Daughters of Saint Mary's
When Saint Mary's opened its doors to women in 1970, the Gael yearbook marked the milestone by declaring "Saint Mary's College … Mother of Men Since 1863 … Now Has a Daughter."
Nearly four decades later, the College has thousands of daughters, each unique, yet each sharing in and contributing to a heritage that embraces learning, personal growth, involvement in wide variety of activities and giving back to the community. Whether those initial 153 women students — including eight in a graduating class with 218 men — knew it or not, they did more than just end an all-male tradition. They changed Saint Mary's by bringing their insights, abilities and diverse backgrounds.
Since 1970, enrollment steadily rose; the student body grew more diverse; new academic buildings, residence halls and other buildings sprung up, and adult and graduate programs increased and adapted to changing workforce needs. As in most higher education institutions nationwide, women at Saint Mary's now outnumber men.
We look here at three daughters of Saint Mary's — Sylvia (Marquis) Harper '75, Stacey Berg '99 and Alisa Macksey '00. The experiences they contributed to the College, and those they took away, are shared by many.
Sylvia Harper grew up in Silver Terrace in San Francisco, and went to Saint Mary's Cathedral High School, which was affiliated with the Christian Brothers' Sacred Heart High School. For a city girl, the remote campus in Moraga was enchanting.
"I loved that it was far enough away from San Francisco so I could get the experience of living away from home, but it was still close," she says. "And it was so small then. It was a very friendly time. Rheem had only one place to eat. People hitchhiked all the time. The fear factor wasn't there."
Her College years were filled with a busy social calendar and challenging schoolwork. She played intramural football, was a cheerleader, and both the Homecoming Queen and the "donut queen," admired for the daintily decorated treats she made after rising at 4 a.m. to work with the campus baker.
"In order to embrace life, you have to do everything," she says. "No matter where you go in life, you only go that way once, so go all the way."
The turbulence of the 1970s, with the Vietnam War, racial and gender equality struggles, and the hippie movement affected the student body. Her boyfriend, basketball star Maurice Harper Jr. '75, participated in a players' strike fomented by unhappiness over the dismissal of an African-American dean. Racial tensions occasionally simmered between some blacks and Chicanos, she recalls, but "I never looked at the skin of anybody. I just looked at their heart."
Harper started as a pre-med student, but switched to biology and psychology when the math classes got too difficult for her. But it was Kuregiy Hekymara, a lecturer in government and Collegiate Seminar, who made the biggest impression on her as a student.
"He was very tough, very meticulous. He demanded a lot of students," she recalls. "That was the hardest class I took. You had to exceed the expectations. It pushed you to be better. I never worked so hard in anybody's class. When I got an A, I really felt like I earned it."
After graduating and marrying Harper, she worked at the Emporium in San Francisco and had two children, daughter Cherisse in 1977 and son Maurice Leejon in 1979. While on maternity leave with Maurice, she applied to the San Francisco Police Department, then under a consent decree stemming from a discrimination lawsuit against a force that had been 85 percent white and 95 percent male.
Harper, who is 5-foot-3 and 110 pounds, worked hard to pass the grueling agility test and was accepted to the police academy.
"Our class was very watched," says Harper, an African-American breaking both gender and race barriers. "The women had to be tough because they were held to a higher standard. I always tried to retain my femininity. One (partner) told me 'you drive like you have two kids in the back seat,' and I told him that's because I do drive with two kids in the back seat."
The interpersonal skills that helped her succeed at SMC served her as a patrol officer who could diffuse tense situations through talk, and as a supervisor over sometimes resentful men. Promoted to head an unfriendly detective unit, she became one of the boys after she observed their morning crossword puzzle ritual and decided to join them.
"If the mountain can't come to you, you go to the mountain," she says with a laugh. "It broke a lot of barriers. Things smoothed out, and we became a team."
