In 1951 nine young women — Delores “Dolly” Sauey, Barbara Clemons, Joanne Fritz, Shirley Duel, Virginia Lathrope, Patricia Jenson, Carole Tickler, Rose Peper and Diane Klemme — were freshmen at Stout State College. One year later as sophomores they met through the sorority Pallas Athene and formed what would become a lifelong connection.
As students they “put forth the effort to be above average,” Virginia said in her memoir. They also found time for the other important details of coed life: parties, dances, ski trips, boyfriends, church and school clubs.
All changed June 3, 1955, when the nine graduated from Stout State and found the future upon them and the past, as they knew it, no more.
The women wanted to stay in touch with each other and decided on a process, which they have maintained for approximately 58 years. They came up with the round robin letter idea. Handwritten letters were to be mailed in a package to each woman in turn.
“When the package is received, she reads all the new letters from her old friends, replaces her previous letter with a fresh one and sends the whole works to the next name on the list. The package completes the circuit two or three times a year and brightens our days as it goes along,” Virginia explained.
In that hurried long-ago moment in June, the women vowed to faithfully participate. Each time the letters went around they would share news about their jobs, families, activities and other aspects of their lives.
After all, there was no email, Facebook or Twitter in those days, and long-distance telephone calls were expensive.
In the years that ensued, the women married — some to young men they met on campus — had children, chose teaching careers and stayed connected through their letters.
Patricia said the round robin system is an important part of her life. “It has come at times of great joy and at times of unhappiness but lifts me up at both times,” she said.
The women didn’t see each other until 1985, when they attended their 30th class reunion in Menomonie. “There (we) discovered a stunning reality,” Virginia said. “Stout had changed more than (we) had,” she said.
Buildings were gone or remodeled, and the campus had grown from the four buildings they knew so well.
Over the years the women have emerged out of the “darkness of mankind’s predigital age” and have become computer literate.
“Our Stout education taught us how to learn new stuff” one of the nine said. But they still prefer to communicate via the old-fashioned handwritten letter.
“You have something real. You can pick up and hold before you pieces of paper still warm from the hands of friends you’ve known and loved for over half a century,” Virginia said.
“You can visualize her sitting at her desk with a pen in her hand, putting forth a little extra effort to tell you about the latest happenings at her house and in her life. It lets you know she still thinks about you and values your friendship.”
Even if one member can’t physically write the letter, the round robin carries on. After a stroke left Carole unable to write, her husband, knowing the importance of the letters, writes for her.
In 2005 to mark their 50th anniversary of graduating, the nine got together. With their married names they were: Pat Jenson Luehmann, from Lewiston, Minn.; Joanne Fritz Troupe, from Manitowoc; Virginia Lathrope Brown, from Fredonia; Shirley Duel Hietala, from Conrath; Rose Peper Nelson, from Rhinelander; Barbara Clemons Collette, from Menomonee Falls; Delores Sauey Reick, from White Bear Lake, Minn.; Carole Tickler Anderson, from St. Cloud, Minn.; and Diane Klemme Thusius, from Madison.
“Such a momentous year as this could not pass without being properly commemorated,” Virginia said.
They met in Wisconsin Dells with their husbands, ate, swam and exchanged memories. They had such a good time that they resolved to keep on meeting every year. “The parties will go on every year, until nobody’s left to get together. But for right now, life’s a ball and we intend to enjoy it,” Virginia said.
When Delores passed away in 2011, Pat went to her funeral and discovered that the round robin had taken on a life of its own.
“I stopped at a table of her relatives to express my sympathy and introduced myself as Pat, one of Dolly's round robin friends,” she said. “Their faces lit up and they said, ‘We know you! Dolly always shared the round robin with us!’”
Although the original circle of friends has been broken, the 58-year-old round robin still is going strong. The remaining members continue to write and enjoy each other’s company the old-fashioned way.