Skip to main content

Barbara Norfleet '47

Good morning soon to be free graduates.

Although I am filled with joy getting an Honorary Degree from a college I love and respect, my heart sank when I heard I was going to have to give a short talk. I taught for 44 years and gave lectures all over, but always with a subject . This was pure invention - and you, Swarthmore graduates, are smart.

I arrived here in 1943 with an unforgiving typewriter, a pen, and the ubiquitous laundry case to send my clothes home each week to be washed and ironed. Parents returned the cases filled with cookies and stamps hoping for letters. The one phone on each floor meant they could seldom get through to check on you. Some things were better then. I am from a different time.

Swarthmore took a chance with me. I was the one kid from my high school to go to college. It was a school filled with future farmers, beauticians, craftsmen. The nicest school I ever attended. It was a wartime culture and we got out of class to pick the strawberry crop or do other good deeds. Little book learning, but it gave me good memories and a lifelong respect for our plumbers, contractors, electricians, farmers. Many of our most intelligent citizens are hiding in these occupations

For years I thought I was admitted to Swarthmore because I was intelligent - now I know it was because no one had ever applied from schools like mine - no outreach then.

I loved Swarthmore. Attending Harvard afterwards was a disappointment.

However, my beginnings at Swarthmore were traumatic.

A short story:

Right after midterm exams in my freshmen year I was called to the President's office. She sai,  "We have made a mistake. You are not the Swarthmore type after all. Unless there are changes in your grades, attitude, and behavior you had better leave by the end of the term."

I had bottom grades in all my mid-term exams. Unlike other students, I dashed off to New York every weekend to say goodbye to friends going off to war. Ed Faulkner, our great tennis coach, had singled me out for his team and I played tennis many hours a day on our indoor courts regardless of weather. Beyond these reasons I had little training in how to study.

It was inconceivable that the first time I was on my own I should be a complete failure. After all, I was valedictorian of my class in my sweet country H.S.

What could I say to my parents? They had given up pleasures to send me to college. I was filled with guilt.

I changed my life. I settled down to serious study, I became a pacifist, changed my politics, graduated with high honors and I began to love learning.

I became such a good student that my mother felt each new book I opened reduced my chances for marriage.

Swarthmore saved my life.

My only advice is to love what you do. When I was 45 years old with 3 children I re-invented myself in a new field. Life became exciting and has been ever since. Work became play. So love what you do and if necessary re-invent yourself.

Good luck to all of you and thank you.