"Sisters of the Sixties" Reunite at Carolina
Originally published in May 2012
Late one night in April 2012, giggles and storytelling overtook a suite of rooms at the Inn at USC, the hotel located on the University of South Carolina’s campus. Inside were more than a dozen women, former Carolina students ages 60 and older, reliving their youth at a “slumber party” hosted by the guest of honor for the weekend’s reunion festivities of the Pi Beta Phi “Sisters of the Sixties.” Alumnae traveled from as far as Seattle; Houston; Tulsa; Nashville; DC; and Wellesley, Massachusetts; to be there.
“By living together in a dorm when we were in college, any time you had a really special evening, you would come ‘home,’ stay up all night and talk about it with your friends,” said Brenda Hellams, ’63, ’81, My Carolina member, one of the weekend’s organizers. “That’s what happened when we all reconvened for our ‘Sisters of the Sixties’ reunion, and it was fantastic!” Only this time, there was no yelling, “Man on the hall!” if a gentleman happened to be on the floor, as was custom back in their days on campus.
For on this weekend, nearly 50 women, all members of Pi Beta Phi at the University of South Carolina between 1960 and 1969, gathered for the second-ever reunion of the “Sisters of the Sixties.”
“When I pledged Pi Beta Phi in 1964, a large trophy stood in the sorority room—Best Sorority on Campus at the University of South Carolina,” says Tez Rion English, ’67, ’90, My Carolina member. “I only wish that more ‘Sisters of the Sixties’ had been able to attend and experience this special weekend. These women were and still are the very best.”
Sisters Honor Sis
The event coincided with the Columbia Alumnae Club of Pi Beta Phi’s annual Founders’ Day celebration for their Greek-letter organization, in which one member in particular, Sara Ruth (Sis) Mullis, ’65, My Carolina member and former member of My Carolina Board of Governors, was being honored for her contributions over a 50-year span. The festivities included a campus tour, reception, brunch and dinner.
“As one who came in from out of state, I continue to be amazed after 50 years how absolutely wonderful South Carolina and, in turn, the University are,” Sis says. “It is amazing how many of our Sisters have come back 'home' to live. I think part of the draw is the size of our state and how everyone knows everyone—or at least so it seems.”
“USC likewise reflected that 'family feeling' when we were there, and we felt it once again this past weekend,” Sis explains. “It was truly as if we had just left campus a few months ago. The reunion was indeed a 'memory weekend,' and we thank those who worked so hard to make it a success, including those on campus with the University. I left with a renewed sense of sisterhood and of being Carolina proud!”
In the late 1990s, the alumnae group established a national scholarship in Sis’ name. In her honor, Pi Beta Phi awards a “Service in Sisterhood”
(SIS) award at its biennial convention.
“The award reinforces ‘servant
leadership,’ and we are all so proud of everything she has
accomplished,” Brenda proudly proclaims of the 1987 recipient of the hospital pharmacist of the year award in the state of Georgia. “Sis really is a remarkable woman.”
Birds of a Feather
“The ‘Sisters of the Sixties’ are a diverse, accomplished and committed-to-sincere-friendship group,” according to Brenda, who was a recipient of the prestigious Algernon Sydney Sullivan award as an undergraduate. “They know that friendships take work and are willing to make the investment to keep them together.”
Over the years, the Sisters’ own adult children have marveled at how these women have managed to stay so close, saying that even they haven’t been in such regular, meaningful communication with their college friends, even though they graduated from college much more recently.
The Sisters themselves have often wondered the same thing. “Fate, time, choice of college” were three elements that seemed to come together for them, Brenda suggests, calling their 50-year friendship a “blessing.”
Though the University of South Carolina’s Pi Beta Phi chapter voluntarily surrendered its charter because of dwindling numbers in the 1980s, Brenda enthusiastically and sincerely announces, “We are never giving up hope of a re-colonization at Carolina!”
Civil Rights and the Changing Campus Landscape
1963, the year of Brenda’s graduation, was an important year in Carolina’s history. Just months after Brenda and many of her peers graduated, Henrie Monteith, ’65, My Carolina member (now Dr. Henrie Monteith Treadwell, internationally recognized biochemist), began attending the University of South Carolina, the first African-American student to enroll since Reconstruction. Robert G. Anderson and James L. Solomon, Jr. made history along with Henrie.
Sis, the Sisters’ honoree, was a highly respected student leader at the time, also having been awarded the coveted Algernon Sydney Sullivan award. She and other student leaders came back to campus early and met with campus administrators to develop a plan that would assure a peaceful integration of the campus.
Brenda, fresh out of college, remembers that integration was “gracefully handled” at the University of South Carolina. “It was, to the credit of everyone involved, a peaceful transition,” she explains.
When Brenda, Sis and the others took their campus tour during their reunion weekend, the ladies pointed out the residence hall in the Women’s Quad where they remember Henrie, a female, lived while she attended school. It’s a special anecdote from a group of women, many of whom were there, who lived and studied on the same campus as Henrie at such an historic time.
Dr. Treadwell will be featured in an exclusive My Carolina e-newsletter member profile this summer (2012).
