Elizabeth Sonneborn Oral History

Betty Sonneborn Interview
Bethlehem Central High School- Mr. Reed’s AP Chemistry Class
Spring 2006

Matt Schaffer: We’re here interviewing Betty Sonneborn and currently present are Mrs. Schwab, Mary Davis, Katy Wang, Nicole Angermier, Kelly Fitzsimmons, Natalie Singer, Matt Schaffer, and Betty herself. So, we’re gonna ask a lot of questions that we already know the answers to, but we want to get officially on record. I’m gonna be the main interviewer, but anyone feel free to jump in at any time. Well, first of all, where and when were you born?

Betty: 12/14/21 in Albany, New York, and um, lived there most of my life. I spent three years in Dallas after I was married, about, almost four years. But uh, and now I’m living in Slingerlands which I call Albany, more or less.

Matt: Tell us about uh, your experiences in high school.

Betty: Well I went to a Girl’s Academy from kindergarten on. My parents wouldn’t let me go to school when I was five; I had to wait until I was six. I had two younger sisters and my mother thought it was just fine for me to be home.

Matt: Mm hm.

Betty: She had gone to Wellesley, graduated from Wellesley, and wanted me to go there, and, so that’s where I applied. You only applied to one school in those days; you know, it was a little different. So I was accepted at Wellesley although there were eighteen girls in my class at the Girl’s Academy and they gave Cum Laude to the top five and I didn’t make it.

Matt: Ohh.

Betty: I was sixth.

(Shocked gasps from other students)

Betty: But, I mean, out of eighteen, you would have thought I could have done better. But in any case, when my father was 50, my parents took my two sisters and I to Europe and enrolled us in a school in Switzerland for the year and that was pretty interesting. I think I wrote in the little bio that I gave you…

Matt: Yea.

Betty: …about it, you know, it was really overwhelming, and we were there ten days and then we had to come home.

Matt: Yea.

Betty: But it was gorgeous, you know. You’re looking down over Lake Geneva. It was absolutely wonderful. [Both start talking at the same time].

Matt: Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. But certainly probably learning the different language is probably one of the main difficulties, but how did the actual education– the way you were taught in Switzerland vary from the way you were taught in the United States?

Betty: It was a lecture system pretty much.

Matt: Oh, okay.

Betty: But, you know, really, I didn’t get very much of it.

Matt: Mm hm.

Betty: In ten days…

Matt: Alright yea. Where exactly was the girl’s academy located at the time?

Betty: It was at 155 Washington Avenue.

Matt: Oh okay.

Betty: Where the library is now.

Matt: Oh okay.

Betty: The main public library. Right next door to that is a Teacher’s Regents Union or something like that.

Matt: Yea.

Betty: And next door was a Harmonus Bleecker Theater. And we watched as it burned. Somehow it caught fire and it burned. We were hanging out of the math room windows watching the firemen; I remember that. Scary.

Matt: What is one of your other most vivid memories from your time there?

Betty: We had horse-back-riding; that was one of the sports that was available that isn’t available now.

Female Student: That’s so cool.

Betty: And we rode at the armory on New Scotland Avenue. I lived very near there, a block and a half away, so my sisters and I were crazy about the horses. We’d go over and help them muck out the stables and stuff like that. We loved that. We had jumping. We had a horse show at the end of the year every year. And, I remember one year, when I was a senior, my sister Molly, who was the youngest, got the blue ribbon. My sister Jane, got the red ribbon. And I got the yellow ribbon, [laughter] and nobody clapped; everybody laughed [laughter]. So I remember that. Molly was really pretty much of an athlete, and she did flunk out of Wellesley, which I didn’t. Things evened out in the end [more laughter].

Matt: What do you think your most valuable experience there was, in terms of education.

Betty: You mean, before college?

Matt: Yeah.

Betty: I’m a pretty firm believer in single-sex education.

Matt: Mm hm.

Betty: It’s not quite so distracting. And I got a very good, even though I wasn’t the top of my class – it was very easy for me to go to Wellesley. My roommate was a girl who was valedictorian of her class in a school of 3,000 or something in Dicator, Illinois, and she flunked out at the end of the first semester. So, I was pretty well prepared.

Matt: Yeah. Well, do you remember what your favorite class at the time was?

Betty: I always wanted to be a famous artist.

Matt: You always wanted to be a famous artist? Yeah.

Betty: So, art [chuckles] was my favorite.

Matt: Yea.

Betty: I remember, we had—everybody had to take piano lessons. And that’s gone with the wind now [laughter].

Matt: Let’s see. What is your connection to the Dudley Observatory?

Betty: Well, I lived on Providence Street. And Providence Street runs from Blake Avenue to Ontario.

Matt: Mm hm.

Betty: Whale, Ontario. And on Blake Avenue was the Dudley Observatory.

Matt: Mm hm.

Betty: And, the head of Dudley Observatory was Benjamin Boss, who was, I guess he was Mr. It! He wrote the catalog of all of the stars then in the sky. And so, I knew him, and his wife’s name was Helga, and she came from Norway or Sweden, a Scandinavian country. And she was a very proper lady. They lived in a two-family house, about half-way down the street. And the observatory was where we went sleigh-riding. And we not only went sleigh-riding, we went skiing as well; we went tobogganing. And when you went skiing you had skis that had a leather strap across, and so you took your regular goulashes and slid ‘em into them and down you went. [Laughter] So different. Nobody had ski boots that I know of! But, by the time I was raising my own children, of course, it got a little more complicated.

Matt: Do you have any specific memories of the Boss family that you might like to reflect to us?

Betty: Well, as I say, I remember what a proper lady Mrs. Boss was. And, you have to remember that I was just a kid. They had a daughter, but she was younger. I think they may have had two. But, the only one I remember, Lu-Lu- Luticia? Luquitia? I can’t remember. I don’t know why I can’t remember right now. But anyway I can’t. But it was a wonderful block to grow up on. And there were 85 kids on the one block. And everybody did stuff together. We had a theater; we put on plays and did stuff like that. We charged everybody two cents to come up.

Matt: Good deal. Let’s see. So then you went on to Wellesley. Have you ever by any chance seen the movie “Mona Lisa Smile”?

Betty: Yes.

Matt: Yea. What’d you think of that?

Betty: Has nothing to do with Wellesley.

