on what they wanted to say and what they did. You kind of just did a catch-up of what happened since the last letter.”
Contents and methods for sending the letter have changed throughout the years. “We’ve sent it by email maybe the last three or four years,” said Loella Reile Johnson ’63. “There are a couple people who never did get computerized, so we still print it off and send it to them by mail.”
In the letter, the class shared news about their lives and coordinated reunions. “When we first started out it was all about the weddings,” said Heim. “Then it was the babies, then their weddings and then the babies from those weddings. So what was involved in the newsletter kind of went in cycles and changed with the times.”
“We always put in the newsletter if we were going to class reunions,” said Werth. “Some of us would also call one another and just keep in contact that way.”
After fifty years of sending out The Mile Squeezer, the retired nurses have decided to let it rest. “Fifty years is long enough,” said Heim. “Being the editor is a lot of work. We never even thought that it would last an entire 50 years.”
“If we continued on then we could send it via iPad,” joked Johnson.
“I’m going to leave that for the young and energetic here,” retorted Heim. “It’s been fun and we’ll probably continue to keep in touch via email.”