Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Best Friends Forever

Houseparty weekend in 1954 in Taylor Hall Lounge. Top,from left Barbara Brandon, Don Schiessl, John Parisi Jr., Louise Parisi, Mildred Scarano, and Dick Scheid.

from left Scott Miller, Mary Liz Miller, Nina McGuinness and Brian McGuinness take in the scene at Wrigley Field.

In August 1999 a group of freshmen gathered in a Lehigh dorm for advice they couldn't find in a freshman manual. "Look around you and remember these faces," said Bobby Willis, a Gryphon for Carothers House, "because they'll be your graduates who answered the Alumni Bulletin's call for stories of nourishing first-year friendships that have flourished off campus. Representing classes from 1957 to 2009, and groups of friends ranging from  two alums to 20, they shared memories of a host of homecomings. Staying up friends for the rest of your lives."

Willis' common sense made perfect sense to Justin Woodruff '03, one of the Carothers rookies. A fellow first-year friend, he figured, could help him ride the roller coaster of curricular demands and extracurricular distractions. A decade later, he still relishes his special relationships with his pizza-eating, movie-watching, golf-playing Carothers crew. Nearing 30 years old, a milestone of maturity, the business analyst for MTV Networks still practices what Willis preached.

Woodruff's life lesson is shared by other Lehigh late to cram for exams. Rising early to row. Racing beds. Dogpiling in the enemy end zone after a victory over Lafayette. Brokering marriages. Ministering wedding ceremonies. Sharing Caribbean cruises. Traveling 3,000 miles  for a funeral.

"We didn't know ourselves at all when we came to Lehigh," says Diane Burns Martinez '84 of herself and Jan Soderberg Moore '84, her first-year BFF.  "We found ourselves with each other. We really feel like we grew up together. There's no accounting for that history. Nothing can replace that."

Most of the Lehigh BFFs met their matches on their first day on campus. Rob Walko '98 just knew he'd be pals with Scott Fitch '98 when Fitch hung a homemade banner for The Doors, one of Walko's favorite bands. The M&M roommates grew closer while studying computer engineering, telling science jokes, and watching "messed-up" movies like Pulp Fiction. Their third musketeer was Aubrey Fecho '98, Walko's fellow marching-band member and Fitch's future wife.

Ruth Kossin Queen '80 was feeling scared on Aug. 26, 1976, the first day of her freshman orientation. The Dravo A3 resident felt less so after meeting Ginny O'Neill McDonald '80 in a ladies' room during a Zeta Psi party. Over the next four years they bonded while leading student organizations, struggling with business courses, and traveling in McDonald's cranky cars. Queen, who couldn't afford an automobile, remembers the time she became an emergency navigator, leaning outside a window to direct McDonald in a totally fogged vehicle.

Don Schiessl '57 quickly became a little brother to John Parisi Jr., a fellow early arrival in Taylor A and a fellow member of a blue-collar family. Schiessl admired Parisi as a funny, smart, gung-ho upperclassman who split his time between classes and shifts at Bethlehem Steel. "John gave me ideas how I could handle things," says Schiessl, a retired operations manager for a credit corporation. "He had a big smile and he didn't have a bad word to say to anybody. Anybody who knew John liked him: He was just that kind of guy."

Schiessl and Parisi ran with a gang of five to seven men who never left Taylor A, a streak of longevity remarkable Ginny O'Neill McDonald, left, and Ruth Kossin Queen in May 1999 during a visit to London with their children. even in the '50s, when Lehigh students had far fewer living options. They played Hearts, attended baseball games, even formed their own eating club. Supplies were bought by Parisi, who joined the Army in 1955 after attending Lehigh for four years without graduating. Schiessl remembers eating loads of bologna-and-cheese sandwiches, washed down with milk from bottles stored on winter windowsills.

Brotherly and sisterly rituals

BFFs often bond through adventures and misadventures. Brian McGuinness '84 and Scott Miller '84, members of Sigma Chi, enjoyed sleeping in a room with all the windows open all the time, a fire-department requirement. According to McGuinness, the "cold dorm" was the best place to get first-class shut-eye before an important morning test. Brothers never worried about oversleeping because pledges awakened them at hours designated on tags hooked to bunk beds. Miller liked the barracks so much, he slept there three straight days. He must have been a memorable sight, a 6-foot-6 Rip Van Winkle swaddled in electric blankets.