Matt: Nothing to do with Wellesley?

Betty: No, it was an awful movie [laughter] and it made Wellesley sound so terrible, which it wasn’t, even then. It was quite forward thinking, and a lot of interesting things went on on campus.

Matt: Yea, well, I have to admit, I didn’t see it, so, what’d you think was terrible about it?

Betty: It made the classes seem so structured and so, I mean, the teacher fed you something and you fed it back to him. It was, not very stimulating. I don’t know, I read it—I mean, I saw it quite a long time ago. So I guess I’ve forgotten. [To Janie Schwab]What do you remember?

Janie Schwab: I remember you complaining about how that’s not the way they dressed [laughter]. That everybody wore Bermuda shorts and cashmere sweaters.

Betty: I said that?

Janie: Yes.

Betty: No. No, we didn’t have cashmere.

Janie: Oh, excuse me.

Betty: Nobody had cashmere [laughter]. No one.

Matt: Um, so basically, you think that they were, in an effort, I think that the movie’s trying to say something about the women’s rights movement and changes, so you think that they exaggerated what it was like beforehand, like, made things seem worse?

Betty: Yeah, I think so.

Matt: Yeah, ok. Now, originally as you said you loved art, so you were an art history major, and then you transitioned to a physics major. Can you tell us about why you did that, and just about that change in your life?

Betty: Well, the Japanese bombed us at Pearl Harbor. And, of course nobody knew where Pearl Harbor was, they’d never heard of it. But we soon found out. I just thought that being an art major was not something that was going to help my country in any way, and after the first few weeks, the selective service went into operation and guys that you knew were being drafted, and others were volunteering, volunteering before the draft, actually, and so you knew people who were going off to war. And, I mean, I just, it was such a different war from this one. I can’t begin to tell you. You know, we had been attacked! We didn’t go out there and attack somebody else!
But anyway, I tried to change to a physics major. This was in December of my sophomore year. And I came back after vacation, after Christmas vacation, I went to see the dean and told her why that I wanted to change, and she said “Oh no, you can’t do that. You can’t possibly do that! You haven’t had any math!”

Matt: Mm hm.

Betty: Well, I guess I went along, and continued as an art major until the summer. I thought, that’s ridiculous. So, when I went back in my junior year, now she was really horrified [chuckles]. But I was going to be a physics major! I wasn’t going to be an art major anymore! And she finally gave in.
Well, at the time, so many people were drafted then, or volunteered, and went off, and the engineering companies were asked to turn out more and more, stuff, more and more airplanes, more and more everything, Jeeps, you name it. The Curtis-Wright corporation couldn’t get enough engineers. So, some very brave man, at their meeting to discuss what to do about the problem said, “You don’t suppose we could teach girls?” Everybody’s hair stood on end. “Teach girls? aeronautical engineering? I don’t think so.” Well, they were so desperate that they set up a program. They went around the country and visited all the engineering schools in the country, and they lined up nine of them that each agreed to take 100 girls. Then they started visiting colleges and looking for math majors and science majors, and when they got to Wellesley the dean said “I have just the girl for you!” So, he interviewed me, and a couple weeks later I got a letter saying that I had been accepted into the program, and that I was to report to the University of Texas. And my mother said, “No you’re not [laughter].” In the middle of a war, with transportation problems, the trains were crowded with servicemen; war was very much upon us. And she said, “Why would you go half-way across the country when you could just go across the river to RPI, which is a perfectly good school? Call ‘em up.” So I called ‘em up, and I said “could I switch to RPI?” and they said “Sure.”
So, I went to RPI. And they were very dubious. They were not at all sure that girls could do this. Appalling. But, in the end, when the program was over, one of the schools was Perdue, and one was Cornell, and one was UCal, and I can’t remember all of them. But, at one of them, I think it was at Cornell maybe, they gave a test in which they tested third-year Para nautical engineering students, and they gave the same test to the girls who were graduating from the Curtis-Wright program, we were called Curtis-Wright Cadettes. E-T-T. Cadette. And the top grades were—the four top grades were girls. Yeah [laughter]. Surprise surprise. I was invited recently to have lunch with Jean Neff who’s the head of Russell-Sage and she brought along her development person– I do a lot of fund-raising for various incendiary good causes– and the woman she had brought along had gone to RPI. And had heard about Curtis-Wright Cadettes, and had never met one. So we had a fine time together.

Matt: That’s good. So um, so, in high school you were in a single-sex school, and in college you were as well, and then you went to RPI which at the time was co-ed, so um, how were those experiences different?

Betty: Co-ed. There were 5,000 guys on campus, and 92 girls [laughter]. (Matt: Ohh okay.) The guys are falling out of the window to watch you walk to lunch [more laughter]. Big deal. It was different from the Girl’s Academy or Wellesley, but by that time Wellesley had men on campus too. The navy incentive program. Not while I was there, but right after I left, they set up a program there. And uh, the head of Wellesley became the head of the Waves. That’s the women’s Navy.

Matt: Oh, ok. Alright so…

Betty: And I want to tell you something else. These professors, they were undone at the idea of having to teach girls. They didn’t know how to talk to girls. It was really crazy. “Good morning girls. Today we are going to talk about amalgams.” This is a metal orgy class. “Today we’re going to talk about amalgams. Now,” he says “you know, when you bake a cake…” [Laughter] you know, who baked a cake? I never baked a cake! [More laughter] In a course that we had on, um, on how to write specs–specifications for whatever they had to do in the experimental shop, or whatever. Um we had a course called Specs, and the professor says “Now, you won’t have any trouble remembering how wire sizes go, because, they’re just like thread sizes”. You know, I mean, they really hardly knew how to deal with us. They were undone. We had the 5,000 guys who were pre-flight students, and I taught—I didn’t teach—well, we had a chaplain on campus and he asked if any of us could just do a music appreciation course at lunch-time. So I would read like crazy out of a book by Walter Demrosh about whatever records were available and then I would stand up in this huge room, and the guys are lying on the floor, all over the place, and I would stand there—I can’t believe I did this—and tell them about the music and how they were to listen for the repeats and things like that, and then I would play the records.
And the other thing that we did, we had, they had airplane identification, cause it was not so easy to identify a plane, whether it was a Japanese plane or our own, when it’s flying right by you. So they had silhouettes. And they would be on one side of the football field, and we’d be on the other side with these flash cards. And they’d have to say, was this a Foucault? Was this a Messerschmitt? Was it a Curtis-Wright P40, or whatever. So, three or four of the girls married professors, but I don’t think anybody married the guys. They were only there three months, and then they moved on. We were there nine months. We got two years of engineering in nine months. We didn’t have to take any English, we didn’t have to take any history, you know. It was strictly work. And they paid us, yes. And when we finished the course they paid us. And I have a copy of my message from my boss saying “as of next week you will have a raise, you will be paid $35 a week” [laughter]. A week! You guys won’t work for an hour, for 35 bucks, right?! [Laughter]

Matt: So, you said you didn’t take English, didn’t take history, but I’m interested you took music appreciation. Who’s your favorite composer?