Harper held many positions over her police career, and in 2004, Chief Heather Fong promoted her to commander of the parking and traffic unit. Her personal life is also busy; she lives across the street from her childhood home and helps takes care of her infirm mother. Her husband, who taught history at Saint Mary's College High School in Berkeley for more than two decades, is now a vice principal at a Dream School in San Francisco.
The Harpers remain connected to Saint Mary's; Cherisse, a Stanford graduate who got married this summer, is pursuing a master's in counseling at Saint Mary's.
"The only sad part about College is that people come from all over, and then they go back home," she says. "I miss the people."
A Type-A Person
For Stacey Berg, teamwork was on the basketball court at Saint Mary's McKeon Pavilion. An outstanding high school basketball player in Oregon, she had never heard of the College when recruited, but liked what she saw after arriving in Moraga.
"I just loved the campus," Berg says. "I came when the hills were all green and beautiful. I liked the small classes, and I liked all the other teammates."
Berg, like Harper, was always busy at SMC with studies and other work, although her job was as a shooting guard. In her first basketball game as a freshman, she scored a career-high 31 points. As a senior, she played on the 1998-99 team that went to the NCAA Tournament.
"It's kind of a blur to me now," Berg says. The team lost to No. 5-ranked Notre Dame in the first round, but the score was close and Saint Mary's was in contention until the end.
"Everyone was so proud of us for having made it so far," Berg recalls. "It was bittersweet for me because it was my last game."
Berg's memories of basketball extend well beyond the trip to the Big Dance. Women's sports were taken more seriously than in previous decades, and basketball was hot with the beginning of the Women's National Basketball Association in 1997. At Saint Mary's, the women's team was at times better than the men's, and drew enthusiastic crowds.
"What was really special about being at Saint Mary's is that the community would come and watch us, and after every game there would be dozens of little girls out in the lobby wanting to get your autograph," she says. "I still have some photos of those little girls."
Berg was also a two-time WCC All-Academic team member, earning a 3.75 GPA by throwing herself into her studies just as she threw herself into basketball drills.
"I'm definitely a Type-A personality," Berg says. "I just loved the classes I was taking, and I loved my professors. It was easy for me to put in the time."
Berg majored in anthropology and sociology, and still keeps in touch with anthropology Professor Paola Sensi-Isolani, a "fantastic teacher" who traveled a lot and opened Berg's mind to different cultures and countries.
Berg also fondly recalls biology Professor Gregory Smith, whose biological anthropology class was "the hardest class I took." "It was so outside my comfort zone," she says.
Her comfort zone, though, really was at Saint Mary's. She later earned a law degree from Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, but found it lacked the warmth and intimacy she found in Moraga.
"There were bigger classes and there wasn't that personal connection you'd get with (SMC) teachers," she says. "I was used to taking time in writing these long essays, and law school was about getting it done in 20 minutes."
Berg passed the bar and worked for St. Andrew's Legal Clinic in Portland, where she could follow her ambition to help people, especially families, through mediation.
"I like the interaction between people trying to problem-solve," she says. "Some lawyers say 'family law, I wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole,' but it takes up a huge part of our court system."
After two years as an intern and two years as a lawyer, Berg and her husband Paul Galm, a lawyer and UC Berkeley grad she met while at SMC, quit their jobs after his father died suddenly so they could travel the world for a year before settling down to start a family. Europe, Cape Town, South Africa, Cambodia and Ankor Wat were highlights.
After resettling in Portland, where Galm now works for the Multnomah County District Attorney, they welcomed their daughter, Amalia, born April 1. As a stay-at-home mom, Berg is far from the hustle of the basketball court and the drama of family law, but she continues to credit Saint Mary's for her personal growth.
"I think it really developed me as a person. I was a good student in high school, but Saint Mary's was a place where I felt accomplished," she says. "I felt I could tackle anything. It's really where I became an adult."
As a Saint Mary's freshman, Alisa Macksey didn't yet know what "Enter to learn, learn to serve" meant, but she is now living out the motto with a career in social justice as associate director of the Lasallian Volunteers.
