Share / Discuss

Walk of Life

Catching up with Hanna Rosenblatt Alger ’56 is easier said than done

At age 79, Hanna “Terry” Rosenblatt Alger ’56 strapped on a backpack for the first time and walked—550 miles. With a friend, she traveled along a medieval pilgrimage route from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where, tradition says, lie the bones of James the Great, patron saint of Spain and the first of Jesus’s apostles. Last year, at 80, she walked another old pilgrim path, 450 miles across France. 

“Sit down,” her husband, Gene, urges most days. But Alger’s mind fires when she’s in motion. In fact, she spent much of a 19-year career at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., pacing and problem-solving. 

Born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1935, Alger was 3 months old when her family immigrated to the U.S., settling in East Orange, N.J., where her chemist father, an expert on the catalytic properties of platinum, had found work. 

When it came time for college, she followed sister Christine (Rosenblatt Downing ’52), and brother Gerd ’55 to Swarthmore. “I was basically given no choice,” she laughs. 

She gleefully admits that she wasn’t a spectacular student, but Heinrich Brinkman, who taught math from 1933 to 1969, saw her light. 

“He asked me, ‘What are you doing this summer?’ I said, ‘I guess factory work,’ and he said, ‘Oh no, now you have a Ford Foundation scholarship to teach high-school math,’ which was a surprise to me,” she remembers.

After Swarthmore, Alger carved a career path in technology unusual for a woman at the time. Sent directly to the secretarial pool at an IBM interview, she talked her way into a class of mostly male technical trainees instead.

Returning to New Jersey, she joined Bell Labs as a senior technical aide in 1961. When she applied to a workplace program supporting select employees in earning master’s degrees in technical fields, her thin math background disqualified her until Brinkman stepped in. Thanks to his vote of confidence, Alger was admitted. She earned an M.S. in applied mathematics in 1966.

After 10 years away to rear two children and start a Christmas tree farm in rural New Jersey, Alger resumed work as a systems analyst at Bell Labs, where she worked until her retirement in 1989. In 1987, she was awarded the coveted title of Distinguished Member of Technical Staff—due to her networking skills more so than her technical contribution, she jokes. 

“One of the things that Swarthmore gives you is a sense that it doesn’t matter what facts you learn—discovering how to learn and how to use your knowledge is the real takeaway,” she says. “That ‘Renaissance man’ approach served me well at Bell Labs and in life.”

At 70, she and Gene reinvented themselves, selling the tree farm to daughter Katrina and moving to Berkeley, Calif., drawn by family and the restaurants, culture, and warm weather. Since then, Alger has chaired a vibrant gathering of retired women whose activities—including a book group, writing group, and regular discussions of New Yorker articles—have become central to her existence.

When 80 rolled around, it offered Alger another invitation to assess her life, so she tackled it the best way she knew how: on her feet, with a second pilgrimage, this time alone, through southern France to the Spanish border. 

“Sit down,” Gene continues to urge, but Alger’s too busy, observing her family’s 50th season selling Christmas trees at the New Jersey farm and planning new adventures for 2016: a four-day hike near home, another Spanish pilgrimage, and—her favorite—the 60th reunion of Swarthmore’s Class of ’56.