As We Knew Her

       After describing the way this project began, Part I presents the memories of more than fifty students, "Hunter Girls" of long ago, who tell how they recall Mrs. Lilienthal.

       Also as background, I include information on Hunter College High School, and on my method of inquiry, followed by a chart of the women who contributed their recollections.

Ruth Silverman Lilienthal

       Mrs. Ruth Lilienthal taught Biology and other subjects at Hunter College High School from 1930 until 1962. During those years HCHS’s student body was exclusively female, as it had been since its founding in l869. She taught at six grade levels, 7th through 12th grades, pre-teens as well as teenagers, from the Depression, through World War II, and on until Kennedy’s presidency.

       Following her retirement in 1962, she became increasingly devoted to Zen Buddhism, but never lost touch with a few students who had become her friends after their school days. Unlike most of those fortunate Hunter graduates, I moved away from New York City; yet that gave me the chance to correspond with her. From the summer of 1942 when I left for college until her death in 1997, we wrote or telephoned or occasionally visited each other. I tried to keep all of the letters and postcards she sent me. But only after Hurricane Isabel flooded our house in September 2003 did I finally gather together the bundles of her correspondence that I had been saving. Rereading them, I knew they should somehow be preserved as an accessible record of this extraordinary teacher.

       And to provide evidence beyond my own admiration for her, I decided to contact other schoolmates to collect their memories and impressions of her. I reached almost all of them through the Hunter College High School Alumnae/i Association. In the following sections I have organized comments from more than fifty women who responded when I asked for recollections. Naturally these are at times repetitive, but before further editing I want to let the contributors read what they have remembered.

       Later some of these recollections will be included in my memoir based on her letters. Eventually I will offer the letters to an archive where they will be accessible to researchers.


       My request for contributors, published in the Summer 2006 HCHS AlumNotes, presents an expanded version of these introductory remarks.

Ruth S. Lilienthal: A Memorial Collaboration

       Who remembers Mrs. Ruth Lilienthal? Dozens of alumnae who attended Hunter College High School from the 1930's to the early 1960's are helping me answer that question. She was Miss Silverman when she began teaching Biology at HCHS in 1930; she married Charles Lilienthal in 1935. For thirty years she flourished, teaching not just biology but many health-related courses, as well as cooking, for seventh and eighth graders. When she died in 1997, no obituary or memorial appeared in AlumNotes.

       The memoir I am gathering ends that silence. After my request for recollections of Mrs. Lilienthal appeared in the Alums ListServ early this year (2006), three dozen “Hunter girls” contributed memories; these ranged from single incidents to stories about several occasions. Many expressed gratitude for the lessons she taught both in her classrooms and through her character. Subsequently, responding to notices in AlumNotes, more contributors sent recollections.

       As students recall this memorable teacher they write memorably about her:

  • “multi-talented, a modern dancer of the Martha Graham School [who also took part in] Summer Stock Theaters.”
  • “a spunky woman and a marvelous teacher.”
  • “nourishing my love of seeing, of drawing, of plants and being outdoors in the botanical world.”
  • “a commanding presence [seeming] a foot taller than her actual diminutive height, [who] put up with no adolescent shenanigans.”
  • “an early advocate of feminism, physical fitness, healthy diet and good posture.”
  • “bold, forthright, blunt . . . very funny …I wanted to be like her, self-determined, tough, and a bit outrageous.”
  • “an amazing little dynamo of a woman . . . bohemian and artistic.”
  • “Despite all her strictness, my class liked her. We knew she really cared about us.”
  • “psychologically attuned to students . . . idiosyncratic, independent, and brilliant.”
  • “a small woman standing on her tiptoes explaining to us ‘the wonders of life.’”
  • “She made you think, and you learned and grew up a little. [After 45 years] she still has a special place in my heart.”
  • “I will remember her as long as I remember."

       While I’m not surprised at such fervent comments, I didn’t foresee that many who responded are now in their 70’s or 80’s. As indeed I am.