Betty: Bach.

Matt: Me too [laughter].

Betty: What do you play?

Matt: I play the piano.

Betty: Yea, well, that’s why. Cause the piano stuff he did was fabulous.

Matt: Yeah. How difficult was it ‘cause you said you didn’t have much of a math base. Did you take math in high school?

Betty: Not in high school, no. No.

Matt: Not in high school, okay. So how, was it extremely difficult trying to…

Betty: Well, I don’t remember that it was so hard. It was, you know, it was just, you had to do what you had to do.

Matt: Mm hm. Now, at the time would students have time for extra curricular activities or jobs outside of school? Or was it, almost all of your time…

Betty: No, no, there was no time for that. We had a full schedule of courses, and we had a lot of homework to do. And we lived six to a room. Three double-decker bunks and three dressers— and six dressers, in an old building on River Street in Troy [chuckles], and um, it was hard! Yeah, there was a lot of stuff about it that was hard. There was—they had a bus to take us up to the campus, but only in bad weather. And sometimes, the day we got there the weather was horrendous. Snow storm with wind howling and, (sighs) a big campus. It wasn’t fun.

Matt: Uh, so tell us about your experiences after you graduated.

Betty: You mean when I was working?

Matt: Yeah.

Betty: Yes, as I say, I finally got $35 [laughter] a week. And we, a girl from Vassar who was in the program—these girls came from every school you could imagine—but she and I got to be good friends. And we lived in a rooming house, first, and then we finally found a house that was for rent. It belonged to a broadcaster, a radio broadcaster, named H.V. Caultenborn, and he was overseas. But everybody my age will remember H. V. Caultenborn, because he would come on at night, “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea…” or something like that.
Anyway, we rented his house. We worked a 50-hour week, it was a long week, and, and sometimes you had to work overtime. You had to write to the guys you knew who were overseas, and, there were no laundry facilities in the house, and the commercial laundries were swamped, they didn’t have enough help either, so we washed our sheets and everything in the kitchen sink. We hung it out, but we had to do this at night, you know, unless we did it weekends. And weekends, maybe you’d go into New York because some guy was coming through. It had to be only just a friend; it wasn’t like somebody I was madly in love with. Although there was a guy that I was crazy about who came into the Philadelphia Navy yards while I was working. I had to take a train to Philly, and then I had to take a cab to the Navy yards, and then I had to go through this big checking business to get inside the Navy yards. Then I think some noncommissioned officer took me over to where his ship was, which was an aircraft carrier, and it was enormous, it was just—you can’t believe how big those things are if you’ve never seen one. It’s just huge! Well, they have to be. An airplane has to take off and land, hopefully. So we had lunch, in the mess hall, an officer’s mess, and then he put me back, and he took me back to the gate, and I got into the cab, and I went back to Caldwell. Caldwell, New Jersey, which is the plant I worked in. And my job, the department was experimental design division, of the propeller department. So all I did was, well, props work—you know when you paddle a canoe, how you have to feather—well, to change the speed of the prop, you have to be able to rotate back. And there were two manufacturers for propellers at the time, Curtis-Wright and Hamilton Standard. And Ham Standard worked on a centrificle course system. I really don’t know exactly about it. The— I forget what the name of it is—the central section was filled with heavy oil, and changing, I don’t know how they did it. Ours was electrical, which meant lots of gears and lots of electrical circuitry. That’s what I did all day, draw stuff like that. Except, you know, one of the things you have to know is, every once and a while my boss would say, “My wife would like to have this plated. Would you run this down to the…” you know, that stuff they used to do. I don’t think they get away with that kind of stuff anymore, but maybe they do.

Matt: Yeah. Well, I’m kind of ignorant about aeronautical engineering, so, can you go over what a prop is? What do you mean by prop?

Betty [and others]: Propeller!

Matt: Oh, prop, okay. [Laughter]

Betty: You can cut that out of the tape. [Laughter]

Matt: Yea. No, it’s… Okay. [More laughter] So, at any point in your life did your art history major help you out in your career?

Betty: No, I don’t think so. I’m a practicing artist, hah hah, it says here. I do portraits of people’s homes, which is a lot of fun. And I mostly do them for benefits, things like this; I always have some with me (shows some examples). So, I do that. And that’s, and I enjoy that very much. And people bid on having it done, and it usually brings in, 3 or 4 hundred dollars. Well, it’s yay big, you know, it’s not that little. People have note cards made. I love doing this; it’s a wonderful excuse to sit outside in the nice weather and sit and sketch. So that’s really helped my hobby-one of my hobbies.

Matt: So what did you do after the war?

Betty: After the war… I went back to Wellesley! They were not sure what some of these courses were, but they were very anxious to have me come back and do alright, because thousands and thousands of servicemen were going to be mustered out shortly and would be coming back to their schools. It was interesting to everybody in the whole education field—how will people who’ve been out for that long adapt? Well, an art major, at Wellesley, you had to pass an exam at the end of your four years covering your four years in your major field, in order to graduate. Now, a current art major you had to identify slides, and who painted it and when did he live. No she’s, they were all he’s. But anyway, they put me in a dorm with all sophomores, ‘cause it was where there was a free room, and my sophomores all helped me so much, trying to quiz me on these things.
The day came for the exam, the general exam; it was at the art building, so I went up to the art building, and the whole morning it was slides. I mean slides of things you’d never seen before. You’re supposed to recognize the artist, slides of cathedrals, all kinds of stuff like that. I go back to the dorm for lunch and come back up for the afternoon session to the art department. Here’s the head of the art department waiting for me, and he says “Hi Betty. I hope you do well this afternoon.” I say, “Bad?” and he says, “Pretty bad.” And I said, “How bad?” and he said, “F!” Well, I’m not gonna graduate; what’s gonna happen here? Anyway, the afternoon there was one question; trace the development of realism in the history of art. Piece of cake. You know me now well enough to know, you use what you know, and you just write write write write write. So they gave me an A in the afternoon and they let me graduate. Which was very nice of them.

