When I was 17 years old I learned a very important lesson from a remarkable, non-gender-biased dear man, at a time in the late Fifties when all of us had been taught to be mothers and wives and little more. What a gift he gave me. His name was Arvid Lonseth, and he was Chairman of the Mathematics Department at (then) Oregon State College.
Home Economics had begun to lose its luster, if it had ever had any, soon after I found that I already knew how to sew rick-rack on an apron, diaper a baby and bake biscuits, and had absolutely no interest in making gluten balls to demonstrate how flour gives bread products texture and lightness. I was 16, but no novice at homemaking.
Encountering Mr. Malamud and the vision of writing as a career that could keep civilization from destroying itself, gave me another career possibility. But I had also added a class in trigonometry, for fun. I loved doing trig. My professor was the head of the Math department, Dr. Arvid Lonseth, a large and ponderous man.
Spring term of my Freshman year, everyone in Azalea House, the coop house for Home Ec majors, was to invite their favorite professor to tea. Home Ec was a large department, but every single professor had been invited by one or more of my house mates. I invited Dr. Lonseth. He was the only man at the tea party.
Balancing a delicate teacup and saucer on his oversized knee, he started a conversation. “Judith, I’m curious; why did you decide to major in Home Economics?”
Why, indeed? The culture in the Fifties featured a few unlikely heroines on the radio–cowgirls or comediennes–but most women in those days were wives and mothers, and didn’t have “careers.” Mom’s sister Margaret was a nurse at the Columbia Hospital in Astoria, and I loved her spiffy little cap, but nursing as a career didn’t appeal to me. Nor did typing.
I was flustered and stammered out the lie that I thought would be expected, the closest I could come to a rational reason¸ apart from the main one: needing to live at Azalea House. “I—I guess because I’m a girl. If I’m going to be a wife and mother I want to be good at it.”
He considered this and took a bite of lemon cookie. “Hmmm.”
Setting his teacup on a side table, he bent down to look in my face. “You’re very good at math. That should be your major.”
Relieved, and bored with Home Ec., I changed my major the next day. I loved Math. Azalea House let me continue to live there, for one more year, and my house mates didn’t seem to realize I had changed majors. I had to study alone, because the boys in my math and science classes all belonged to fraternities with a “Test File” and studied together. Again, no girls allowed. Fine with me. Except in Biology class, mixed gender, when the hulks on the football team learned very quickly to sit next to me and behind me, to copy my answers to test questions.
Fall term 1957 was my Sophomore year, and the Oregon State College Math Department acquired their first computer, the Alwac III-e, which filled half a classroom. The black control panel in the front, about 12′ X 12′, was arrayed with rows of 16 silver toggle switches–up represented a “one” and down represented a “zero.” There were no other choices. It was programmed by flipping the toggle switches in combinations of ones and zeros to form hexadecimal (base 16) numbers and instructions. I was the only girl in the first Computer Programming class ever offered at OSC. The boys—young men—in the class crowded me out from ever touching the machine. They formed an impenetrable wall of aggressive maleness and elbows between me and the control panel. Boys only. In fact, the male professor and the male students seemed barely to know I was there–I was small and quiet. (Yes, I was! Then!) I got an A in the class without ever having flipped a toggle. I was then forced to use time-honored feminine practices—I schemed and outmaneuvered them, enrolling in the same class Winter term. In that second class, still the only girl, I was able to wiggle my way through the solid wall of male privilege and flip switches long before the new students—again, all boys—knew what they were doing. I loved computer programming. It felt as if the arcane numerical codes had been hard-wired into my brain. I was a “natural.”
I married at 18, had three children by the age of 22, but was determined to finish college. My husband Don supported that decision, so I could become a math teacher like him, and help with family finances. We were deeply in debt from three Cesarean sections, with no medical insurance. I attended classes at Oklahoma City University for the nine months we lived there, pregnant with Mike. Soon after his birth, we moved to Seaside, Oregon, where I worked in restaurants until Kelley was born, four months after his first birthday. We then moved to Monmouth (I had to threaten to move by myself, and take the kids) so I could finish my degree. Don got a job teaching at the Junior High in Independence, a few miles away.
I finished my B.S. degree at (then) Oregon College of Education in Monmouth in 1962, three months after my youngest child, Laurie, was born. I was 22 years old. Laurie lay contentedly in my lap through every class, and I think she must have absorbed some of that higher-level learning! One of my classes at OCE was Computer Programming, taught by Professor Fulmer, who had designed and invented the very first computer small enough to be used in a classroom, the ECP-18. It was the size of a refrigerator. Once again, I loved the class, loved programming—this time in octal (base 8), pushing switches and punching paper tape with a Teletype as an input/output device–in 1961-1962. The first classroom/personal computers–were introduced sixteen years later, in 1977.
Thanks to Dr. Fulmer, another enlightened male professor, I found my true love as a career, in computer education, when I was a young mother, barely 25 years old.
My career blossomed, because I had been a pioneer in the very earliest stages of technology use in education. By 1983 I was featured in an Oregonian story entitled, not flatteringly, “The Grandmother of Computer Use in Education.” The accompanying photo had been taken while I was in my first round of chemo, so the patchy hair and wan face bore out the title all too well. I was 43.
About that same time I sat in my office at Portland State University, preparing for one of my favorite classes, teaching teachers how to use computers in the classroom. I now had a Masters degree and a Ph.D.
For a moment, I remembered that tea party, and Dr. Lonseth balancing the teacup on his knee, curious about why I wasn’t majoring in mathematics. On an impulse, I grabbed the Portland phone directory and looked up his name. There is was, Arvid Lonseth. How many people with that name could there be? I dialed his number, and found myself talking to Arvid Lonseth, Jr. He told me how to find his father, an old man now, in an assisted living home. I then called Dr. Lonseth, and told him how he had changed my life dramatically with a simple question when I was seventeen, setting me on a path that had given me a richly successful and satisfying career. He sounded a little bewildered—of course he didn’t remember me. thirty years later—but was pleased to hear what I had made of my changed direction, and how he had influenced that. “Thank you,” he said, after hearing my story and my gratitude for the part he had played. “It was nice to talk to you.” I imagined him hanging up the phone and asking himself, “Who was that?”
What a gift he had given me out of his discomfort, the only man at the tea party, a large man, balancing a teeny teacup on his knee.
Thank God for the male professors who did encourage women in careers and not expect a sexual favor in return. They were trailblazers as much as we.
I was so glad I called him. Then I made myself a cup of tea, and found a geometrically perfect lemon cookie in a package in my desk drawer.