       This memoir is not a biography; rather it is an appreciation of Mrs. Lilienthal as a teacher, guide, and friend. She is depicted in two ways. The first draws from the impressions of her former students. I have clustered their submissions into themes and topics that they bring up. Sections that I have drafted begin with overviews describing her appearance, temperament, and teaching style, often quoting her. Other sections feature her influence on career choices, or describe memories from specific classes in biology, nature study, health and hygiene, and cooking. Some respondents discuss her as part of their experience of attending Hunter. Some offer testimonies that “she was the first one who …” or “she changed my mind about. . .” Many note that their memories remain vivid after so long.

       The second part of the memoir will characterize Mrs. Lilienthal in a different way, presenting her in her own words, in letters to me from 1942 to 1990.

       Rereading those letters first gave me the idea of a memoir. RSL (as she frequently signed her cards and letters) often writes about her activities, comments on politics, books, the arts, traveling and matters at HCHS.

       Across time the letters show our changing roles. During the three years while I was away at college, she wrote often and formally, replying to my more numerous letters. (None of these remain.) She speaks as a mentor, even a life-coach—to use a more recent term. When she urges me to make better choices and earn better grades she sounds like an exasperated older sister, yet she tempers her impatience with encouragement.

      Other admiring students, I notice, also recognize our teacher’s way of combining strict demands with faith in our potential, so that we often improve not just our grades but our goals and our self-discipline.

       In 1945 I completed my BA at the University of Alabama and returned to New York to study Psychology at Columbia University. We sometimes met, and I introduced her to my husband-to-be, also a Psychology graduate student. After my marriage in 1947 and moving to the University of Kentucky for my husband’s teaching career, our correspondence continued. Some of her letters have been lost, and of course there are none during the summers and holidays when I returned to NYC; then we could get together and talk.

       Her letters after 1945 become more casual. She signs them as Ruth, and refers to her husband as Charles. She describes scenes and events that delight her, as she had always done, but she speaks more readily about matters that distress her, including some changes at HCHS. She continues to report her views on books, plays, films and politics. Between 1955 and 1974, she and Charles take a number of trips overseas, travels that she records joyously. After her retirement she sometimes alludes to her progress into Zen Buddhism. Finally she mentions some of her struggles coping with severe illness.

       Letters to one correspondent do not constitute a biography, but these letters reveal a person of such character, such charm, depth and wit that I yearn to preserve them, to make them accessible for all who treasure memories of Mrs. Lilienthal, and also for other audiences. They should appeal to readers or researchers interested in women as teachers, surrogate mothers who “mother” the mind and spirit, all-girls high-schools, cross-generational female bonding, and letter writing as an art.

       This project has brought me many nostalgic joys. I so appreciate others’ recollections, and will welcome more until December, 2006. I am still searching for students mentioned in RSL’s letters, including Jolie Douglass, Marilyn Greenburg, Estelle Merrians, Irene Sagan Kleckman, Lynn Visson. Carola Dibbell, and Nikki Raymond. Also I would like to reach her colleague, Cornelia Newton, who taught English at HCHS.

HCHS AlumNotes, Summer 2006 

Editor's Note: By the end of 2006, over 50 former students had submitted their recollections. Also Miriam Burnstein let me know that Mrs. Lilienthal's friend Cornelia Newton had died.

Ruth in 1939
Mrs. Ruth S. Lilienthal 1939

Across Three Decades

       Ruth Lilienthal’s generations of former students attended HCHS from the 1930s to the 1960s. Recalling their memorable teacher, they write memorably about her. Typically, they blend their sense of “what she was really like” with anecdotes about their classes and other incidents during their Hunter years.

       Speaking of both her strengths and her quirks, Elaine Kravitz Rothman, January 1943, remembers, as many do, a woman who was both brisk and tender.

I can see her standing in front of her classroom now . . . an intelligent, commanding presence, a foot taller than her actual diminutive height. She put up with no adolescent shenanigans. She had a couple of pet peeves: a girl idly twisting her long hair as she took an exam, and girls putting the heads together to gossip or even to talk over the work at hand. She soon stopped this by shooting a well-aimed piece of chalk at the offender.

