Now and Then: Looking at the Lives of Two UT Grads, 80 Years Apart

June 6, 1938, was a perfectly moonlit summer night in Austin. Gathered before the one-year-old Tower were 1,161 students, dressed in black gowns and tasseled hats. It was the largest graduating class at UT to date.

It hadn’t been a particularly remarkable year on campus. The university had started the new school year in search of a permanent president, following the death of Harry Yandell Benedict. Football had been as important as ever, as Longhorns everywhere had their eyes on the new head coach Dana X. Bible. Texas went 2-6-1 that fall. Austin had seen a rare snowfall, making the seniors’ last winter on campus a magical one. The 10,000 students enrolled spent their days on the Drag, grabbing coffee at the Wukasch Brothers Cafe, and picking up supplies at the University Co-Op, which was then just one story tall. They could get their tennis rackets restrung at the Lasker Ehman shop next door, or pick up a bouquet of flowers for their sweetheart at the Watson Flower Shop down the street.

Somewhere among the sea of graduates stood a 21-year-old sociology major from the Third Ward in Houston with a slight build, dark hair, and blue eyes. Her name was Beatrice Friedberg, but everyone called her Beadie. She had recently lost her father, but her mother, sister, and an unwitting boyfriend who she would soon break up with, sat in the audience.

She couldn’t help but think to herself that she had been coasting through the last four years—never mind the fact that she’d been part of the Association for Childhood Education, an active member in her sorority Delta Phi Epsilon, and had a spot in the Glee Club, the all-female service organization Present Day, the Houston Club, and the all-female seniors club Cap and Gown. As commencement speaker Howard Mumford Jones, a former UT professor of comparative literature and the father of the Curtain Club performance group, gave his speech about the bright future ahead of them, she wondered about her own.

What would she do next? What all could a young woman be?

***

Women have long played a part at the university, from its inception in 1883 when it opened its doors to white students, both male and female. A woman by the name of Helen Marr Kirby became the first woman to join the administrative staff in 1884, taking charge of the women on campus for the next 35 years, and eventually earning the title Dean of Women—making her the first female dean.

And in 1886, the university graduated its first female student, a woman named Jessie Andrews. She went on to become UT’s first female instructor two years later, teaching German. Lilia M. Casis, BA 1895, MA 1896, a UT professor and dean, wrote Andrews’ obituary in the May 1920 edition of the Alcalde. She details how Andrews would proudly tell the story of how she was the first woman to complete her examination and register on the first day of UT’s existence. “As she shared with me bits of reminiscence, her eyes would sparkle,” Casis wrote.

At commencement for the Class of 1886, the men who formed the Alumni Association presented Andrews with a gold medal bearing a five-pointed star set with pearls on one face, and the seal of Texas on the other, welcoming the “first lady graduate” of the university to the association. “This medal Miss Andrews treasured, but she never wore it,” Casis wrote. “It was like her to think and speak of it as the sign of a spirit of chivalry and good-will toward the women of the institution, and to hold it as it were in trust, as a token of that spirit.”

The Class of 2018 looked a little different. On May 18, 2018, thousands of students stood before the Tower as Vice Adm. Raquel Bono, BA ’79, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, gave her speech before the traditional fireworks show went off.

The last year on campus had been a whirlwind. A divisive year in U.S. politics had made campus a lightning rod for discourse on everything from the removal of Confederate statues on campus to freedom of speech. The UT System bid farewell to William H. McRaven, BJ ’77, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, as he stepped down from his role as chancellor due to leukemia. In new head coach Tom Herman’s first year, Texas football had a season that left something to be desired. But the university was consistently ranked as one of the top in the nation, including No. 18 in the U.S. News & World Report. And just like it did in 1938, Austin received a little winter magic when it snowed last December.

Among the crowd was Deja Gamble, a first-generation college student from Frisco, Texas, earning a degree in sociology and a degree in applied learning and development. Just the day before, she had walked into the Frank Erwin Center, her black gown accented with a white College of Liberal Arts stole, a light blue College of Education stole, and a black student graduation Kente Cloth sash. With her seemingly ever-present smile that her mother, Yvonne, likes to say “captures all of us in the family,” Gamble peered over at the auditorium seats where she saw her mother, father, brothers, sisters, grandmother, aunts, and uncles cheering.

She felt pride swelling inside her. The production was bigger than she thought it would be and she hadn’t expected everything to come so quickly. “I finally made it,” she thought to herself. And as UT English professor and former LBJ Library and Museum director Betty Sue Flowers, BA ’69, MA ’70, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, gave her commencement speech to the College of Liberal Arts, Gamble didn’t wonder too hard about her future. She knew this wasn’t the end. For her, it was just a beginning.

