Stories From 1930 - 1944
Get a glimpse into the first years of I-House.
Edith Coliver (IH 1940 - 43)
Edith Simon Coliver told her story at the 70th Anniversary Lodestar Dinner on February 26, 2001
I arrived at I-House in the fall of 1940, as a freshman foreign student, a German Jewish refugee from the Holocaust. I was overwhelmed by all the sophisticated graduate student residents. Fortunately, some of them became lifelong friends.
The living arrangements were different from those you have now. There were 450 residents in all. The rooms were all singles and the corridors were separated by sex. Sometimes someone got confused, like the Indian student who lost his way in the girl’s shower room. When he realized where he was and where he lived, he ran, covering only his head. A Sikh who needed to have his turban cleaned got it back from the laundry, labeled “curtain.” So much for intercultural understanding! Since I-House, with its multicultural communities, was still a novelty in the Berkeley of the forties, the house and its residents were called “the Zoo” by the good denizens of Berkeley and by our American university colleagues.
Residents were more self-segregated than they are now, grouped mostly by language and affinity. We German Jews used to read German and French poems to each other, especially such romantic symbolists as the German Rainer Maria Rilke and the French Paul Verlaine.
Our world changed on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. By the beginning of my junior year I had lost faith in the humanities, deciding they were no longer “relevant.” I changed my major to political science. A British acquaintance asked, “What’s so scientific about politics?” A friend, Mark Linenthal, more recently the head of San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center, said, “Funny you should tell me about this, Edith, my major was political science! I figured that the political scientists let the world slip into such chaos, I will have none of them.” And he switched . . . to the humanities!
The government, despite the fact that we were refugees from Germany, classified us as “Enemy Aliens” and subjected us to a curfew. In our case that simply meant a lockout between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., and a travel limit of five miles.
We were luckier than the Japanese and Japanese Americans who were treated much more harshly by the government and relocated. Let it be said that our director, Allen Blaisdell, was a severe critic of our government’s Japanese-American relocation policy. He is remembered fondly and gratefully to this day by our former Japanese-American residents.
Our greatest pleasure in those days were the folk dance evenings, where students from different, and sometimes hostile, countries, danced with each other in friendship and harmony. The memory of I-House lingers to this day, and our loyalty to it, and to each other, remains, and will surely endure.
Tomoye Takahashi (IH 1933 - 37)
Let me tell you more about what went on all around us during the 1930s when I lived at International House. The American Federation of Labor led a boycott of all German-made goods in order to protest Nazi treatment of organized labor. The boycott extended to Japanese-made goods to stem the aggression in Manchuria and China. In May of 1934, a severe dust storm swept the United States and blew the topsoil off the farms in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and Colorado. This caused hundreds of thousands of people to lose their homes and farms, and many made the trek to California. Unemployment made for racial discrimination and gave vent to disparaging names: “wops,” “chinks,” “japs,” and so on.
Upon this scene came the first years of International House. Established with a gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr., International House flowered as a haven for minority students and gave foreign students the chance to live with American students under one roof. It was a unique oasis that welcomed, sheltered, and protected those like myself. I was a resident here between August 1933 and June 1937 during four memorable, wonderful years. I performed many times on this stage and had many Sunday evening suppers here in this room. I enjoyed the language tables on the mezzanine and partook of many other activities in the International House. Living here exposed me to the richness of the foreign cultures of students from Peru, Brazil, Ghana, Japan and Korea and to cultural exchanges that enriched the memorable years of my student life.
I’m very grateful to the staff that was led by Allen Blaisdell, who was the director at the time, to my fellow residents in my time here at International House, and to my parents whose financial support enabled me to enjoy and benefit from this unique environment. I cherish the happy memories of my life here and congratulate the present staff of I-House. May it continue to “perpet” into perpetuity. Thank you.
Reeve Gould (IH 1941 - 43 and 1946 - 48)
(Featured in The Golden Age of International House book page 44)
I first visited I-House as a teenager – I was up in Berkeley for a summer vacation with my mother and my aunt, and they took me to see the new I-House. I came to live in I-House in, I think, 1941. I was there for three semesters, and then I went into the Navy in WWII. I returned to I-House after I got out, to join the Golden Agers, in the fall of 1946, and was there for three more semesters. No, three semesters doesn’t seem very long, but....
During the war, I was in the Pacific, attached first to Admiral Spruance’s staff as a communications officer with the Pacific fleet, and then, about half the time, to the staff of Admiral Durgin, who was Commander of the escort carrier force. Yes, I did see battles. Once, another escort carrier was hit by a kamikaze pilot, caught fire and sank. Of course, we were lucky; we were never hit. When the war in the Pacific was over, I had the honor of going with Admiral Durgin to the signing of the Peace Treaty in Tokyo Bay....