       Elaine recalls admiring RSL for “her competence, her idiosyncrasies . . . she was a ‘character’ unlike any I ever knew at boring old P.S. 73, Anderson Ave., Bronx.” Elaine recognizes that Mrs. Lilienthal’s stern attitude could not wholly conceal “the empathy she felt for adolescent girls.”

       Many former students, incidentally, refer to Mrs. Lilienthal as RSL because she very often signed her initials that way on hall passes, memos and papers she corrected and graded.

       Harriet Whitman Aufses, 1944, remembers “many charismatic personalities” among her teachers in the 1940’s “but unquestionably Ruth Lilienthal had the most impact" on her.

She was small in stature but larger than life in many ways. She was a ball of energy and an early advocate of feminism, physical fitness, healthy diet and good posture.

She brooked no nonsense in her classroom, since she was intensely serious about her subjects (e.g. biology, hygiene, and physical education), and she expected us to be serious too.

        Olive Roach James, 1946, wants to distill her "feeling and remembrance" into one word and chooses "powerful:"

She was low -key, absolutely clear, scrupulous and fair. demanding in her expectations, and caring of her students. All in all, she was a stealth weapon of science, pedagogy, mentorship, and carefully hidden compassion.

        Helen Hoffman Santiago, 1955, pictures Mrs. Lilienthal and characterizes her, then speaks of admiring her and yearning for her approval.

I loved Mrs. Lilienthal. She was bold, forthright and blunt. Very energetic, and very funny. . . . a smallish, trim and tidy-looking woman, but I remember, above all, her dark hair, her sculpted cheek bones, cleanly angular jaws and rather deep eyes. I wanted to be like her, self-determined, tough and bit outrageous. I hope that she would have been pleased with me.

       Remembering “a spunky woman and a marvelous teacher,” Rita Gutstein Pollack, 1957, can still list the four foods that Mrs. Lilienthal recommended for longevity—“blackstrap molasses, yogurt, wheat germ, and yeast.” Rita adds “I hope she practiced what she preached,” perhaps not knowing that RSL did live to be 88. As for herself, Rita says “I never quite acquired a taste for blackstrap molasses.”

       A memory that stands out for Marilyn Burger Fitz-Gerald, 1960, is the way that Mrs. Lilienthal’s insisted that Marilyn must attempt even dreaded assignments.

I always knew I had no gene or talent for artistic drawing; so when Mrs. Lilienthal required that we draw (with standard pencil and paper) several of the houseplants we had studied, I PANICKED! Mrs. Lilienthal was self-disciplined, strong-willed, and a yoga enthusiast who demanded discipline from us as well. To my surprise, from observation alone, I drew dracaena, coleus, and sansevieria in two-dimensional PERFECTION!

       In the Bahamas where Marilyn now lives “sansevieria is indigenous and grows wild” so that she sees her “former nemesis” often and always smiles with gratitude to RSL. Marilyn writes that “Long before the U.S. Army made it their motto, she truly helped me be ‘the best that I could be.’”

       Mirla Mintz Morrison, 1960, found Mrs. Lilienthal “an incredible influence on my life.” In biology class, Mirla says she “loved every minute” and took great pride in earning an award as the outstanding student: “a book about classification of plants and animals.” Mirla learned that Mrs. Lilienthal taught yoga at a studio outside of HCHS and became a student there as well. In later life, she modeled herself as a teacher partly on Mrs. Lilienthal; she writes that it must “have worked because I had a long and tremendously satisfying career.”

       As a very young student Susan Nowogrodzki, 1966, “had just turned 11 years old that August,” before entering Mrs. Lilienthal’s 7th grade biology in fall 1960. She recollects RSL’s appearance, her command of the class, and her severe grading: “She rarely smiled at our class. She was small and slight, with short dark hair. There was an intensity about her.” Susan and her classmates were seated in “deskchairs positioned on levels rising above the floor and looked down at their teacher standing in front of her desk.” Even though the class saw her from above, students were intimidated; she gained authority by distancing herself. And her standards for performance on exams were also intimidating.