***

“Who is it?” a woman calls out in a loud, trembling, voice from the other side of the hardwood door. It’s a bright Saturday May morning in a quiet, well-to-do subdivision of Houston called Old Braeswood Park. I yell out my name and hear the locks turn before the door opens and a face peeks out, flashing the same smile I’ve come to know from old Cactus yearbook photos. “You are just so prompt!”

Beadie, who took her husband’s last name Lewis in 1939, invites me in to her home. She’s 101 now, but doesn’t look a day over 82. Her white hair is cut short, her sharp eyes are framed by a pair of gold wire-rimmed glasses, and her subtle red-orange lipstick gives her face a pop of color.

Before I can say more than a hello, she offers me breakfast and makes her way into the kitchen where she heats up a couple of croissants. I follow slowly behind, looking around the space she has called home since she and her late husband, Nathan, built it in 1953. There is wood paneling on the walls, and a gray and white checkered pattern ceiling. Floor-to-ceiling windows allow me to peer into a lush backyard and carport where a car she’s no longer allowed to drive spends its days. Taking a seat, Lewis tells me the furniture has been around for as long as she can remember. “Everything here is old,” she says. “It’s all the same old stuff.”

Lewis’ life is something of a marvel. She lives alone. She has no caretaker, cooks all her own meals, and though she has a walker, only uses it if she leaves the house. I ask how she keeps busy. “Well, seems like there’s always something, if you own a house,” she says, detailing all the parts of her home that currently need tending. This is the house where she spent most of her life, and with four great-grandchildren, she wants to make sure everything stays in perfect shape for future generations of her family. Most nights, she prepares her dinner, sits down in the living room, and watches the news. She likes to do the crossword puzzles in the Houston Chronicle with her 94-year-old sister, June, especially on Mondays, “when it’s easiest.”

Lewis came into the world on March 13, 1917—three years before women received the right to vote. She was born to Russian Jewish immigrants who, due to religious persecution, had fled their home country separately and met while living in New York. They had a total of six kids, three boys and three girls, though one of the daughters died before Lewis was born. She recalls that her parents’ primary concern when she was growing up was that their children received an education. They always made sure to enroll her in piano or dance lessons, though she’ll never understand how they could afford it.

In her lifetime, Lewis has lived through numerous wars, passage of the Equal Pay Act, and come pretty close to seeing a woman become president of the U.S. She has watched generations of women in America fight for equality and opportunities she didn’t know were possible when she took her first steps from college into the next phase of her life.

The world Lewis grew up in was a small one. For women post-graduation, there were just a couple of options: Get married or go to business school. Following graduation, Lewis moved back home to Houston and spent a brief stint at business school. “I was never any good at typing or shorthand,” she says. Within the year, she married her husband and together they had a son, Michael, in 1942 and adopted their daughter, Lynn, a few years later. The way she tells it, she became a housewife and a career was no longer in the cards.

“She’s being modest,” says her son Michael, who works as an orthopedic surgeon near Chicago. Though she may not have had a career like what she wishes she had now, Michael thinks his mother’s life has been an impressive one. Throughout most of his time growing up, he remembers Lewis working as a substitute teacher or going door to door as a successful World Book Encyclopedia salesperson—even when his father didn’t approve of her working. She not only ran a household, but she also helped her husband run a successful business.

“My mother has been a lifelong learner and has always been incredibly curious,” he says. She has spent her life trying to give back to others, doing work like hospital visits with her Jewish congregation Beth Israel or volunteering at the Gladney Center for Adoption. Her pastime is reading about anything and everything, she keeps up daily with current events, and has traveled to more countries than you can count on your fingers. Recalling the cruise they took for his mother’s 90th birthday, Michael says Lewis has always been the life of the party and the last person on the dance floor. “I always felt that if you’re invited to a party,” Lewis says, grinning, “then you should enjoy it.”

Lewis’ life has been one filled with love and people who bring her joy. Her phone rings every day and she often has friends and family staying in her home. She believes her children, their spouses, her three grandkids, and four great-grandkids have been the key to her long life. “They make me feel like the queen bee,” she says.

But if times had been different when she was finishing school, she can’t help but think that maybe she would be, too.

“You know,” she says, pondering her life choices as the 80th anniversary of her graduation approaches, “it takes a lot of years—like 101—to think about.”

***

When I first meet Gamble in the Student Services Initiatives office where she works, there are still a couple of weeks before she graduates—“a year early,” she adds with a smile, “and with two degrees.” Finals are over and she is preparing to go off to a conference for the Business Professionals of America, a career and technical student organization, in Grapevine, Texas.

Born and raised just 30 minutes north of Dallas, she never intended on coming to UT. Her dream was to head out to California, maybe go to USC. But out-of-state tuition just wasn’t something her family felt they could afford. “So I had to pick a school in Texas,” she says. “Figured I’d go to the best one.”