Macksey, who grew up in Concord, discovered Saint Mary's at its annual college fair.
"My mom fell in love with it, but I thought it was too close to home," she admits. "Looking back, I wouldn't have chosen any other school to attend. I think it was divine intervention that it turned out the way it did."
In her first two years at Saint Mary's, Macksey interned in the admissions office, but wanted to get more involved in student life. She won the junior class president election, and served her last semester from abroad after anthropology Professor Margot Winer persuaded her to spend the spring studying with 10 other SMC students in South Africa.
It was an amazing experience, recalls Macksey, a sociology major. "Margot Winer was an inspiration. Being from South Africa, she was able to show us what it was really like, to meet the locals and not feel like a tourist."
Macksey took classes at the University of Cape Town against a dramatic backdrop: Nelson Mandela was stepping down as president and the country was holding its second democratic election.
"My classmates who were black South Africans were so excited and optimistic, not jaded like us who take our vote for granted," Macksey says. Nevertheless, she was dismayed to see apartheid still dividing the country. "Colored South Africans are still living in shantytowns. Living conditions are still drastically different depending on your race and that's a sad thing to see."
Macksey was born in the Philippines and had visited her mother's family in Thailand many times. Yet South Africa was her first experience overseas without her family, and she learned to be more self-sufficient. Meanwhile, Macksey's friends in Moraga talked her into running for student body president from South Africa and she won.
"I came back with a lot of responsibility over the summer," she says.
The campus was in turmoil, with calls for then-president Brother Craig Franz to resign, concerns over women's safety because of sexual assault allegations and demands for increased funding for women's resources. Under her leadership, the student government initiated weekly forums for the campus community.
"We really put 150 percent into what we were doing," she recalls. "I was notorious for staying up all night. It's all such a blur to me how I fit it all in."
At the same time, the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action had just formed on campus, and Macksey got involved. "We discussed issues we felt passionate about, and how to make students more aware of social justice issues."
On Brother Craig's recommendation, Macksey applied for a job with the Lasallian Volunteers before graduation and was placed at a day treatment program for mentally ill adults in Kansas City, Mo. She found it "nerve-racking" to imagine living in community with four Christian Brothers.
"I wondered if they were going to spend the year trying to convert me or if they would accept me if I wasn't Catholic," she says. "Instead, I found I was welcomed with open arms and I think the Brothers helped me deepen my spiritual life and my prayer life and see the importance of faith in all that we do."
Macksey is now responsible for operations at the Lasallian Volunteers' national office in Maryland. Like her, many volunteers embrace the Brothers' mission and continue their service work beyond their two years.
" 'Enter to learn, learn to serve' is fundamental throughout the country among Lasallian Volunteers," says Macksey. "Saint Mary's College gave me a window to that."
Nearly 40 years ago, the decision to admit women to Saint Mary's may have seemed monumental, both on an academic level and on a societal level, however it was not surprising in an era when women were demanding more equality and taking on a larger role in the working world. Saint Mary's was just one of scores of all-male colleges nationwide that became coeducational in the 1960s and 1970s.
As then-president Brother Mel Anderson said in 1970: "In this day, when young men and women spend their maturing years in college, it seems wise to educate them together so they can share each others' points of view."
Students, both male and female, benefited from the change. In the 1972 Gael yearbook, a reflection on commencement noted: "The uniqueness of this college is not in its place, function or progress, but rather in the people who desire to be here... St. Mary's is indeed a community — breathing, talking, playing, dreaming, building and studying. The experience of education is as diverse as its students. It is born not in the classroom but in the halls, on the field and through relationships."
Women like Harper, Berg and Macksey were at Saint Mary's in different eras, but they now share a similar self-confidence, a desire to keep learning and a way of looking at the world grounded in the core values of the College's mission to probe the mystery of existence, to foster the Christian understanding of the human person and to create a respectful and supportive learning community. In that, they are no different than the thousands of sons that Saint Mary's College has sent into the world for nearly 150 years.