I remember I received a grade of 23 on my first biology test. This was 60 points lower than I’d ever gotten on a test of any sort, and I was mortified. My embarrassment was not lessened when it was revealed that all but 2 or 3 of us had failed miserably.

       Recalling RSL’s last decade at HCHS, Ellen Samuels, 1962, writes “after her promotion to guidance counselor with her own office,” Mrs. Lilienthal had greater scope for her skill at imagining “the future potential in the youngsters she counseled.”

       Jenny Heinz, 1962, reports regular meetings with RSL for counseling. Jenny confesses that sometimes she “would sneak out to lunch” instead of keeping her appointment. Once when she returned, Mrs. Lilienthal had left a note saying “Your extra-mural meanderings are not to be tolerated.” Neither one of them brought up the subject again, and Jenny knew “She just needed me to know that she knew.”

       Obviously, many students found her charming and inspiring, yet she could also seem frightening.

       Ina Alster Gravitz, 1965, took 7th grade biology with Mrs. Lilienthal in 1960, and reports she “had most of the class terrified. Her weekly quizzes were extremely stressful for us new Hunterites. After all we had cruised through elementary school.” Yet like many others, Ina recognizes that this demanding teacher somehow conveyed warmth beneath her severity. “Despite all her strictness, my class liked her. We knew she really cared about us.” A student in her 9th grade biology class, Shirley Meri Adams, 1967, remembers even the room on the 5th floor “at the far end of the hall,” the 69th street end. “I was always in awe of her, probably a little scared but always very respectful and looked forward to her class.”      

      “Mrs. Lilienthal was likeable once you got somewhat secure about being able to do the classwork,” writes Vicki Riba Koestler, l967. As a 7th grade biology student in l961, newly arrived at Hunter, Vicki enjoyed the class even though “it was a little bit scary.”   

I remember having to bring in and report on current events related to biology. Other things we had to do: draw, very exactly, specimens we saw through our microscopes; memorize the names of a lot of houseplants; and go on field trips to Central Park to observe and draw leaves of various plants. She expected us to undertake these activities with rigor and scholarly attention to detail.

       Ruth Lilienthal was not only a teacher Vicki rates as among the best she ever had, but also “the only teacher I had that year who seemed to notice me personally.” Mentioning how once RSL asked if something was worrying her, Vicki concludes that “(although all was well) in truth her powers of observation, in life as well as through the microscope, were quite good.”

       Mrs. Lilienthal’s intent to focus on each class member individually began with a quick study of their names. Among the contributors who mention this skill is Elizabeth Bacharack Lipman, l963.

I was impressed with her initially because we only had her class once a week, and yet during our second class she called me by name. I think she had already memorized all our names. I was a rather quiet student, and certainly did not stand out.

       For some students awe blends with admiration, not only for the teacher but for her field of study. They testify that Mrs. Lilienthal’s lessons in biology helped to shape lifelong interests, as did the projects she assigned to them relating to science and the extra curricular events she recommended.

       The earliest memories submitted are those of Shirley Dushkind Kraus, 1936. Mrs. Lilienthal inspired the future Dr. Kraus to major in Biology; after college, she earned both her Masters and her PhD, and went on to teach and do research in physiology and endocrinology, and finally pharmacology.

       In 1933, when Shirley entered Hunter, her biology teacher was still Miss Silverman; she married Charles Lilienthal in 1935. Dr. Kraus lists recollections of her during the l930’s:

She was multi talented.
She was a modern dancer of the Martha Graham School.
She spent her summers pursuing acting in summer stock theaters.
She was admired by many students and some mimicked her attire—a man-tailored blouse with a tie.
In hygiene we learned first aid, etc. She looked at our fingernails for cleanliness. I carefully filed my nails regularly.

       Shirley recalls an assignment to compose a speech “on what I wanted to be when I grew up. Naturally, it was a H.S. Biology teacher.” Asked about why she chose to teach, Mrs. Lilienthal answered “it gives you an opportunity to mold young minds.” Yet once, in later years when Dr. Kraus went back to HCHS, Mrs. Lilienthal said that she “would rather be at the bench doing research.”