Matt: Oh, ok, so I was confused, you didn’t have your degree when you were actually working at first.

Betty: Yes, I didn’t get a degree from RPI. I got a certificate.

Matt: Oh ok. So after that, what profession did you go into?

Betty: I didn’t go into any profession; I worked as a volunteer at the Albany Institute of History and Art. And, one day my cousin came by the house after work and said “Come on up to the lake with me.” Well he, his parents had a place at Star Lake which is just north of Tupper; I don’t know if, it’s in the Adirondacks anyway. And I said, “I can’t.” My parents had a place at Canada Lake which is on the side of Johnstown, Gloversville; anyway, “I can’t because I don’t have a bathing suit Sid. They’re all up at the lake.” “Oh, well, see if you can’t borrow one or something.” Well, it was desperately hot, and I thought it would be fun to go up with him. You’re not gonna believe this. So I went upstairs, and I got a skirt, and I cut it off [laughter]. And the piece that I cut off, became the top [more laughter], and I did so very badly, a couple of ribbons as straps, and tied something around here, I don’t remember what I did, but, and it was pink and white striped, and I had some pink underpants, and that was, that was a bathing suit. So, we went up and that was Friday after work, work at my volunteer job and his regular job.

(Part missing)

Betty: I have to back up and say, my grandmother had gone to the Star Lake and when her seven children were small she had taken them there. It was run by the guy who ran the hotel management school at Cornell, and all help were all kids like you, college kids mainly, and my husband’s family had gone there for years also. So there were a lot of his aunts and uncles, a lot of my aunts and uncles, and a lot of the people besides. But anyway we paddle over and Sid says, “Hey, there’s Dick Sonneborn. HEY DICK!” And Dick dives in the water, swims out, I’m in this bathing suit [laughter], and he dumps the canoe [more laughter]. And six days later he proposed! [“oh wow”s and “oh my god”s] And we have been married for sixty years! So that’s what I did after college. [Laughter]

Matt: Wow, uh, six days! [Laughter]

Betty: Six days. But it wasn’t like, six dates. It was all day long. Swimming, and eating, and, one of my aunts—my aunt had a boxer and he, the stupid dog bit a porcupine, and had a mouthful of quills, and so that was kind of awful. It was in the evening, and Dick was at my aunt’s for dinner and so we had to take the dog to the vet’s and we managed to give the dog a sleeping pill of my aunt’s, a Nembutal. And, because his mouth was so bad, you just put it in and rub the throat, and that’s how you give a dog a pill. Anyway, so we took him to the vet’s. And so here’s the dog laid out on the examining table, and here I am, and the vet says, “Would you hold his leg?” And so I hold his leg, and the vet takes some ether, and, and pretty soon, I fell right into Dick’s arms. [Laughter] So, you see, it wasn’t just dates [laughter]. Anyway, sixty years later, it’s still ok!

Matt: Oh obviously, if, since we’re getting your personal life, if there’s anything you want off the record, we can do that.

Betty: What?

Matt: Since we’re getting into more, like, personal stuff, if there’s anything you want off the record, we can take it off the record.

Betty: Oh, no.

Matt: Oh ok. So, as a guy, I’m curious to know…

Betty: I mean, you think I should be ashamed?

Matt: No, no, I don’t.

Betty: I should indeed be ashamed of that bathing suit! [Laughter]

Matt: But I was, I was supposed to say that at the beginning of the interview, and I forgot to say it, so. So what was it about him that he made such a good impression in six days? And for the next sixty years? What qualities? [Laughter]

Girls: Matt wants some girl help! [Laughter]

Betty: Gee ya know, I had, at the time I was there, I called the guy I had a date with the following weekend in New York and said I wouldn’t be coming down. I stayed at my aunt’s an extra few days and didn’t come home with Sid because Dick had to be in New York. He was working in Texas at the time, so we got on the train. I had my Wellesley class ring, I put it on this finger and turned it so it doesn’t look like a Wellesley class ring and we necked all the way down on the train [laughter]. We got to Albany and what is now Kiernan plaza was then the railroad station. (Matt: Mm hm.) And the train pulled in, and Dick took my bag, and we came down—you had to come down some steps and my father was waiting at the foot of the steps—and I said “Daddy, I’d like to have you meet Dick Sonneborn.” They shook hands and Dick said “I’m sorry, I have to go on—get back on the train”. So we got out in the car and I said “Daddy, you know that guy you just met? I’m going to marry him.” And my mother shrieked [laughter]. Anyway, what about him? He was tall and gorgeous [laughter]. And he was gentle and nice, thoughtful, kind. Just right [laughter].

Matt: Was your mother’s shriek a shriek of joy, or, shock, or…

Betty: Shock. [Laughter]

Matt: Shock?

Betty: Shock, yes. And then we did go to New York that following weekend for my father’s birthday, and my two sisters and I and mother and daddy, and then Dick had to come and ask for my hand, and he got caught in a traffic jam, oh, he had a terrible time. He was a nervous wreck by the time he got there, but anyway. The company he worked for was called “L. Sonneborn Sons”. And so he had –I don’t know what did I start to say. He did, he asked for my hand. And, we met his parents. Oh, what I started to say was, he only had another two days and then he had to be back in Texas. And so after that, I didn’t see him again. Well, we were married, that was August and we were married in October. I didn’t see him again until he arrived five days before the wedding. And you didn’t use the phone all that much in those days. It was too expensive. So we wrote twice a day.

Matt: Huh.

Girl: Awwwww! [Laughter]

Matt: Now, you say he had to ask for your hand and, so, at the time was it the formality that he would meet your parents and you would have to ask them as well? Or…

Betty: No. It was sort of a formality. It was not real.

Matt: Yeah. Um…

Betty: My children have all done that when they got married.