Steve Garstad '75 thanks Jim Hamill '75 for pranking a prank. One night their Tau Delta Phi brothers kidnapped them to a golf course in the wilds of Saucon Valley. The brothers' first tactical mistake was forgetting that Hamill, a Bethlehem native, knew the way back to campus. Their second tactical mistake was stopping for beers at a Fourth Street pub, a delay that enabled their kidnappees to return to the fraternity house faster. The embarrassment must have been viral.

Sorority sisters shared survival skills, too. Stephanie Mathews Smith '04 relied on her fellow Alpha Gamma Deltas for every kind of guidance. They helped the English/journalism major "survive" three servings of statistics. Their families eased her loneliness by adopting her during long breaks when she couldn't fly home to St. Louis. "When you're away from home, and you go through the pressure of college, you need a support system," says Smith, who manages a real-estate/construction firm. "These women were always there to give me the advice and strength I needed, to hold my hand. They were my rocks."

Friendships through hardships

A BFF by definition makes an uncomfortable situation more comfortable. Jan Soderberg Moore '84 and Diane Burns Martinez '84, for example, became allies during a housing shortage. A lack of freshman rooms forced them to live in storage closets in Thornburg, an upper-class house. "It was a unique experience," says Martinez. "We were like the new kids, the mascots."

After three weeks the university moved Martinez to Dravo, a freshman dorm. She enjoyed Moore's company so much, she continued sleeping in Moore's room in Thornburg-on the floor. The next semester Martinez became Moore's official roommate, replacing a roommate who moved to another school. Martinez, who grew up in rural Connecticut, received valuable study tips from Moore, who graduated from the rigorous Bronx High School of Science. The roomies relaxed by cranking the stereo, opening a window, and dancing on a desk to "The Time Warp" and "Mack the Knife."

Bria (Barbara) Winkler Silbert and Amy Marks Rypins became BFFs out of desperate necessity. When they arrived on campus in 1971, the Long Islanders were a triple minority. They were members of the first class of Lehigh women. Unlike many of their female peers, they had no roots in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, no bloodlines or lifelines to male graduates.

Rypins and Silbert eased their They typed term papers for Don Most, play Ralph on the hit TV series Happy Days. They shared their unhappiness with male students who attended Monday classes in pajamas worn over Non-beer drinkers on a beer-besotted campus, they tried to fit in by holding their noses while sipping brews.

Oddly enough, being an odd couple helped them as an odd couple. Rypins was, and still is, tall and blond, outgoing and sloppy. Silbert was, and still is, short and dark haired, fairly shy and neat.

"What can I say-opposites attract," says Silbert, a development specialist who wrote copy for a major advertising firm. "We just hit it off-you know how two people just hit it off. The same people annoyed us-you know how girls can be catty in their late teens. We would escape together. We just knew how to get each other out of tricky situations."

Silbert and Rypins lasted two years as Lehigh pioneers. In 1973 Rypins transferred to Syracuse University. Silbert settled at Rutgers University the year it, too, turned co-ed. After graduation, they shared an apartment in Manhattan for $195 a month, a bargain-basement rent that today wouldn't buy a front-row seat to a hot Broadway show.

Silbert left the roost after Rypins' engagement. "She wanted to get me out of the apartment," says Silbert with a laugh, "and out of her hair." Rypins eased the eviction by booking a blind date for her Lehigh BFF. Little did she know that Silbert would marry her match, the twin brother of Rypins' boss.

A matrimonial mini-empire

Lehigh BFFs like to make matches. Rypins is one of four interviewees for this article who introduced a first-year friend to a future spouse. In 1990 Brian McGuinness opened a branch of Marriage U when Scott Miller moved from Chicago to Manhattan and asked his Sigma Chi pal to help find him female companionship. McGuinness consulted his girlfriend, Nina, who was initially reluctant to play matchmaker, mainly because she was "mortified" by most of McGuinness' college buddies. Impressed by Miller's manners, and his love of baseball, she introduced him to Mary Liz, her baseball-loving best friend from high school. Mary Liz and Scott hit it off in Nina's apartment while watching a telecast of the Major League All-Star Game. Sparks became flames and they married in 1993, a year after Nina and Brian tied the knot.