Then I wanted to go back to Berkeley to get my Masters degree in Architecture, so, naturally, the choice was I-House; I wanted to live there again. The Director of Admissions, when I was first at I-House, was Lionel Rideout, who was a fellow San Diegan, and he and my parents were good friends. When he heard that I was planning to come back home, he had a catch-up party because he said I must meet Nancy Lawson [Gould]. Of course, my parents and grandparents had been good friends with Nancy’s parents and grandparents, but she was five years younger, so I don’t remember much of her until she had just graduated from Vassar, and was coming here.
Yes, my wife was one of the Vassar Five: Nancy, Candy, Randy, Nan.... Nancy was Nancy Lawson, Randy was Helen Randolph, Nan was Nancy Nowell, Candy was Clair Tapley – she married my friend David Leaf. And then there was Betsy Williams. Of course, in those days there was plenty of social life. People used to joke about those who majored in Great Hall. I never really had time for much of that, as an architecture student.
My first memories of I-House? I liked it – it was in the days when we all had private rooms, before the war, and I enjoyed my seventh floor room. How did the mix of foreign students change between my undergraduate and graduate days? Well, I had a great many Turkish friends in the pre-war years, and a few from South and Central America. After the war, not so many Turks, but a good preponderance of Latin American friends, and I think there are fewer of both in the current I-House.
How about the effect of the war itself? I think we were all so happy to be out of the Service, back on campus – that was contagious! Maybe that’s one reason they called it “The Golden Years,” because everybody seemed so happy.
Any political tensions? The only tension I can relate was the Norwegian boy who married a Turkish girl. She was glamorous! She and her sister – the Sunel sisters, Esin and Suzie. Well, they were both glamorous-looking, and one was an architecture major, and one was a math major. The architecture student, Esin Sunel, married a Norwegian boy – Paul Olson was his name, I think. After they were married here, they tried living in Turkey, and he didn’t feel he was accepted in Turkish society. So then they tried living in Norway, and she didn’t feel accepted in Norwegian society, so they came back to the Bay Area. Yes, that says something about the Bay Area, and it says something about people with ethnic differences who get along famously at I-House but don’t always find it easy to go home, particularly if they bring home a remnant of an I-House romance.
Yes, there were there other couples like that – Randy of course, of the Vassar girls, married Stan Nichols-Roy, one of the singers, and they went off to live in Shilong [Bangledesh]. And they stayed there until he died, and then she came back to San Diego County, where her parents lived. Previously, I had designed a house for them in Shillong. Nancy and I had a wonderful trip around the world, and we visited Pilu and Vina Modi in Bombay. That was another I-House romance. Vina Colgan was a red-haired Irish Catholic from Oakland, another architecture major. So was Pilu, who was from Bombay, but Oxford-educated before he came here – wonderful sense of humor. His father was Governor of Bombay State, so when we visited them, that was a grander visit than when we visited in Shillong – that was much more of kind of a missionary experience. Yes, Stan’s mother came from a missionary family; she was from Visalia, and his father was Indian.
Back to Pilu and Vina: she had no idea what awaited her, because Pilu was a little mysterious. He had said, “Well, we’ll have a flat at the top of my parents’ house” – because the youngest son is always supposed to return to the parents’ home – “and we’ll have a shack at the beach.” Well, the shack at the beach was akin to the houses at the end of Stinson Beach and very, very nice. We went in sort of a carpool one day from Bombay to “the shack”: I was riding with Pilu, and he had a Cadillac convertible. Nancy rode with his sister in her jaguar convertible. So they were definitely well-to-do. But Vina fit in beautifully; she took up wearing the sari and collected Indian antique jewelry. That first night, we said: “We can’t come to your house; we have reservations at the Taj Mahal Hotel.” And he said, “Nonsense! We expect you. And not only that, we’ve invited twenty of our friends to meet you!” So we got there, and Vina proceeded to dress Nancy in a sari and lent her some of her antique jewelry to wear. And the compliment was: “Oh, Nancy, you wear the sari so well!”
No, Vina married without knowing what awaited her. But they were both architects, and they were able to establish an architecture practice in Bombay. Vina had had a shop on north side of campus selling supplies to architecture students, as a part-time thing, so shop-keeping was a natural for her. I think she established a shop in Bombay for native arts. Well, after Pilu passed away, she came back here, and, rather than re-settling in Oakland, she went to Nebraska, or one of those states – she said she couldn’t afford to live in the Bay Area. And somebody explained to me that she wouldn’t be allowed, by the Indian government, to inherit any of Pilu’s wealth. Yes, she gave up quite a bit. She gave up America to live in India, and then gave up that wonderful life she was living in India...that may explain also Randy’s coming back to San Diego, to live in Escondido, when she did. Probably she couldn’t inherit anything from Stan.
