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Phyllis Glasener Whitman ’44

Phyllis was born in Providence, Rhode Island, a year after women in the United States got the vote. She lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and the terms of 17 presidents. As a child, she enjoyed a Saturday morning art class at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she got her first taste of set and costume design and studied ballet. At the age of nine, she heard opera on the radio for the first time. “I thought I’d never heard anything more wonderful,” she said, and became a devout opera fan who in later years would study voice.

Her mother wanted her to get a degree in education so she wouldn’t have to work in an office, and Phyllis began at the Rhode Island College of Education. But three years into it, she told her mother she didn’t want to continue, and they began searching for another college. They consulted a book called Choosing a College, and at the end of each chapter was a listing of colleges that were “good in this way.” Reed was included in every category that was important to Phyllis. Because so many of her courses in Rhode Island had been geared to teaching, only two years of credits transferred to Reed. “I was very happy to discover that I had to take two years at Reed, instead of one,” she said. “I loved the campus and the buildings. It was just so wonderful to have all these people moving around and talking about things that I liked to hear people talk about!”

Phyllis majored in literature and wrote her thesis on the Pre-Raphaelites with Prof. Lloyd Reynolds [English and art 1929–69]. Going to Reed was one of the best decisions she ever made, she said. “It added a lot of understanding to my life.” She also credited Reed for influencing her work in poetry, which she enjoyed for years.

She remembered that during those days men visiting the women’s residence halls had to keep one foot in the hall at all times. Card games were played with the table pushed up to the door with men sitting in the hall and women in the room. By the end of her first semester, there were mostly female students on campus because the men had been called up to war. There were servicemen on campus taking premeteorology courses, but they weren’t in the regular classes.

“They were in the army and marched everywhere,” Phyllis recalled. “They were trying to learn an awful lot as fast as they could, and I think every week more of them were dropped.”

She was once asked whether the shortage of men meant more women finished their bachelor’s degrees instead of dropping out to get married.

“Reed makes the academic thing so delightful and so fascinating and wonderful that I think people want to finish,” she replied.

Phyllis had graduated by the time the G.I. Bill brought scores of men back to campus. She joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and was in boot camp at Hunter College in New York when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. From that time on WAVES began releasing women from service, so she was only in for a year. But she was eligible to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and studied voice for two years at the New England Conservatory of Music. Because her eyes were slow to focus, she had trouble reading music, and working at it harder didn’t make it better. She gave up the dream of a career in music and got a degree in library science from Simmons College.

In 1957, Phyllis married Lee Whitman. They lived in Lexington, where she was a reference librarian and tutor in the public schools and reviewed concerts for the Beacon newspapers. Phyllis sang in the church choir, often as an alto or mezzo soprano soloist; taught voice; and wrote poetry and children’s stories. She was politically active, took her right to vote seriously, and participated in peace marches in the 1970s, including John Kerry’s Vietnam Veterans against the War rally on Bunker Hill. She is survived by her daughter, Susanna Whitman.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2018

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