After 58 Years, a Round-Robin Letter Keeps on Delivering

UPDATED 01/16/1989 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/16/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

It started as a way for a group of coeds to keep in touch after graduation. Fresh out of Ohio's Wooster College, the young women, who had been close, couldn't bear to see their friendship end. So they started a round-robin letter that would regularly carry their latest news from one to the other. That was 58 years ago, and the letter is still going strong, even though six of the original 18 correspondents have passed on. "We've had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren during this period, and most of us have lost our spouses," says Peg Celeste, mother of Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste. "We've lived through the Depression, World War II and Vietnam."

Every week or so, one member of the round-robin gets a fat envelope filled with notes, clippings and photos from each correspondent. She removes her own earlier contribution, adds something new and mails the whole package to the next person on the list.

Besides enabling the old school pals to keep up with one another, the letter serves as a forum for political, spiritual and literary ideas. "We're interested in what's happening around us," says Peg. "Someone always wants to share a book she has read, a poem, or a joke." The clippings can range from an inspirational verse on aging to an amusing advertisement. "I always try to include something funny," says Helen Spangler Hurley. "We've seen so much illness and pain, we need a good laugh."

Illness is a real concern these days to the "robins," who are all around 80. If the letter stops for some reason, phone calls are made to find out why. Sometimes troubles have drawn the members together. Once, years ago, the robins learned that one woman's son had been born retarded, and Peg jumped in, using her social work experience to help locate an institution for him. And then there was Anna Snively Wainger's divorce. Remembers Anna, the group's only divorcée: "When I told them my husband and I were separated, they accepted it, even though divorce was still uncommon in the early 1960s."

Mostly, though, the robins, all members of the class of '30, dwell on sunnier topics. They especially like to think back to the days at Wooster, the small Presbyterian college where they met. "Wooster was known as the preacher factory," says Helen Hurley. "Seven of us married Wooster men, and five wed ministers." Alla Belle "Abie" Ropp Gest remembers that the girls, who were friendly as freshmen, became a "crowd" in their sophomore year, when they all moved into one big house together. "We always had a bridge game in progress," she says. "If someone had to go to a class, another girl would take her place and finish her hand." On Sunday afternoons the girls would take in a concert in Akron or sometimes head for the Steuben County poorhouse, where they would sing for the inmates.

Over the years the robins also found time to raise more than a score of children and to lead purposeful lives. "One of us was a missionary in China, and another compiled the papers of Thomas Jefferson, and still another helped recruit teachers in Beirut," says Helen Hurley, who has a master's degree in library science. "Mostly, though, we're teachers. In those days women didn't have a lot of choice."

Surprisingly the robins have never had a reunion "en flock." Peg Celeste divides her time between Ohio and Florida, Anna Wainger lives in Tucson, Abie in Santa Barbara, Calif., so there have been only a few small gatherings in addition to Wooster reunions—the most recent being the group's 55th, in 1985. "These days we're not able to travel easily, so I doubt if too many will show up for the 60th," says Peg. But, she adds, "with this group, you never know."

—William Plummer, and Sandra Gurvis in Columbus

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