Vietnam and a Time of Change
A writer for The Gamecock while she was in school, Brenda reflects on the topics about which she and her peers wrote during the early 1960s, years leading up to the Civil Rights Act and the Vietnam War outcry, and reflects, “We thought the stories we covered in the early 1960s were so relevant, and the things so serious and heavy. Students in the mid- and late 1960s years after us probably thought we were so shallow.”
Sadly, the losses from the Vietnam War had a direct impact on the “Sisters of the Sixties.” One of the women married her sweetheart just after college, and he was sent to Vietnam. He lost his life in combat, and their story ended tragically, far too swiftly. Thankfully, the women have had each other to lean on in the dark, painful hours as well as in times of joy in which a true friend’s gentle understanding and steadfast support serve as a lifeline.
Legacies of Accomplished Alumnae
“In many ways, these women are very different,” Brenda explains. “We all have different personalities and have gone on to pursue different lives and careers in law, education, finance, journalism and many other fields, but something about us just clicked.”
This collection of friends includes the following women of achievement:
- Malissa Burnette, ’71, ’77 JD, My Carolina member—first-ever recipient of the South Carolina Bar’s distinguished employment lawyer in 2011; former president of the SC Women Lawyers Association; named a South Carolina “Super Lawyer” in 2012; elected as a “Best Lawyer in America” each year from 2005-2012.
- Sara Najjar-Wilson, ’66, ’69 JD, My Carolina member—served as a senior attorney for NASA and chairperson of the federal litigation section of the Federal Bar Association; received the NASA Exceptional Service Medal; was president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, DC.
- Virginia Maxwell Grose, ’66, My Carolina member—became the senior vice president of marketing for South Carolina’s largest bank.
- Patty Whitlock Hamsher, ’62, My Carolina member, and Stephanie Adair Vickery, ’66, My Carolina member—worked respectively with organizations charged with developing the Apollo Space Project and the Space Shuttle Program.
- Ann Gray Loadholt, ’65, My Carolina Life Member—served as a publicly elected official in Barnwell County and continues her active participation as a Carolina alumna as the wife of Miles Loadholt, the current chairman of the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees.
- Dr. Ruth Henderson Walsh McIntyre, ’65—an eight-time Emmy Award winner for outstanding broadcast news and also a legal advocate and educator.
- Sarah Ruth (Sis) Mullis, ’65, My Carolina member—an award-winning pharmacist and mentor of thousands of young women over the years in her many leadership roles with Pi Beta Phi.
- Lee Skidmore Wenthe, ’62, ‘65—enjoyed a distinguished career as a journalism professor at Carolina and the University of Georgia.
So, fate, time, and choice of college might all have played a role in bringing these women together when they were Carolina undergraduates, but it seems that ambition, excellence, and a commitment to one’s community might also have drawn them to each other.
Patsy Auld Sanders, ’67, My Carolina member, has this to say about reuniting with her Pi Beta Phi peers: “I was proud to hear about the successful careers many had enjoyed—pharmacist, lawyer, television anchor, teachers, principals, business owners, artists and so on,” she says. “These gals have been pioneers in their fields and have been positive role models for the younger generations. I am truly proud to be part of the Pi Beta Phi sisterhood of the sixties!"
Sara Najjar-Wilson, ’66, ’69 JD, My Carolina member whose remarkable professional accomplishments have been noted above, has this to say about the sisterhood and their reunion weekend: "How does one describe such beautiful—inside and out—outstanding women who happen to be my sorority sisters? It was such a joy to see each of you after so many years and to congregate at the hospitable USC Inn on our enchanting University of South Carolina campus. Yes, hail to Carolina, hail to the friendship and love of our sisters of the arrow and the wine and blue!”
A Golden Time to Be an Alumna
Brenda, along with many of the other 1963 graduates and their husbands, intends to return next year for the Golden Reunion of the Class of 1963. “We have actually gone to one another’s reunions,” Brenda explains, given that the “Sisters” graduated in many different years within that decade. She and her husband, Howard Hellams, ’63, attended last year’s 50th reunion to celebrate friends in the Class of 1961 and will be present at May Carolina Alumni Weekend during the weekend of May 10-12, as well.
As for what has prompted Brenda and Howard to continuously renew their membership in My Carolina since the sixties, she cites the communication she receives as the greatest benefit: “I think any investment a graduate makes in the Alumni Association pays off in multiple rewards. The main advantage for us is to be kept in the loop. You don’t have to be a large-gift donor to benefit. I think some people hold back because of that perception—and they shouldn’t.”
Brenda would like to thank all the “Sisters of the Sixties” and Pi Beta Phi alumnae from South Carolina and other colleges and universities who took part in the 2012 events, including Steering Committee Chair Joanne Flowers Duncan, ‘74, My Carolina member; Ann Sanders Cargill; Montez Rion English, ’67, My Carolina member; Patricia Paden Dressler; Virginia Maxwell Grose, ’66, My Carolina member; Pam Barrett Hodnett, ’72; and Ellen Haas Cooper.