Matt: Oh, ok. And uh…

Betty: In fact, our youngest son, when—and he went to Utica college, and he met Carol there, and, uh, and they hit it off, and when Dirk finally—when Dirk finally asked her father, Paul said, “I thought you were never gonna ask me, Dirk”. [Laughter]

Matt: Alright so, as soon as you were married, you said you were separated for six months? And then is that how long you said it was, six months?

Betty: Two.

Matt: Oh, two months, I’m sorry. Ok. Got it. [Laughter] So then you were married in October, you said?

Betty: Mhm.

Matt: And then, after that, what was…

Betty: Then we lived in Dallas. Yeah. He sold Pennsylvania motor oil to Texans. Which was a cute trick, too. You know, all the Texans—everything best comes from Texas, of course. But his boss’ wife was very nice to us. Her name was Cookie, and I just had the hardest time; she kept saying “call me Cookie”. I just can’t do that. [Laughter] Anyway, I enjoyed that; we had a lot of nice friends there, and I had two children there. Our second child—did I say anything in that, when I wrote about Tom, that he was born severely hard of hearing?

Matt: No, I don’t think so.

Betty: Ok so, our second child Tom was born very severely hard of hearing, and then we had to move east, because by that time they had met Mr. Fuller of the Fuller brush company and that was…I have to back up. My father had been in the brush business, and because he had three daughters, he eventually sold it to the Fuller Brush company instead of some city area. And Mr. Fuller wanted Dick to leave the oil business and come and run this business and I think he was anxious for my father to retire, and my father by that time was, 75, 80, I don’t know. Anyway,well now, where was I? What was I talking about?

Girl: Tom. Coming back.

Betty: About what?

Girl: You were coming back from Texas, and Tom.

Betty: Yeah, well, I don’t know why I went off on that. But anyway. [Laughter] I –I. Oh about Tom, yes, about Tom. So, Tom, he was this cute little baby, but when the phone rang and he was asleep he didn’t hear it. You know, we knew pretty early on. So we moved east, and then, I heard about the Tracy clinic. Now Spender Tracy was a movie actor that you guys have heard of?

Matt: Mm hm.

Betty: Ok. And he was married to Katy Hepburn. And, Katherine Hepburn was… messin’ around. Anyway, Mrs. Tracy had a deaf child also, John. And she, um, wanted to find the best teacher she possibly could. To teach her child to talk. She didn’t want her child to sign, she wanted her child to live in the hearing world, and to be a fluent lip reader, and so forth. So she got on a train and she went across the north –across the United States on the northern route, and went home on the southern route, and when she got to –and stopping every place to interview at facilities for the deaf. And when she got to New Orleans, she found the woman she thought was wonderful. “Oh, Mrs. Monague, come and live with us. We’ll give you an apartment, we’ll give you a car; we’ll give you one of these new fangled things called a television. And whatever else we can do, please come and live with us.” “No,” says Mrs. Monague, “I couldn’t possibly do that; there are not enough people trained the way I am, and I couldn’t do just one child.” “Oh, not to worry,” says Mrs. Tracy, “We’ll start a school, ok?” So Mrs. Monague went off to California and they started this school, and that was like two years before our Tom. So then I heard about it and I took the course. And I taught Tom to talk. And I was pregnant. Betsy turned out to be very severely hard of hearing as well, so I thought, oh, these children, isn’t this awful. I mean, Tom will never marry, never have a normal life, isn’t it. I’d cry myself to sleep at night. He is now the grandfather of three. [Laughter] So, it turned out well [chuckles]. He coordinated services for the deaf and hard of hearing in Vermont. And Betsy, our daughter, isn’t quite so severely hard of hearing—although hers has deteriorated a lot—and she’s a particularly fluent lip reader. Lip reading takes a kind of a mind that rather jumps to conclusions. You need to be a good guesser to be a good lip reader. Cause, you know like, “ma” and “pa” are exactly the same on the lips. There are a lot of things that you just have to know; you have to guess. And Betsy’s very fluent at that. And she works for the New York State Ed department. She’s married too, and has two kids. Bob is graduating from the Boys’ Academy next week, and Katy’s at Kenicious. Anyway, that all turned out ok.
Then I found I was pregnant again. I really had thought that I didn’t need another deaf child. Well, it appears just fine, and so that was ok. Every day I gave lessons to Tom. I’d sit at a little table in the kitchen and we would say “This is spoon, Tom. Say spoon. Spoon. Spoon. Spoon. Where’s the spoon? Here’s the spoon! Tom say spoon.” And he’d say “Hm.” You know? Anyway, it wasn’t a long process, and it turned out very well. It’s ok. All’s well that ends well.

Matt: Um, so I guess that you covered most of your life so far. I guess. [Laughter]

Betty: [chuckles] Yes.

Matt: I guess just catch us up to speed on –from then until now, I guess.

Betty: Yes. Well, you know, bringing up four kids. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work, and in various incendiary agencies, and raised a lot of money for them. I’ve been chairman of the board of St. Margaret’s Center for Children, and I’ve been on the board of the Albany Institute of Albany History and Art forever. I’m in the board of something called –well, I guess I’m just honorary now, but, Two Together, it’s teaching kids in the given school down the south end, helping in an after school program. I’ve been very active in that, I’ve raised a lot of money for a lot of different organizations, and, not just money; I’ve also done things. And so that’s what I do. That’s what I do now, pretty much.

Matt: Well, ok, so I’m gonna ask some more general questions. I mean, last year Larry Summers got a lot of attention for his comments about women in science. And obviously you were a science major. What do you feel the reasons are a lot of women are less likely to go into science, and math, engineering?

Betty: Gee, you know, I mean that’s a wonderful question, if I had the answer [laughter]. I mean I could make a great name for myself! I’m sure that it’s like handed down from generation to generation, very subtly and it’s improving all the time. I told you I met with Gene Neff, the head of Russell Sage, earlier on. That was to try and pick my brains about women in science and they have a wonderful new program there. They have a company that’s moving into the building there and doing nanotech, and they built a tower with an elevator to connect it, their building, with the science labs of Russell Sage. You know, we just need to talk it up more; it’s just a mental block I guess. I don’t know. It’s better than it was.