Like Lewis, Gamble says she is fascinated by human interactions, and has spent the last few years studying sociology. Specifically, Gamble’s interests focus on family structures and inequality. She plans to pursue a career in higher education, hopefully developing ways to serve underrepresented or underprivileged students. She can also see herself working with elementary school kids on Capitol Hill, fighting for legislation to support higher education.

“So that kids all have the same chance to go to college that I did,” she says.

Her parents divorced when she was in middle school. Though her father is still in the picture, Gamble was raised mainly by her mother and grandmother, Joyce Welch. “Me, my mom, and my grandma, were like a little pack together,” she says. “We did everything together.”

Her mom, who works as a middle school secretary, tells me about how when Gamble was a little girl, whenever someone asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, the answer was always “a bride.”

“I’m not sure why,” Yvonne Gamble says, laughing. “But I never hear that anymore. Once she got in school, it became all about wanting to help other kids. She wanted to be the leader.”

And it’s true. Gamble has kept her last few years busy doing service work, tutoring children in programs like Outside the Box Dropout Prevention, a nonprofit that works with at-risk students in Montopolis, an underserved community in Austin. She currently mentors a fifth grader at Cunningham Elementary in Austin, and also works in a second grade classroom as a tutor. When she’s not doing that, she’s attending church in East Austin, working on campus, or teaching kickboxing classes at Fight Club in West Campus. “But honestly, I just like hanging out with my friends and going to the Greenbelt or watching movies in my apartment,” she says.

Though she loves the university, Gamble’s experience hasn’t always been easy. She recognizes the possibilities for her future seem greater than what was available for women of Lewis’ era. But attending UT Austin—a school that desegregated as recently as 1956—as a black woman has come with its hardships.

On a campus that is just 5 percent black, she is aware of how rarely she sees anyone who looks like her. And she never had a black professor. She tells me about instances in which she has dealt with both subtle and blatant instances of racism around campus. More than once she can recall being called racial slurs while walking home through West Campus. Sometimes it will start with a catcall, and if she neglects to respond, the racist comments usually follow.

“I won’t even be doing anything, I’m literally just existing,” she says. “It’s also always knowing that for everything that I get, I have to work twice as hard. It’s like this for a lot of African-American students, where it’s like if you mess up or get a bad grade, it’s magnified.”

But she doesn’t let those experiences get her down. She tells me she has found a community at UT that has helped her embrace who she is and where she comes from. Though it might not sound like much, she is proud to say she’s learned to wear her natural hair—no more straightening. “I decided one day that I was going to wear my curly afro—I love my hair,” she says. “It wasn’t until I got here that I could express who I wanted to be.”

When I ask her mother what she sees for her daughter’s future, the answer is simple.

“Oh,” she says with awe in her voice, “I think Deja has so much more to do.”

***

On the Wednesday after Gamble walked across the Frank Erwin Center stage, I connect the two sociology majors, born a lifetime apart, over the phone. Lewis is at her home in Houston, and Gamble is staying with her mother in Frisco, still feeling ecstatic over her fresh degree. And though it has been nearly a century, Lewis remembers that feeling, too.

However positive Lewis is about her life, she sometimes speaks with the melancholy of those who have had too long to think about the past. As it often is for someone who has lived as long  as she has, there has been a great loss. She has now spent nearly 20 years without her husband—though she still wears her wedding ring—and her daughter died in 2013. She is certain she was meant to have worked in social services, or some form of philanthropy, but fighting for a career wasn’t what women did in her day.

Gamble, though, has the starry eyes of someone who has all the time in the world.

“Women in my day were just so much less independent,” Lewis says. They share what their lives at UT were like with one another.

Times, of course, have changed. In the fall of 2018, Gamble will attend graduate school at UT Austin to earn a degree in educational leadership and policy. She’s going to miss certain parts of undergrad, like staying up gossiping with her best girlfriends all night, or waking up after a party and heading out with her roommate to grab Jimmy John’s and blue Powerade in their pajamas. But she’s ready.

She asks Lewis if she has any advice to offer a young college graduate. Though she hesitates to answer at first—she feels like she doesn’t have the experience to offer career advice—Lewis gives her what she thinks is her most important life lesson.

One day, when her granddaughter was about 3 or 4, she and Lewis were walking along a beach when a woman walked by. She was bent down, as though the world was on her shoulders, and Lewis’ granddaughter ran up to her and said, “Are you a princess?”

“And this woman just blossomed,” Lewis recalls. “I think that’s what we all should aim for. Everybody is carrying around so much baggage, you never know what heartache another person has. So if we can each do something to make someone else feel a little better, I think that’s what life’s all about.”

“Thank you for talking with me, Beadie,” Gamble says.

“Of course, dear,” Lewis replies. “Take care, now.”

From top: Beatrice Lewis’s senior graduate headshot, photograph via 1938 Cactus; Deja Gamble in her West Campus apartment, photograph by Matt Wright-Steel; Lewis in her home in Houston, photograph by Michael Stravato. 

 
 
 

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