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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Rivier’s ‘golden girls’ plan reunion

Dean Shalhoup

There are some things that even 50 years can’t erase from memory.

For Bernardette Zappala, those “yummy friend morsels” – the Modern restaurant’s fried clams – and the “special meals at the turkey farm” – Greenridge – are some of them. ...

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There are some things that even 50 years can’t erase from memory.

For Bernardette Zappala, those “yummy friend morsels” – the Modern restaurant’s fried clams – and the “special meals at the turkey farm” – Greenridge – are some of them.

And the ice cream at HoJo’s. And the chicken sandwiches smothered in girlish gossip at Priscilla’s.

And the day she stood in awe as the young, impossibly charming politician from Massachusetts so gracefully introduced his wife to a roomful of young women.

They’re but a few of the fond memories Zappala holds dear still today, each one a precious connection to a special segment of life at once exciting and frightening that magically transforms timid, nail-bitten adolescents into confident, polished young adults set to take on the world.

For Zappala and about two dozen of her contemporaries, those memories are tied to Rivier University, which was Rivier College when the young women graduated a half-century ago. This weekend, some members of that comparatively tiny class of 1962, exclusively female and roughly half Nashua residents, are back at the old alma mater for a Golden Jubilee that began Friday night and continues through Monday.

For a self-described “Long Island girl” who credits Nashua’s gone but not forgotten Modern for introducing her to fried clams, Marie Bernardette Johnson adapted to “northern, small-town” life quite nicely.

“Walking to town and HoJo’s” begins “Looking Back: A Reverie,” Zappala’s compilation of memories she emailed this way.

“The Modern … and The Green Ridge Turkey Farm. Nothing could be finer than a cone from Hayward’s!”

Rivier, named for the sister who founded its parent entity, the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, was born in 1933 in Hudson and settled on its current Nashua campus in 1941. The school’s most recent milestone – earning designation as a university – came just three months ago.

As has Nashua itself, Rivier has changed, and grown, exponentially since the 27 seniors and 44 postgraduate students received their degrees on Sunday, June 3, 1962. Typical of the time, the proceedings, led by then-Bishop Ernest J. Primeau, were formal and Roman Catholic-influenced: For one, Primeau presented the diplomas and the grads knelt to receive them.

On the day before graduation, The Telegraph ran a photo of the 27 undergrads on Page 1 and gave the graduation pretty good play in the Monday, June 4, edition. Reporter Scott Blakey’s story heavily quoted Primeau and then-Mayor Mario J. Vagge, the keynote speaker and a longtime Rivier friend and advisory board member.

The only graduate named in the story was Madeleine Auger, of Woonsocket, R.I., now Madeleine Robinson, a Florida resident whom Zappala believes is attending the reunion. Elected to give the welcome address, Madeleine delivered it in English and French, according to Blakey.

“She reviewed her four years at Rivier, and told the graduates they could not keep their education to themselves,” he wrote. That was it.

Ah, well, it was a different time. Indeed, Academy Award winner “Judgment at Nuremberg” had just arrived at the Daniel Webster, back when movie theaters outnumbered Dunkin’ Donuts in Nashua. “Cape Fear” – the Gregory Peck-Robert Mitchum version – was starting at the Nashua Drive-In, and kids were lining up at citywide clinics for a sip of the new oral Sabin vaccine, said to include benefits the Salk vaccine didn’t.

The reunion, meanwhile, just became bittersweet for Zappala. Fully intending to be there, a flare-up this week of a recent leg injury has made the trip impossible.

“Here I am one of a committee of three (organizing the reunion) and I’m going to miss my chance to be a ‘golden girl,’ ” Zappalla said, referring to the honor bestowed on 50th anniversary graduates. “It’s a bummer.”

Still, the planning was a blast.

“Reconnecting after all these years, it’s kind of like being college girls again,” Zappala said of the various emails and phone calls the classmates have been exchanging.

Despite having only 27 graduates, the ’62 class hasn’t been immune from the biggest challenge any reunion committee faces: tracking down “lost” classmates. Sometimes there’s a happy “find,” such as the “case” of Mary Leno, of Ipswich, Mass.

“She was missing for years; we just found her in Cambridge,” Zappala fairly gushed over the phone.

No such luck, at least so far, with Linda Fair, who became Mrs. James Holland soon after graduation. The eldest of Clarence and Leona Fair’s several kids, Fair was one of that year’s 13 Rivier grads from Nashua who sacrificed full-time campus life for an easy and more economical daily commute.

Another was Claire Briand, now Claire McHugh, a daughter of well-known builder Romeo Briand who still lives in Nashua. She’ll be among the class of ’62’s seven or eight representatives who will join several other anniversary classes at Saturday’s luncheon.

“To me, Rivier has always been a gift to the community,” McHugh said. “I was the first in my family to go to college, and if it wasn’t for Rivier, I never would have been able to go.”

She remembers carpooling with Fair, Anne Sweeney, Judy Sullivan and a few others. She also recalls the typical teen parties in her basement, an element of social life that probably didn’t make the campus’ activities agenda.

If there was any trend toward so-called “brain drain” – educated young folk taking their skills elsewhere to make a living –
it certainly didn’t include Rivier 50 years ago.

An early September 1962 Telegraph photo proves it: “Riv girls” dominated the photo, accounting for half of Nashua’s 10 newest teachers about to start their first year.

Baby boomers may remember Miss Yermal (Rose Yermal Carney) and Miss Svderski (Constance Svderski Francoeur) at Charlotte Avenue; Miss Mulvanity (Paula Mulvanity Boese) at Mount Pleasant; or Miss Fair (Linda Fair Holland) and Mrs. Stoncius (Marilyn Zedalis Stoncius) at Fairgrounds.

Stoncius went on to teach for 41 years, all but one at Fairgrounds.

“And I loved every minute of it,” she said, crediting her Rivier experience for the inspiration. “We were a small class; there were no lay professors, all sisters (nuns) and Father Boutin. They cared greatly about every single one of us every day for four years.

“It was a very, very happy experience.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443 or Also, follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).