A Conversation with Gertrude Allen (BA Greek 1967)
A note from the Classics Chair:
GERTRUDE ALLEN matriculated at Berkeley in 1949 and after a hiatus returned to earn a BA in Greek in 1967. “I never had a female professor in the Classics Department,” Allen wrote to me in an email, “and I don’t believe there were any. The faculty members all seemed to have wives who did the traditional faculty wife thing - have us over for sherry or tea - which was very pleasant. [I wonder] if I had seen a role model if I would have gone on for an advanced degree.”
Allen’s memory of the department is accurate. In 1947, two years before Allen first arrived on campus, Lily Ross Taylor was the very first woman to hold the visiting Sather Professorship in Classics (the equivalent of the “Nobel Prize” in the field, hosted by our department); the next woman to hold the Sather Professorship was Emily Vermeule in 1974, years after Allen graduated. As revealed in the Classics Department History, the first woman appointed to the Classics faculty was Florence Verducci, likewise in 1974. Things have certainly changed since then and there are now seven women on our faculty and sixteen women in our graduate student community. In 2004, Leslie Kurke became the first woman to chair the department; I am the second after her in this role.
“I still get a thrill when I think of my classes then,” Allen continued. “I’ll never know [if I would have gone on], but I suspect not since I’ve been a dabbler in so many things - curious about everything and expert in nothing. That’s not a complaint - I think it’s who I am and I have had (and still have) a good life.”
Allen was a student with a rare range of experience of Berkeley across the decades. As she wrote to me, “I was 17 years old when I first came to Berkeley. The campus was bigger than it had ever been because of returning GIs (of all ages). I liked it very much then but didn’t really connect with anything - until I met my future husband on campus, left after 3 years and got married. Fast forward to the 60’s: I was in my 30’s, married with 2 children. The campus in the 60’s was of course exploding with action - FSM, etc.” Below is an excerpt from her recent zoom conversation with my colleague Mario Telò.
MT: You graduated in 1967, right?
GA: That sounds about right.
MT: That was an amazing period to be at Berkeley!
GA: It was, it really was. You see, that was actually a return for me. I was a freshman at Berkeley in the fall of 1949, majoring in Political Science because I didn’t know what to major in. And you know, I got quite a lot out of it, I enjoyed it… [Then] I met my husband and left and got married. But I had the sense to do all the paperwork to take a leave of absence rather than just leave. So when I got, sort of, I don’t know, this Greek thing just got hold of me—
MT: Oh I love to hear that!
GA: I decided to go back when my children were both in school. My younger one was in kindergarten. …I was taking beginning Greek in Extension from a woman—I wish I could remember her name, she was a graduate student in the department, a wonderful person, and Mario Savio was on the police car—
MT: Really, oh my goodness!
GA: So we met at her house‚ there was a kind of picket line around the campus. And I don’t know, I just got hooked, and so I applied to get back in—and they had to let me in. They had changed some of the requirements so I had to take additional science, and I chose Astronomy because I thought I’d like to learn more about the stars, well—it was all math! I’ve never worked so hard in my life! But it was good, I liked it a lot. The Classics Department (I’m sure it is as good as it was then)—there weren’t just really good teachers and researchers and so forth, but it was such a nice atmosphere—
MT: I’m glad to hear that. Do you remember anybody in particular?
GA: Well, my first teacher there was Ron Stroud. A very nice man.
MT: Very sweet. I also love his wife.
GA: Connie. Yes. They’re a wonderful couple. Anyway, he was my first teacher in beginning Greek. And of course in those days he was Mr. Stroud. I was Mrs. Allen. And Mr. Pritchett—
more than once, he invited us to his home, the typical faculty thing you know, it was sherry in the late afternoon. And his wife was very charming… And then Greenie [Crawford Greenewalt Jr.]—everybody loved him. He was just a wonderful archaeologist. And I’ll never forget he brought one day some little pots that he owned, genuine Greek pots, and he passed them around so we could handle them [laughs]: I was kind of nervous.
MT: A very generous person.
GA: Very generous. I see that the department has a fund which I donated to—I was thrilled when I saw they had it, I have such fond memories of him.
MT: Do you remember any other female students?
GA: Yes I do. Amy Rullman. I’ve often wondered what happened to her—I think I even googled her once and couldn’t find her. There were very few [female] undergraduates. Amy and I became good friends. Her husband was a graduate student in English and we saw a lot of them. And then I think they left before she finished. Another one I remember was a graduate student in Sanskrit. She married an American guy by the name of “Beel,” as she called him. There were lovely people. But there were very few of us.
MT: How did you decide to take Greek in the first place?
GA: Well, did you know Joe Fontenrose?
MT: Well, I know of him, his scholarship, yes.
GA: He was teaching a class in Greek Mythology, which my husband took, and he was just dazzled by it, and he said, you’ve got to take this class. So I did, and I realized it was the language and the whole culture that interested me… I still, I don’t know what it is, but I get kind of a thrill, if I see Greek pottery—
MT: Yes, thrill is really a good word. It’s about this connection with this world, which is both distant from us and close to us.
GT: I’ve never been entirely sure what it was. My house is loaded with books, and I have a certain two or three shelves that are all Greek, and I just walk past that shelf and get kind of thrilled.
MT: May I ask, how would you compare the situation we are in now with, say, those years around 1966, which were very tumultuous in the US.
GA: To me, I look on that period as—the windows opened. I remember Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. I consider it one of the great periods of all time. And unfortunately some of it turned violent. We had tear gas in the city, that was pretty bad. My son was going to school at Willard Junior High, which is over on Telegraph, and he would walk, he always walked and learned where there wouldn’t be teargas because he’d walk where the AC Transit buses were going … You know, he was learning about living in the city.