Pictured above on left is Elsie Haasch (mother) and right Marie Whitesel (daughter).

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Elsie Haasch and Elsie Haasch

Marie Whitesel

March is Women’s History Month, a perfect excuse to celebrate the lives of sisters, friends, wives and mothers, and the students who used to be called “co-eds.”

In the nine decades of former co-ed Marie Whitesel’s life, a lot has changed, though much remains the same.

A 1938 University of Idaho graduate, Whitesel also is a well-known artist whose intricate watercolor landscapes still astound viewers. She also received an honorary degree from the University in 2002.

Whitesel lives in Coeur d’Alene. She is 93 this month, and still painting. While her art celebrates the wilds of Idaho, some of her most vivid memories are of a more circumscribed life on the University of Idaho campus in the 1930s.

“The aim was to have a dance date for Friday and Saturday, and on Sunday, someone to take you out to dinner,” she said. “Sunday, all over the campus was a really nice dinner; it would be something special, and you dressed up for it, too.”

Back-in-the-day, dressing up entailed what, by today’s standards, might be considered performance art: co-eds donned waist-nipping, mid-calf gowns of taffeta, high-heeled shoes dyed to match, tasteful accessorizing – including jewelry, a tiny clutch purse and a hat that was, in itself, a work of art. Undergarments, including slip, stockings and garters, added another layer of complexity. Formal affairs – balls – required taking it all up a click.

Then you danced in that apparatus.

Gentlemen students wore suits to all social events in the 1930s. By the 1960s, nationally and on campus, Americans began to look down on dressing up. Many other formalities of social interaction also went by the wayside, including the simultaneously respected and reviled date police known as chaperones.

“All social events were chaperoned. We had housemothers and we had a curfew. Freshmen had to be in bed by ten o’clock,” Whitesel recalled. “When you’re a freshman, you do what they tell you,” she added with a laugh, suggesting that after freshman year, curfew was embraced more as a guideline than hard-and-fast rule. But there was some value in all that oversight, said Whitesel. “I think you did more studying when you had to be home. Housemothers were someone to talk to, someone to give advice, someone who made sure you knew how to behave.”

Whitesel recalls the iconic chaperone and Dean of Women, Parmeal French, as a person who “ruled with an iron will,” but also earned the affection and respect of her charges. “She was interesting,” said Whitesel. “We had her to dinner often, and she always remembered your name.” French retired in 1936.

Like the social customs that defined the era, the University of Idaho campus also has transformed since Whitesel was a student. She took many classes in a building called “The U Hut.” The structure was razed in 2000, but once housed a diverse community of arts students and some well-known faculty.

“I had Mr. Prichard, who was head of the Art Department and Architecture,” she said. “We had the upstairs in the U Hut to take classes. There was a small post office in the building. Downstairs, you could take pottery, and there also was a small theatre there for dramatics students.”

Whitesel and her sorority sisters in Alpha Chi Omega house ate at the Blue Bucket, conveniently located “just out the back door.” Sometimes her boyfriend Glen Whitesel, later to become her husband and an M.D., played in an orchestra there Friday and Saturday nights.

Whitesel’s young life may seem a little conscripted by modern standards, but she doesn’t see it that way. Her mother, Elsie Haasch, was subject to a much higher degree of social restriction.

Haasch was a co-ed at the University of Idaho in 1907. Her first year at school, she had a professional photograph taken in a dress borrowed from one of her dormitory mates in Ridenbaugh Hall. Her father found the photo – or more specifically, the dress – shocking. So much so that he did not allow her to return to the University.

Fortunately, women’s rights, men’s understanding and the nation’s fashion sense evolved, somewhat. Whitesel’s own parents valued the development of personal judgment and social skills for their daughter, as well as academic training. “My dad told me when I started to school, ‘you study hard,’ which he knew I would do, ‘and besides that, do every activity that you can.’”

Whitesel took his advice to heart, participating in campus life fully, and working hard to earn a bachelor’s degree in art from the University of Idaho, and later a master’s degree in painting from the University of Iowa.

The value of a college education goes beyond academics now as much as ever, Whitesel said. “You learn how to get along.”

Getting along – discerning which rules to follow and which to challenge – may be an even bigger responsibility for today’s students, now that all the chaperones are gone.

By Donna Emert