       As well as revisiting Mrs. Lilienthal occasionally at the various sites that Hunter moved to, Dr. Kraus reports a memorable later contact: in 1978 Mrs. Lilienthal accompanied her husband as he returned to his Alma Mater, the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy. There Dr. Kraus was pleased when Mrs. Lilienthal visited her office. “It amused our faculty that a ‘teacher’ came to see her former student, when the reverse was more usually the case.”

       When Gladys Balbus Lipkin, 1942, attended Hunter, she had not chosen a career in Nursing, nor guessed that she would eventually write textbooks for the field. She recalls very gratefully the teacher who encouraged her interest in science.

Mrs. Lilienthal always treated me as tho' she expected me to do great things. She chose me to attend one of the first demonstrations of the very new electronic microscope at Rockefeller U. (68th and First Ave.) by its inventor. What a thrill that was!

       Gladys choose a challenging class project which Mrs. Lilienthal admired enough to make her "feel like a genius." She matched events in world history with "scientific advances from the beginnings of time," displaying them on "a full roll of white shelving paper," so that "when unfurled, it went around the room." She was pleased when RSL returned it to her. Later she decided to submit it during a History of Nursing course at Cornell University, New York Hospital School of Nursing. Her project in chronology "received an A (and amazed comments)."

       Florence Buch Hacker, January 1944, who became a biology major in college, describes Mrs. Lilienthal as

a small woman standing on her tiptoes explaining to us the ‘wonders of life.’ She was a dynamic teacher whose body movements as well as her words transmitted her love for biology to her students.

       Dr. Hacker credits RSL with influencing her decision to become a scientist. After earning her PhD at New York University she taught physiology for three year at Vassar College. “Had it not been for her excellent teaching I would not have succeeded.”

       Irene Gabriel Langley, June 1944, entered Hunter in 1941 intending to continue her studies of French and Latin. "There was never any doubt in my mind that my major would be languages."

After the first few days of biology with Mrs. Lilienthal I found a much more exciting major. The thing that made her such an unforgettable teacher was the way she presented her subject: she did not tell us, she let us discover. She opened worlds about which I had never heard or read. And she was obviously so passionate about it all.

       While also remembering other wonderful teachers, Irene's best thoughts of Hunter are her girlfriends and Mrs. Lilienthal. One vivid memory is the time when she and her friend Nina Burk were whispering in class, and RSL "threw her chalk at us. We never talked in class again." Irene recalls Mrs. Lilienthal's many strengths as a teacher:

She taught us to ask, to explore, to question theories, to accept nothing on its face, to experience the fascinating way our fauna and flora are put together. The sign above the blackboard read, "This is a LABORATORY, respect the first five letters and not the last seven."

       Looking through the Annals of her graduation year, Irene finds "sappy little notes" from classmates, then notices that "on the last page, on the very bottom it says 'Ruth S. Lilienthal'. I did not ask any other teacher to sign it."

       Starting at Hunter College as a biology major, Irene then changed to physiology which has been her lifetime career. After earning her MA. she married a physician, and has teamed with him in his practice ever since. One of their daughters is now a biology professor, and Irene supposes that her own "enthusiasm was passed on. . . . It all started with Mrs. Lilienthal."

       Among other students who speak of Mrs. Lilienthal as an enormous influence is Lorraine V. Klerman, l946. When Lorraine began to study advanced biology in Mrs. Lilienthal's class she was sure her future would be "in something related to it." Lorraine also took part in the Biology Club; there she worked with Mrs. Lilienthal as faculty adviser and became president of the club in her senior year.

I just loved her course and the work in the club. I enjoyed my other science courses at Hunter but never found them as exciting as biology, as she taught it. I also have a dim memory of my mother noting that she had spoken to Mrs. Lilienthal at some parent-teacher occasion and reporting that Mrs. Lilienthal had said nice things about me and urged my mother to encourage me in my scientific interests.

       Lorraine's study of biology at HCHS led her major in Zoology at Cornell. "Much of my work in the freshman course was easy for me because my advanced course at Hunter had covered some of the same ground."