Matt: Yeah, it seems like in the past years, especially since World War II, most of the progress in science has been making things smaller and smaller and in computer science and things on the micro level. And it seems–I don’t know everything about it—but it seems like basically the same things you’re using to make propellers in World War II, the same processors, would probably be the same processors or similar to what they’re using now.

Betty: Probably. Probably.

Matt: Do you think that there’s a lot of potential for new discoveries in engineering on the macable level?

Betty: Oh absolutely. Lab results are very exciting. I mean, I don’t know what you all are majoring in, but it’s a wide open field for women and very exciting. Wonderful. Don’t you think?

Janie: Yes. As you said, things have changed a lot, and I think as more women go into science, the mindset starts to change, and the leadership starts to change.

Betty: Hm! Yeah. I have a daughter-in-law who’s in nanotech. She coordinates programs. She’s not actually a scientist, but she’s learned a lot about it.

Matt: Mhm.

Betty: That’s Jim’s wife. Jim is an attorney in Syracuse; that’s the number one child. So, and Dirk is the youngest, you knew about the middle two. They’re both in Vermont and New York State Ed department. And Dirk is our youngest and he is the community. He works in the community foundation in Syracuse.

Female student: Just curious, with you growing up in Albany and then moving here for the greater part of your life, is there anything that you miss about Albany when you were younger that’s not here anymore?

Betty: No, no. I was thinking about that the other day. We skated at Washington Park Lake, and it was fabulous! And they had wooden floors that they put down every winter, and a huge big potbellied stove. It was so nice, you know, a place to buy Cokes or whatever. And so that’s one thing. I don’t know whether any of you have ever been to the Albany Institute, but they’ve suddenly come into doing very exciting things now. There’s a show now on Chinese art, with a demo on painting, on Chinese brush painting. A lot of interesting things. A lot of people coming. They had a show on Ancient Egypt. It’s just improving a lot.
What else do I miss? I don’t know. We used to play tennis at Ridgefield, but that wasn’t very important. I don’t know. It’s doing pretty well, I think. You know, we had a mayor who was mayor longer than any mayor in the history of the United States. Horastis Corning. And nothing happened here that Horastis didn’t think should happen. And so, I mean, Jerry Jennings is not God’s gift, but he does pretty well. I think he does much better. We do have skating down at the mall, and that’s nice for people.

Matt: What’s the biggest difference between your life in Albany and your life in Dallas?

Betty: Well, one of the differences is that here I know a lot of people that I’ve known all my life. Last night we went to a dinner—it wasn’t a dinner, it’s a reception for the recent graduates of Albany Medical College. Dick is on the board of the Albany Medical Center, and was instrumental in bringing the college and the hospital under one roof. And so we were there. And we were with another couple; he’s getting honorary degree today. Well, his older sister was in my class at the girls’ academy and her older brother, who was lost in the Pacific during the war, was one of my first boyfriends. So, you know, that can’t happen when you’re in a different town. So, that was—I just happened to think of that last night.

Matt: I guess…

Betty: And the weather is pretty nice down in Dallas. And um, and Neiman Marcus is a wonderful store to shop in… I don’t know.

Girl: Yes it is [laughter].

Matt: So, in the field of engineering, if you’re not the most outstanding student, if you’re not graduating first in your class or the type person who’s gonna be drafting plans, what are the typical jobs that are available in the field of engineering for people who aren’t stand outs?

Betty: Oh, there are millions of jobs available in engineering. You know, but I think, you have to, as you suggested earlier, then it’s this nanotech. They’re talking about nanos so little you can’t think it, really. There are like 20 of them to make a circle around one hair. And little nano cars running around making things. I don’t know. It’s hard to imagine. (Matt starts to talk, but Betty continues). But I‘m sure there are plenty of jobs. Plenty of jobs. Did you all see this? Why don’t you send this down to the other end so that they can, and the letter? This is a list of stuff.

Girl: Yeah, this is funny.

Betty: Stuff we didn’t have. It isn’t exactly a list, but it was very different!

Janie: Can I ask a question?

Betty: Please!

Janie: I was wondering if you could tell us more about your job, and the kinds of work you did, who you worked with, what the setting was like, what you used instead of computers…

Betty: Oh, shucks (hits fist against the table), I forgot that!

Janie: Did you do a lot of drawing, or soldering, or…

Betty: Yes, I did a lot of drawing. Um, the facility that I worked at, um, of course we were more time and they’re making more stuff so you had to have a pass to get in. And, then the place I worked was maybe similar to this or about twice as big as this with drawing boards around. And everybody was drawing. What you did instead of a computer was that you used what we called a slip-stick, a slide-rule. And, I meant to bring one to show you and I forgot, and I’m sorry. But, it’s not as quick as a calculator. But it’s a great time saver, and it can help you a lot. And get answers. And I also intended to bring—why didn’t I do that, I don’t know—I thought about bringing my drafting set. I was just a draftsman, you know. I, when you do a gear, if you’re doing a drawing of a gear, you have to use a compass to get the proper curve on the teeth. A tooth, like that. So there are a million of them, but they have to be drawn so that the curvature is the proper radius. And so it’s kind of fussy work. It wasn’t very challenging or interesting. I think maybe some of the girls did more interesting things than I did. But, I have always felt that I was only there because it was a war. You know I wanted to do something useful for the war. And so, it didn’t make any difference what. I would have been just as happy as Rosie the Riveter or whatever.
One of the most exciting things is that my, well, let me start back. When I turned 80 my children decided to give a sum of money to the Girls’ Academy where a prize is given every year to a graduating senior who gets a very nice substantial check. And it has to be someone with a variety of interests. And my son comes and talks about my diversity of interests that I like a lot. I’m interested in a lot of different kinds of things, and this is a check that’s to be used on something she really would love to have or someplace she would love to go, that’s not necessarily something she’s gonna do otherwise. So, the first year after they gave this, after my four children gave this amount of money, there’s a young woman in Albany who…[tape turning break] …speak, just someone who writes a column whose name escapes me at the moment. But anyway, she thought it would be fun, so she called the school and said could she come to graduation. Then she heard Jim talk about me, so then she called me up and asked if we could have coffee at, whatever, Starbucks or something. And, to make a long story short, she’s writing a book about me. Except that she’s writing a fictionalized version of it, and weaving in a love story, which didn’t happen then, you know, but, anyway, so she went to Wellesley, and went all through their entire library and read about stuff that went on campus then. She went to RPI and she got all the information about it. She wrote to Curtis-Wright, and she interviews me regularly. We’ve become very good friends, and I love her children. She’s got like an extra family that I have. And she’s writing this book about me! Which is pretty exciting, if it ever happens.