Rob Walko's matrimonial knot would impress Eagle Scouts. In 1994 he introduced Aubrey Fecho, his first Lehigh friend, to Scott Fitch, his second Lehigh friend. In 1999 Falko was best man at their wedding. During the reception he was reintroduced to Kim, Aubrey's best friend from high school. When Rob and Kim married three years later, the Fitches served as best couple.

Steve Garstad didn't broker Jim Hamill's marriage. The Presbyterian minister did, however, perform the ceremony for his Sigma Chi brother, then a Pennsylvania state policeman. Garstad will never forget how Hamill's best man described the bride as she glided toward the altar: "Looks like a terminal keeper."

Sports dynasties

The only reunion Lehigh BFFs enjoy more than a wedding is an athletic event. Don Schiessl has watched Lehigh-Lafayette football games for more than 50 years with his Taylor A buddies. McGuinness and Miller attend baseball games between the New York Mets, McGuinness' team, and the Chicago Cubs, Miller's team, in New York and Chicago.

Hamill is Garstad's whitewater-kayaking coach and gambling guru. One time Hamill promised to sell Garstad a kayak for $20 if he completed 100 Eskimo rolls in a row. Garstad succeeded, but had to spend an extra $50 to repair his new boat. "I figure if Jim had been born 100 years earlier," says Garstad of Hamill, now a substitute high-school teacher, "he would have been a carny in the circus."

Kathleen Kotula '96 belongs to a sports sorority the size of two softball teams, which makes sense since most of her Lehigh friends met on the varsity softball team. Kotula, a former third baseman and an attorney for the Pennsylvania department of state, credits the unusually large number of gal pals from an unusually wide range of classes (1995 to 2001) to superior chemistry created by softball coach Susan Troyan and her successor, Fran Troyan, who happens to be her husband. Kotula and her BFFs religiously reunite each year for a spring tailgating party, a summer vacation, and the Lehigh-Lafayette football game. They joke that they'll retire to the same neighborhood, where they'll play shuffleboard and argue over who hit the longest home runs.

Emotional cul-de-sacs

The best BFFs count on each other for anything, any time, anywhere. Amy Rypins is Bria Silbert's lawyer and accountant. She is godmother to Silbert's son, who had the good sense to be born on Rypins' birthday. Rypins not only has Silbert's back, she has Silbert's backbone. When Silbert's mother was dying in America, Rypins flew from her home in England to console her first-year friend. Two weeks later, she returned to the States to attend the funeral service for Silbert's mom.

"Amy comforted me in a way no one else could have," says Silbert, who now shares a state-California- with Rypins. "To be at my mother's funeral, that, to me, is the definition of a true friend. I'm an only child, and Amy is like the sister I never had."

Prophecies and legacies

Silbert, Rypins, and other Lehigh graduates regard first-year friendships as heirlooms for their children and the children of their BFFs. Every night Rob Walko sings the Alma Mater to his daughter at bedtime. Every night Grace Walko hears a verse that her father, Aubrey Fecho Fitch, and other members of the Class of 1998 invented during band camp, an annual rite for rookie marching musicians. Most new lyrics for the university anthem are R-rated; these are clean enough for a lullaby for a 5-year-old.

In 2007 Don Schiessl sang another version of another Alma Mater to memorialize John Parisi Jr., the musical director for the '50s gang from Taylor A. During the funeral reception, Schiessl performed a satirical ditty that he and Parisi liked to perform for the latter's granddaughter, who attended Cornell University. Schiessl smiled as he belted "Far above Cayuga's waters/There's an awful smell/Some say it's Cayuga's waters/We say it's Cornell." He knew he was honoring his special relationship with Parisi, and Parisi's special relationship with his grandchild.

Last August Ruth Kossin Queen drove her son Will to his first day as a member of the Class of 2012. During the trip he received a text message from his mother's BFF. "Good luck at Lehigh," wrote "Aunt Ginny" O'Neill McDonald. "Watch out who you meet in the bathroom the first day-they may end up being your friend for life!"

Story by Geoff Gehman '89 M.A.

Posted on Tuesday, June 28, 2011

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