       Dr. Klerman eventually chose a career in public health, teaching for some years at various universities. Currently, she directs the Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy at Brandeis. She writes that although she "moved from biology to policy," and loves her work, she is sure that "without Mrs. Lilienthal to start me in the right direction I would not be here."

       Another student who recalls Mrs. Lilienthal’s biology classes as “immensely enjoyable,” is Mary Ann Cohen, 1958. She remembers her teacher as “a diminutive woman” with “a very professional demeanor” who “treated her students with respect and dignity,” Attending Hunter Elementary as well as HCHS, Dr. Cohen had decided “to become a physician . . . long before I got to high school.” Still she is sure that Mrs. Lilienthal “really inspired my enduring love for biology.”

I recall that she had us memorize all of the scientific names of every species of animal from one-celled amoebae on! Her assignments were interesting and challenging and most of all fun . . . . Whether it was her lectures, the reading assignments, or my own discoveries, she made paramecia and echinoderms all fascinating for me. I took as much biology as I could at Hunter and then majored in it in college, although I am not sure I enjoyed it as much as I did in those first introductory years with her.

       Mrs. Lilienthal's influence led Judith Klotz, 1964, toward various scientific endeavors. Entering Hunter in l958, Judy soon took RSL's biology class. She found that she learned more than science.

I'll never forget her, not only because of her impressive strength of body and mind, but because she was the first one who trained us to think incisively. I think she taught me logic at least as effectively as our math teachers. I actually did become a biologist. But even beyond biology, she trained our class to analyze and define categories in an organized, disciplined way.

She certainly did scare me a bit, but not as much as she inspired me. She immediately identified my intellectual foibles, but did so in a way that didn't embarrass me publicly. And despite her obvious confidence, she was gracious about recognizing when she'd made (always minor) errors.

       Like many other students, Judy recalls Mrs. Lilienthal's way of focusing on each girl in the class, and remembering each one.

Ruth Lilienthal never forgot a face. In fact, she memorized each face in our biology class the first day. Silently, we sat as she looked at each Delaney card, then at each of us, and she knew us from then on. It was a lesson in concentration.

       Indeed during her senior year, Judy was pleased to be remembered by Mrs. Lilienthal, even in a disappointing context:

In 12th grade, when all of us took a health course (I think it was informally called "sex hygiene") I was at first delighted to see her enter the classroom....then the oversize class was split up, and I think other students who hadn't had the privilege of her teaching before were left and I and others went to someone else. She saw my crestfallen expression and said ''sorry to lose you, Judy."

       Following a series of endeavors in fields such as genetics, environmental health, and public health, Dr Klotz became an environmental epidemiologist. She affirms RSL's influence as the teacher who "started me on the path to enjoying the concepts of life sciences in general and to the critical thinking which is absolutely essential in epidemiology."

       Anita Stoller Cocomello, 1966, who became a pharmaceutical researcher, studied science in the 7th grade with Mrs. Lilienthal.

I remember her more than many more recent contacts, and learned more from her as well. She had us make a chart of the animal kingdom (kingdom, phylum, sub-phylum etc.) and I can still remember the classifications of invertebrates (not that I use it, but . . .)

On the first day of class, she called attendance and then stared at each of us, repeating our names, remembering our names and faces together. And she did remember.

       Anita recalls the time when she brought a moldy can of coconut macaroons to class. Mrs. Lilienthal used it for an impromptu science lesson. Under a defective factory seal the contents had turned into a repulsive layer cake, “one layer coconut one layer mold, . . . She promptly took this horrible mass out of the can and broke it in half to demonstrate the layers of mold, and how they formed.”

Editor’s note: In these overviews of Mrs. Lilienthal’s personality and teaching style, contributors’ comments show two patterns that are evident throughout subsequent recollections. First, ardent responses to their teacher appear as readily for those who knew her only in the 7th and 8th grades as for older students, 9th through 12th grades. Second, enthusiastic reports occur as often for students in later decades as in earlier ones. Perhaps Mrs. Lilienthal really was ageless, as more than one contributor has said. Another calls her “an old soul.”

Index -- Next: Classes and Beyond