Reunion Stories: To Be Taken Seriously Then and Now


Leonard Zwelling

I have been married to the same woman for forty-five years. Our life together has been both challenging and rewarding and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. But, sometimes, one forgets that one’s spouse had a life before she married. That life is on full display at high school reunions—especially when they celebrate fifty years.

In August of 2015, the BW (Beautiful Wife) accompanied me and my best friend for sixty years, and his wife, to my high school reunion. It was a joint affair with the class ahead of us, so it was really our 49th. The BW was patient with all of the kisses and hugs from older women that greeted me, as about forty or so of my 605 classmates attended, a rather modest turnout. She learned two things about me.

First, I was considered one of the “smart kids.” She kind of knew that already when three of my high school friends were attendants at my wedding—two budding physicians and a soon-to-be Harvard lawyer, the man who went with us to the reunion.

Second, the deep distress my classmates and I felt when we learned about the deaths of some of our 606. Life is short. Nothing reminds you of that more than seeing that your young friends have turned old and some were not around to turn up at all.

This weekend, I was going to return the favor as we traveled to Shaker Heights, Ohio outside Cleveland for her 50th reunion.

I learned a few things about her, too, and I had a lot more help than she did as about 100 of her class of 600 showed up.

First and foremost, I really came to feel the battle that professional women had and still have, but to a lesser extent than those of my wife’s generation. She is the only woman medical professional in the Shaker High class of 1967 (about 600) as far as we can tell. Even though I had lived the last 45 years of her career with her, even back then, she was never taken as seriously as the boys who wanted to be doctors. She was small. There were “mean girls” that picked on her, some from wealthy families (she was not). The BW has been fighting for her career and herself long before she ever met me at the Duke Medical School Library in 1971. She was fighting the men; she was fighting the attending physicians (all men); and fighting the FDA. Fortunately, she’s tough and now I know why.

Second, that battle for being taken seriously has affected her career ever since. It still does to this day. She’s still small, petite, in fact. The power of her ideas and her determination are often underestimated, especially by men. She is not the first woman to put forward a great idea at a meeting of men only to be ignored and then have the same idea accepted by the group when it comes from a man later in the meeting. She has had to punch a hole in more than a few glass ceilings, but it all started long before she ever donned a white coat. It was right there in front of me at the reunion. I could see what she meant all these years about not being taken seriously. They were still shocked at all that she has done. Despite being a distinguished alumna at both her undergraduate school and medical school, she has still not been so honored at Shaker High. It’s a travesty, but she believes that they still don’t take her seriously there.

Her high school experience and mine were quite different even though they shouldn’t have been. But the misogyny that is under such discussion today is nothing new to her. The young women of today take the pioneering work of the early feminists for granted. As Hillary Clinton demonstrated, they shouldn’t. The battle is anything but won. If Gloria Steinem represents the first wave of feminism, the BW and Mrs. Clinton represent the second and the roots of its necessity were on full display at the reunion.

I had a life before I met my wife. Because I was a first-born son on the south shore of Long Island in the mid-1960’s, it was relatively charmed. After all, I did get a deferment from serving in Vietnam while at Duke and then went to the NIH to do my “service” to the country seeing patients and doing research.

The BW had a life before she met me. She was the first-born daughter of a well-respected academic physician in Cleveland, Ohio, but was not wealthy or privileged in any way other than being nurtured by her father’s demand for excellence and her mother’s for decorum and polish. But in that school, she had a much tougher row to hoe than I ever did in mine. I saw it for myself last weekend.

So all you husbands out there, and boyfriends, too, who have reached Medicare-recipient status and are in a relationship with a woman near your age, stop and think about what your significant other had to go through to get where she is compared to what you had to go through to get where you are.

You may come to respect your partner even more—maybe even enough to accompany her to her 50th high school reunion. Go. You might learn something about the person with whom you are now sharing your life.

Leonard Zwelling