The turn of a class ring turned back time today on Ball Circle.
At the University of Mary Washington’s 107th Commencement, Helen Tracy Totura ’43 upheld the old graduation tradition, turning the ring on great-granddaughter Hannah Belski ’18’s hand.
Exactly 75 years before, Totura sat through her own graduation at UMW, then Mary Washington College. She traveled from her home in Westminster, Maryland, to watch Belski take the same journey this morning.
Much has changed, of course, since Totura, 95, turned her tassel last century. For starters, there was no jumbotron flashing congratulatory tweets and Instagram posts like the one on Ball Circle today. Her class of about 150, all women, attended an indoor ceremony. Belski’s co-ed class of 1,000 graduated beneath a cloudless blue sky.
As temperatures climbed into the 80s, Totura sat in the shade of the VIP tent, recalling her own Mary Washington days.
“I felt I had two ways out,” she said. “I could either teach or I could work in the office.”
For that, she needed college. Besides, her mother had earned her own college degree back in 1912. It was somewhat expected. Mary Washington offered the major Totura wanted – commercial education – so she took courses in typing, shorthand, economics and more. She also minored in social studies.
She went on to work as a bank secretary, then taught high school English and bookkeeping. She was active in church and in the Homemakers Club, where she served as state president. She raised two children, a son and a daughter, and went on to welcome grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One of whom chose her alma mater.
“I was elated,” she said of Belski’s decision to attend Mary Washington. “It was such a nice experience for me, and I wished she would have the same experience.”
Their campus tour – four generations made the Fredericksburg trek: Totura, her daughter and granddaughter, and Belski – was a walk down memory lane, Totura pointing out old buildings – Willard, Monroe, Lee – like friends.
“It’s kind of cool walking around and hearing her talk about campus, imagining it as hers,” said Belski, a biology major with a neuroscience minor.
Those were the days of formal dinners, ballroom dancing and the infamous Mrs. Bushnell, longtime dean of women known for her rigid rules and for “taking care of her girls.” Indeed, Totura recalled Bushnell requiring parental permission for her to accompany a suitor off campus.
“I didn’t have many dates,” she said. “It was too much trouble.” Still, everyone respected Bushnell, she said. “She scared us, but she kept us straight.”
With all the difference three quarters of a century makes, much of the pair’s Mary Washington experience matched up. They both spent freshman year in Virginia Hall – Totura in room 307, Belski just a few doors down in room 301. Both ate in Seacobeck (at least until dining moved to the University Center). Both ventured into Fredericksburg. Totura remembers watching Gone With the Wind at a downtown theater; Belski likes to hang out at coffee shops.
A basketball player, Totura is listed in Battlefield yearbooks as her sophomore class secretary and president of Future Executives. Belski played in UMW’s Philharmonic Orchestra, joined club field hockey and traveled overseas with Students Helping Honduras.
They’ve enjoyed their playful devil/goat rivalry – Totura’s a devil, Belski’s a goat – and their shared time on campus. Totura has been at Belski’s side for Family Weekends and Legacy Breakfasts. And for this morning’s festivities, where she held tight to Belski’s commencement brochure. Hers is at home in a scrapbook.
That class ring she turned had been hers, as well. She presented it to Belski at last year’s Junior Ring Ceremony.
There were tears in her eyes today as she slipped it around her great-granddaughter’s finger at the edge of Virginia Hall, where both women’s undergraduate journey began.
Another Mary Washington story come full circle.