I know about Research Club because my mother has been a member since the mid-1960s. In addition to attending the club’s meetings every other Monday afternoon, she would prepare a paper each year or so on a topic corresponding to a theme the club had chosen. While there were many topics, I remember the one on the Middle East, her quotes from Anwar Sadat, and the way she pounded on the keys of the manual typewriter upstairs, putting her words on erasable-bond paper. She loved it; I thought she was nuts. Who writes a paper for fun?
In addition to my mother, there are currently 17 other women in Waterloo, mostly retired teachers and librarians, who do just that. What’s more, after they’ve completed the research and written the paper, they present it to the other members during the club’s meetings. The oral presentation is limited to one-half hour only, “but we always run over, especially if it’s good,” the ladies told me.
The Waterloo Research Club is just one of many in our area and across the country begun by women who needed intellectual stimulation, but were often denied a university education. “My impression was that in the 1800s, ladies were looking for an intellectual outlet so they formed a club, and this was not unusual,” said Nancy Cox, a former music teacher, who hosted the Research Club meeting I attended last spring. “My mother was in a club in her hometown and it was exactly like this one. Mother would agonize over her paper, but they would all research different topics and find out wonderful things that they never would have known otherwise.
“Anything you haven’t done, and you spade into new ground for, is interesting for all of us. That’s why women started Research Club in the first place,” she said.
In Hamilton, New York, members of the Fortnightly Club feel the same way. Begun 115 years ago by wives of Colgate University faculty members and other women in the community, the club’s goal was “to practice mental uplift and broadening,” noted an NPR broadcast called “Women’s Clubs Evolve for a New Generation.”
The club’s setup sounds much like Waterloo’s, but their meetings at the Hamilton Public Library feature two 20-minute presentations instead of one longer one. “Writing those papers is such fun and such agony, particularly when I see all those pearls of wisdom lying on the floor as I try to get my presentation down to 20 minutes,” noted one of the Fortnightly ladies, a 94-year-old who’d been a member for 25 years.
Signs of the times
Waterloo’s club was founded in 1912; the first meeting “was organized at the home of Miss Wright and Mrs. MacLean, 93 Virginia Street,” according to the club’s archives. “Its object shall be to cultivate the study of travel, history, art and literature by readings, discussions and such miscellaneous work as may be suggested.”
And so it has been for 97 years. The first themes were foreign countries; Italy was the focus from 1912 to 1913, followed the next year by Germany, then Scotland, England, Ireland, France and Greece. A two-year break devoted to nature study, American writers and American literature gave way to more foreign countries until 1934, when it was overtaken by many years of art.
The themes began to reflect the times. Throughout Word War II, they displayed their patriotism by researching art – strictly American art – for six straight years. In the 1950s, they moved quickly from “Families in Fiction,” to “Women – Power for a Better World,” “Folk Groups of the United States” and “Greatness In Our Times.” It was during the 1950s that the Middle East first appeared as a theme. It would be visited again and again, most recently in 2003.
Lately, a pot luck-like theme called variously “Issues and Interests,” “A Potpourri of Exciting Topics,” or “Wherein We Pursue Our Greatest Individual Interest, Presently” has been popular. It’s each member’s choice and the topics of their papers are often of local interest.
The ladies have enjoyed presentations about area barns, cemeteries and people. The life of Jemima Wilkinson who, in 1776, pioneered a utopian spiritual community in the wilderness surrounding Seneca Lake, was a memorable topic. A recent presentation on the Van Cleef and Mynderse families of Seneca Falls included a visit to a historic property there. The presenter, Ruth Marshall, gave a tour dressed in period costume.
“We are interested in so many things,” said Marilyn Nellis, a retired college professor. “I love the excuse to get my teeth into a topic.”
Research can take up to a year, they told me, and they use a variety of resources that run the gamut from library books to personal interviews. “The paper I did on the Mennonites was one of my favorites,” said Mrs. Cox. “I visited them and developed a friendship that lasted a long while.”
Many of the ladies use computers now along with encyclopedia software. They absolutely love the Internet; Wikipedia is a favorite site.
They agree that the social aspect of Research Club is important. They enjoy each other’s company, and admit that they often get carried away talking and laughing. “Some of my best friends are sitting here,” said Mrs. Cox. “Isolation is a problem, particularly for older people. While we have cell phones and e-mail, and some here may even Twitter, we all still need to have direct contact with one another. Research Club is an opportunity for a group of quite different people to come together, share experiences and share each other.”
Up until a few years ago, almost all meetings were held in the members’ homes. It’s one of the reasons they keep membership at no more than 24. Refreshments are a Research Club ritual and are served prior to the formal meeting and presentation. If the venue is a member’s home, the hostess always selects another member “to pour” (the tea). It’s a quaint custom that borders on formal, but speaks to a graciousness that has always characterized this group.
There is no reason to think that the club won’t go on for another 97 years. They foresee that it will become a more relaxed and contemporary group, just as they are compared to the club’s earlier members. Recruitment is done when needed and over the years, many mothers have invited their daughters. Former president Phyllis Dunlap was recruited by her mother, Dorothy Baldwin. Until her death at age 96 in September, Mrs. Baldwin held the distinction of being the oldest living Research Club member.
The ladies told me their love of learning continues to bring them together. “We will never tire of hearing the different presentations and perspectives,” they said.
by Tina Manzer
As editorial director at Fahy-Williams Publishing, Tina Manzer writes every day for fun.