There were some mixed couples who stayed in America – or who left and came back. As far as I know, most of the Norwegians and Swedes did go back – one of my best friends was Sig[vaard] Kihlgren. On my return after the war, right after registration, I was trudging up the hill, and I noticed this young man ahead of me talking to a couple of other people, and I thought, “I so like his manner; I better get to know this guy...” He has come back to visit. Nancy and I, in our travels, have had a chance to visit him. Sig’s father was Swedish Consul General in Genoa, so we had the chance of seeing Sig in Sweden, and then he came over to Denmark when we were in Denmark. And then we visited him again when we were in Italy. His parents have one of the picture postcard houses as their getaway house, in Porto Fino. No, he married somebody back there...I’ve had some correspondence with his daughter – she was going to come and visit. Yes, I have kept in touch with many people around the world – I-House is great for that, and Rotary is great for that.
Yes, Elliott Castello was one of my best friends in those Golden Years days – along with Gene Lee and Doug Powell....Doug’s father was a Rotarian in Stockton. Part of Doug’s job was to measure the snow pack every winter. We were going to get Doug to come and speak to our Rotarian club, but it never happened.
Some of the people I’ve stayed in touch with? First of all, all the Berkeley Golden Years people. You are aware of the Wednesday Group? Quack [Mary Ann Quackenbush] Fisher and her late husband Galen [Fisher] started it when they were graduate students and had an apartment near the campus, knowing that some of the Golden Age people would like an “at home” on Wednesday evening. It’s always been a joke: “We drank cheap sherry together!” So that’s what we do – we gather at Quack’s house at 7:30, and after an hour of drinking either cheap sherry or white wine, we send out either for Mexican food or hamburger-type food. Quack’s been doing it every Wednesday since I-House....
Who comes? Jim and M.D. Baker, and Marion Ross, and the Horwitzes – Gene Horwitz was another person who was wonderful in those first years at I-House. Wednesday nights he used to love it when my late wife Nancy would be there, and he could get into a political argument with her, because he said she was the only Republican he knew who made sense! And he loved to argue with her....
Did my time at I-House change me? Yes, because at first I was very timid about getting acquainted with some of the foreign students. I was shy about the friendships at the beginning. I think they had to be the more outgoing ones, at least until I came back after the war; by that time, I had picked up so much of the I-House spirit that I could initiate the friendships. One of my very best friends was Guatemalan, Jorge Molino-Sinibaldi. About Jorge: when he and Julio Lowenthal were here for a class reunion, Jorge said, “I’ve been back to see you four times, and you’ve never been to see me!”
So we put together a group of about a dozen people to visit – predominantly architects – and went down there. And we went back two more times – we built a school as a Rotary project in a village in the hills of Northern Guatemala.
Taken from an interview by Jeanine Castello-Lin on March 31, 2010; editing assistance by Tonya Staros.
Maude Susanna Alexander (IH 1936 - 38)
My mom, Maude Susanna Alexander (IH 1936-38), dreamed of attending UC Berkeley, and she was accepted as a rising junior. Her first order of business was to find a place to live, and she loved the concept of diversity and cultural exposure International House offered students. Late in the fall semester of 1937, she noticed a new busboy whom she later described to me (when I was about 12) as “tall, dark, and handsome” and decided on the spot she had to meet him.
During meals that semester, she made small efforts to find him and flirt. Finally, one day when she saw him scheduled to work at dinner, Mom called down “sick” and asked for room service. She knew he would be the one bringing up the food, and indeed he was. That was the first real introduction of my parents. Ignatius Leon Billy (IH 1938-39) attended Berkeley from 1938-40, and a slow romance blossomed. When Ignatius was ready to graduate, he invited Mom to meet him in the I-House cafeteria where the booths were located next to the windows. At one of the booths, he asked her to marry him, and she accepted. A successful I-House proposal! My dad and mom were married for 37 years. They had four children, one of whom loved and cherished his parents’ I-House memories and history. That was me. As a postscript, in September 1979, I invited Margaret Christie Bohn, a California gal I met at a conference in Chicago, to meet me in the cafeteria by the window booths in I-House. After some very serious nervousness, not my normal countenance, I asked her to marry me, and she accepted: Another successful I-House proposal!
She once said of I-House, "Besides being the source of some lifelong friendships in connection with my professional life, I-House influenced my social life profoundly by introducing me to international folk dancing via the Friday night sessions taught by Walter Grothe. Folk dancing was to be my principal recreation for 50 years. I used to run into Walter at folk dance events and express my gratitude."