Matt: Now is the main character, is this character going to be named Betty Sonneborn? Or…

Betty: No, it’s going to be fictionalized! Fictionalized.

Matt: Just based on you, alright.

Betty: But about leaving college and going out about the war, and. I don’t know that I’ve given you much of an impression on what the war was like. Everything was rationed. Cheese, butter, coffee, gasoline. You had coupon books, and so you had to spend not just money but your coupons, and they were pretty limited. And margarine was not limited, but margarine was white. And it came with a little yellow pill. You put this little yellow pill in a bowl with the margarine and you worked it and worked it and worked it and worked it until you had yellow margarine. But the butter industry didn’t allow them to sell colored margarine. Yes. Well, there’s nothing new about that, right? We live in a world like that! I had a friend who the Burma-India tram, whatever it was called. I don’t know. Another friend went into the FBI, into the secret service. There was almost nobody home. You had very few dates. You had a date if somebody happened to be in town. But mostly women went to the movies together, or played bridge, and that was it, because nobody was here. Nobody was anywhere. They were all overseas; they were on ships; they were, wherever, I don’t know. My father had been in World War I, and I guess that was tough too. It pervaded everything, and it’s so different from this war. Entirely.
Anybody have any other questions? Did you look at that list?

Girl: Yeah, it’s funny [laughs].

Betty: Yeah, it is funny! It’s amazing how many things are different.

Janie: I have a couple of questions. Do you still keep in touch with anyone, or did you follow up with anybody who was in the program who has gone into engineering or science?

Betty: No, but there are some. I keep in touch with one girl, the Vassar girl that I lived with. She and I keep in touch, hm, a couple times a year. Not a lot, but some. Outside of that, no. But I know that there were some. There were also some girls who didn’t make it, who didn’t finish the course. It was demanding. It really was demanding because you had a lot of classes every day, and it was hard. We had a lab course. We had to make an egg, I mean an oil cup, on a leg. And then, in those days, all machines were run from overheard pulleys. And so you had to wear a hairnet otherwise you were gonna get scalped, if your hair got caught in it. And in a drafting course, the final exam was, you had to do it in ink. It was linen but it was coated linen. And I did a beautiful job, but I spelled my last name wrong. [Laughter] When I got it back it was A+ question mark, and a big red circle around my name. [More laughter] And they gave us the parts and the blueprints for an aircraft engine, and we were teams of 6 or 8, and we had to put it together. I had a lot of parts. And when we got all done, we had a couple of little washers which we put in the wastebasket- nobody ever knew (student laughter). So it was a lot of work. And-and very little privacy, if any (laughing). Uh, I don’t know. Anybody else? Any more questions?

Student: Um, about the-the drafting you said you used examples of the gears. Does that mean that there is, in your job in the war, there was potential for original work or was that mostly like copying type stuff?

Betty: I really am not sure. I think I did some original work. We were awarded in Army-Navy E, which is a little pin, because we met our goals. You know, everybody had goals- they had to get stuff out. And everybody worked. My husband was not, he was 4-F; he had a back problem and he didn’t go in service. But most everybody I knew did… Enough?

Janie: You mentioned having a lot of other interests. Can you tell us about some of your others?

Betty: Well I told you on the phone the other night, that I have this telescope I gotta learn how to use (laughing) because my children- my grandchildren gave it to me for my birthday. Well I’m interested in politics- I must say I don’t do enough about it. But I’m very interested in education and in how to help kids who don’t have much of a break in life- get on board. That’s very important to me.
I love to read. I’m in two reading clubs; one of which I think is the second oldest in the United States; it’s called the Friday Morning Club. And we take turns reading a book aloud to the group. You have to cut the book so that it fits in an hour and a half. And that’s a very interesting challenge- that’s fun. And some of my friends are in the Junior Friday Morning Club. When the Friday Morning Club started, a hundred and twenty five years ago, there were young people who weren’t in and-and they kept hoping that somebody would die in the Friday Morning Club, (student laughter) and nobody did, you know? So finally they decided to start the Junior Friday Morning Club. So, that is still going too and I have lots of friends in that, and there are thirty in ours, and we meet in people’s private homes. The other is a club where we all read the same book and right now we’re reading Karenna Gore Schiff, that’s Al Gore the Presidential Candidate, his daughter Karenna has written a book called Lighting the Way, nine women who changed America. It’s very interesting. I’m reading now about a woman who helped organize the farm laborers. It has a lot of do with the big immigration problem that we have in this country. The same problem, it hasn’t changed you know, it’s still terrible. And nobody seems to be able to figure out the right way to handle it. I don’t- I’m not sure that a triple fence along the southern border is a really wonderful idea. Um, and I’m interested in art and I… well, what? I don’t know (laughing) I can’t remember what I’m interested in. I like all kinds of things.

Janie: What do you do at the Giffen School?

Betty: Well, it’s an after-school program and when I was an active member-I-my husband had an attack of some kind, they don’t seem to figure out what it-what it was, but he passed out and he’s not allowed to drive, and so I do have to do a lot of driving now. I take him to work, and have to go by home and get him down to the office. He’s only going to be 88 this weekend so why he has to go to the office I’m not sure, but, I’m not sure I want him hanging around the house in any case, so that’s…(student laughter) where was I again? What is the matter with my poor brain? Um, well… (To Janie) What did you ask?

Janie: It was about the Giffen School.

