59 years later, Towson U. does the right thing

Woman banned from commencement because of pregnancy in 1951 gets her day of celebration

May 24, 2010|By Susan Reimer

It is graduation season, a time of year when there are lots of heartwarming stories of men and women receiving diplomas after a lifetime of determined struggle or of dreams postponed.

Susan Fedder Garten's story is one of these, but with a twist.

She earned her teaching diploma in 1951 from what was then Towson State Teachers College at the age of 21. But she was denied the opportunity to walk across a stage in cap and gown and receive it because she was pregnant.

She was married, but she was in the late stages of pregnancy, and a university official wrote her a letter telling her that her appearance at the graduation exercises would be offensive.

"Because of your present advanced stage of pregnancy, I am confident that you have no serious intentions of attempting to participate in the academic processions …" read the letter from the advisor to the class of 1951.

"You must realize that such participation would be most unwise from several points of view. … In making plans for the academic processions and related matters, no place will need to be made for you. Likewise, you will not appear in person on the stage of the auditorium to receive your diploma."

All these years later, Mrs. Garten finally got a chance to wear a cap and gown during Towson University commencement exercises Thursday, and a painful slight of 59 years ago was made right.

"It was my mother who was heartbroken, and that really affected me the most," said Mrs. Garten during an interview before the ceremony. "She was determined that I would get my degree no matter what. When I was sick, it was her strength that kept me in school.

"She said, 'There's one thing that is going to come out of this for sure. You will graduate.'"

Bess Fedder had never had the chance for college, and she was determined that her children would. "We were raised to understand that everybody got an education and came out with a career and took care of themselves.

"My mother and I went to the graduation, but I couldn't be in the procession," Mrs. Garten remembered from her home in Baltimore's Colonnade. "They told me I could pick up my diploma later, and a couple of days later someone tossed it to me from across a counter."

Within a week, her first child was born — there would be five children — and Mrs. Garten only used her degree as an occasional substitute teacher during the years that followed.

She did not bear a grudge against Towson University. In fact, she and her husband, Herbert Garten, a former president of the Maryland State Bar Association, raise funds for Towson.

(Mr. Garten, who was in the Army at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania at the time, came to Baltimore on leave to press his wife's case with Towson, but to no avail.)

It was during one of those fundraising meetings between his father and Towson President Robert Caret that Mrs. Garten's son, Maury, decided to try to make things right.

"I went to the bank and got the letter out of the safety deposit box and I met my father and Dr. Caret at Miss Shirley's, where they were having lunch, and I said, 'I need to take care of something.'"

A safety deposit box? Yes. Mrs. Garten had kept that letter all these years.

"It is a piece of history," said her son.

"The only thing that has ever hurt me more than that letter was the loss of a child," said Mrs. Garten.

Within a week of the meeting at Miss Shirley's, Mrs. Garten received an invitation to participate in the commencement exercises for Towson's college of education, and she was on stage when the procession of students arrived. She was wearing a black gown trimmed in velvet and a gold hood.

During the granting of diplomas, Dr. Caret stopped, acknowledged Mrs. Garten on stage and read that strange letter aloud by way of explanation. When he finished, explaining that commencement was an educational capstone that should not be denied any graduate, the students erupted in a standing ovation.

Afterward, Mrs. Garten, clutching a bouquet of flowers like any other graduate, and her family — which included three generations and four children who are lawyers — celebrated at (where else?) Miss Shirley's Cafe.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. E-mail: susan.reimer@baltsun.com. Twitter.com/susanreimer.

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