Betty: Oh, right. Well we do homework. First thing when the kids come, they get something to eat. And it’s down in the housing development on Green-Brand, no, Green I think. Anyway, the kids do-get something to eat, something to drink, and then we do the homework. And then we read, and usually I’ll read the right hand pages and the child has to read the left hand pages and we move on through the book that way, and it’s just practice and like everything else, the more practice you’re doing the better you do. And they need to get their homework done for one thing. And they need help on that frequently. And then sometimes we’ll play like Scrabble or Boggle or a word game of some kind to get the brain moving. And it’s only for an hour now or maybe an hour and a quarter, something like that. It used to be longer, and I think it helps. The kids like it, and we let them take books home. It’s a nice place to give a book to if you had any that you don’t need. They are ninety nine percent black kids. Many of them stay with Aunt Celia tonight because mom can’t be home and maybe I’m gonna go spend the next week with grandma. Their lives are not as easy as yours, or mine, so I like that.
Um, at Saint Margaret’s, I didn’t do anything but run the place, you know. Raise money, and make decisions about what programs to run. These are very severely handicapped kids, multiple handicaps; nobody at Saint Margaret’s can feed himself. It’s pretty bad, and it’s a wonderful agency. Been in business for many, many years. And there are not many agencies like that. So we serve kids from outside the state as well as in. Tom, the number two child, his wife Joan is the president of the board of something called D_____ House which is a halfway house for kids-for people coming out of prison, not uh dangerous, but drunken driving and such like things So she runs that agency and this past year they’ve had one of the people who was in prison and who was in D_____ house moved into their house, which was kind of amazing. (With different voice) “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” (Student laughter). Anyway, he’s now out of their house and owns his own apartment, so that’s-they’re very pleased about that. Our kids all do stuff like that. And you all have to do stuff like that too… because you get a lot more than you give… Anybody else?

Janie: I’m almost wondering if you could tell us more about Saint Margaret’s. I went on a tour their with the Wellesley Club a number of years ago and it was an astonishing place.

Betty: It is astonishing. It’s very special. And they’re only up to five I think now is what they-no I guess we raised it, I don’t know. I mean I haven’t been involved there in the last few years but I feel very close to it because I helped-I raised the money to build the building, and so I learned a lot about how to do grantsmanship, and write grant applications and that kind of thing. But these babies are, they’re very sad, they’re very sad, they’re never gonna walk and they’re never gonna talk, and you know it’s just unbelievable. It’s very hard for the parents. But at least they know that their children are being properly cared for. I went on the board when I first moved back to Albany. During the war I worked there as a volunteer. You’re not going to believe this- we ironed the diapers. (Laughter) We ironed them on a mangle- we fed them through. But I mean, really c’mon. Who needs ironed diapers? But there were no disposable diapers in those days and so I got involved that way when I was-I guess I was still in high school when I did that. I don’t really know. What else can I tell you? Hm… hm… I don’t know. I go to Cap Rep but I’m not involved there at all..

Janie: Well Betty another thing that really intrigues me is you’ve basically been a volunteer… you’ve volunteered your whole life.

Betty: Yes. Except for when I worked for Curtis Wright, that’s right.

Janie: And, at this point in time, since most mothers work and you know, people don’t know their neighbors the same way, like as we move into the suburbs and away from the cities, I think there’s less of a connection between neighbors and there’s less time for volunteering. Can you perhaps talk about the importance of volunteering?

Betty: Well I think I have just really done that, but what it does really make me think to say is that, it’s always been very frustrating not to have a job. You know, because something about not having a job, for one thing, you might get promoted, you don’t get promoted from taking care of your kids. You get paid, and maybe get more money next time, because you’re getting good at it or more important to the agency, or whatever, organization. Getting paid for what you do is gratifying, and, in many ways necessary. I-I’ve always found that very frustrating that I never got paid for anything I did. Well, c’mon. I get room and board and my clothes and anything I want. So it isn’t like-it isn’t like I needed the money. I don’t need the money. It’s a way of devaluating, how valuable your services are, and, I think it’s very difficult to have a full time job and a house-full of kids. That’s really hard to do. And to do them both well. Having hearing handicapped children, in a way made it, well not impossible for me to have an outside job but-but it would have been a lot harder. Tom and Betsy would have been different, if I hadn’t been able to be there all the time for them, and to teach them. It’s very repetitious. But it’s very gratifying to get paid, and to get paid more, and to get promoted, and stuff like that. Well, I never got any of that. But, that’s ok. You know, life’s full of tradeoffs I think, and everybody doesn’t get everything. And, you might as well be glad with what you do get, because you only go this way once, right?

Janie: The one thing I think may be important for you guys to appreciate is, like, the role of women has changed so much but, getting paid does show that you’re worth something- that you have a value to society. And, the people who tend to be not well paid are teachers, nurses, um, you know, jobs that were typically done by women…

Betty: Absolutely

Janie: …daycare…

Betty: But that’s changing, it’s improving, slowly. Yeah. So, I’ve long since made my peace with that and I’ve done things that are, well, I will brag a little. Shall I do that? I State University of New York every year gives something, an award called the citizen laureate award to an outstanding citizen. And only two women have gotten it. And I’m one of them. And that’s a-really kind of a big deal. And, as I say I’ve been on- chairman of the board of a couple, three things. I’m very active in my kids, um not parent teacher but the mother’s association and those kinds of things. And I have gotten other awards for running St. Margaret’s, the Episcopal church gave me an award- I’m Jewish! (Student laughter) That was sort of special. Um, what else? I’ve just gotten quite a few awards, I can’t really remember them all, but the-the work that I’ve done has been rewarded in that way to some extent. I started a facility for preschool-a preschool facility for hearing handicap children and that’s still going. And I did that when Tom was a little bit of a kid. And well I know, I didn’t tell you- I started to tell you and then I couldn’t remember what I was saying, but, did I tell you that Jim, after I had these lessons with Tom every morning and suddenly Jim couldn’t hear either. He developed a protective mechanism. Mom was going to give special lessons, he was going to have special lessons too. I mean, he was three years old. He didn’t think about that, it was just a natural psychological response to a situation that he didn’t like. And then he couldn’t hear. And now I had three who couldn’t hear. That was challenging, but then I just gave him lessons every day and pretty soon he got bored with that, (while laughing) and then he could hear again. (Student laughter) But, you know, your brain is such a funny thing. And, here he was just a little kid, and having that kind of a response, so, I thought that was interesting too… Enough?

Female Student: Yeah we should take pictures.

Female Student: And you mentioned you wanted to meet Mr. Reed.

Betty: I didn’t hear you.

Female Student: You mentioned you wanted to me-meet Mr. Reed.

Janie: Yes, you should certainly meet Mr. Reed

Betty: Yeah, I would like to.

Male Student: He’s a great guy. That’s on record. (Student laughter)

Tape cuts out