Bethany Book Club Celebrates 75th

Tastes in literature and styles of entertaining have changed over the past three-quarters of a century, but one constant has remained: members of the Bethany Book Club have been reading and reviewing books.

Now, 75 years after its founding, the Bethany Book Club still meets on a regular basis. “Since we are in a college community, we follow the academic calendar, and that means no meetings when the college is not in session; we do not meet in December, June, July or August,” said Robyn Cole, current president of the group.

To mark the book club’s 75th year, current and former members gathered for an anniversary party in the Wilkin Parlor of Bethany College’s Erickson Alumni Center on April 24 to celebrate, reminisce and, of course, talk about books. In honor of the group’s founding, each member read a book published in 1937 and offered a short critique of the work.

The 2011-12 club year will conclude with a covered-dish dinner and a discussion at Bethany Memorial Church Tuesday, May 29. In general, meetings feature a review given by one of the members or a group discussion.

“For group discussions, every member reads the book to be discussed,” Cole explained. “The way we choose them is pretty casual – just consensus. Sometimes the person who is going to be leading a discussion suggests a book; sometimes someone else suggests a book. We don’t have any formal way to decide.

“The group discussions are relatively new to our book club. For many years, each meeting consisted of a book review by a member. Now we are primarily discussion-oriented,” she added.

Annually, Cole said, “We try to do something different at one meeting. Last year, for January, each member selected and read a book that she was pretty sure everyone else had read and that she was embarrassed that she had not read. Some choices were a ‘Little House on the Prairie’ book, ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ etc. It was fun to see the choices!”

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Under the club’s rules, the group can have no more than 27 members. New members are invited to join the club in September.

Members include professors, teachers and women in other professions. Some are faculty wives or affiliated with the college. After 25 years, a participant is designated a life member.

In the early years, the Bethany Book Club’s meetings were quite formal occasions held in members’ homes, in keeping with the social norms of the era. While none of the charter members remains active in the group, several longtime participants remember a time when hosting the sessions required using one’s best silver and china. Two co-hostesses prepared elaborate desserts.

Janice Peirce recalled that, before the meeting date, “the hostess invited the co-hostesses to tea to discuss the dessert, so that she would have the correct serving pieces ready.”

Kathleen Barham-Keegan related that, as co-hostess, she was directed to bake a cake from a complicated recipe. “I couldn’t find the ingredients. I was going all over the state trying to find them,” she said. The finished cake was so high, “I had to buy a special cake carrier. I never used that cake carrier again,” she added ruefully.

Another member recalled buying individual glass tea trays solely for use at the book club meetings.

Cole said, “It’s much more casual now. Usually we have cookies and coffee and tea.”

In another humorous recollection, Peirce said that during an obligatory preliminary tea, one hostess asked her co-hostesses to comment on her gold tablecloth during the upcoming meeting. On the appointed day, the co-hostesses discovered that the “special” tablecloth was made of gold-colored plastic. Thinking of nothing kind to say, the co-hostesses decided diplomatically to forgo mentioning the table covering.

The early membership included “all these matriarchs,” Peirce said. “It was this great honor to be invited.”

Under the old formula, a member served as hostess once every three years, but would be designated as a co-hostess every year.

Members wore their best clothes, while maintaining a strict decorum. “It has changed a great deal in the last 20 years,” Cole reflected. “It used to be very, very formal.”

Mary-Bess Halford-Staffel’s favorite memory of hosting the group dates from a time when her family was renting a house outside West Liberty. While she was in the kitchen, “I heard all this raucous laughter” coming from the parlor, a room that had been used as a doctor’s office by a previous occupant of the house. The club members were laughing because, as Linda Graham explained, “we used to come here and take our clothes off” for examination by the female physician.

Attendance was monitored strictly in the old days. “If you missed three meetings in a row, you were kicked out – even if you had an excuse,” Cole said.

However, the club issued a “pardon” to Aleece Gresham because her duties as first lady of the college hindered her ability to attend all of the sessions. “Presidents’ wives get a ‘pass,'” Cole quipped.

Rules were adhered rigidly in the early years; changing the routine could be daunting. For example, Cole recalled, with a laugh now, that moving the meetings from the fourth Tuesday of the month to the last Tuesday of the month entailed “a great deal of discussion.”

Initially, meetings didn’t convene until 8:15 p.m., “to give all the members enough time to do the dishes and get the children to bed,” Cole explained. Gradually, as members’ routines evolved, the meeting time was moved up to 7 p.m.

At the start of each year, members receive a computer-printed schedule listing meeting dates and plans for each session. Up until a few years ago, elaborate yearbooks were created and distributed to the membership. The woman assigned to produce the yearbook tried to outdo her predecessors with clever touches and memorable designs.

Until recent years, each woman would be assigned to present a book review once every three years.

For a new member, giving that first review could be a formidable challenge. “It was very intimidating,” Carol Grimes commented. “The books were chosen according to what you should read, not necessarily according to what you wanted to read.”

Today, Grimes said, “There is much more discussion now.”

In the old days, reviews were given in a rather formal style, but even then,the presentation could become a bit extreme. Peirce recalled a time when a member “brought a book that was very thick. She started on Page 1, Chapter 1.” As the reviewer read on and on, Peirce said, “Mrs. Gresham crawled out around the hall to get out of the room.” Others took Gresham’s cue. “I noticed the crowd around me thinning out,” Peirce said. “I just applauded and said, ‘That is so wonderful, Mrs. Woolery,’ and that was the end of that.”

Peirce’s reference to “Mrs. Gresham” reminded Grimes that, in deference to the social conventions of the time, women were identified by their formal married name. For example, she was listed as “Mrs. Larry Grimes,” rather than Carol Grimes. The late Lynn Adkins “changed that” several years ago, and the women began using their own given names.

Joanne Sykes noted that a big change occurred when the type of presentation was altered for the first meeting of the new club year. Instead of having a formal review in September, “now everyone has a few minutes to tell of books she read over the summer,” Debra Hull explained.

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The club’s 75th year has been marked by a number of special activities. In September, each member gave a two- to three-minute mini-review of a book she thought other members would like.

In October, author Wiley Cash, an assistant professor of English at Bethany College, gave a pre-publication reading from his first novel, “A Land More Kind Than Home.” During this week’s session, club members will participate in a group discussion of Cash’s newly-published book.

Other volumes chosen for group discussions this year were “Bending Toward the Sun” by Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, “Storming Heaven” by West Virginia author Denise Giardina and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

In February, member Sydma Hatzopoulos presented a review of “A Walk Across the Sun” by Corban Addison.

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For the 75th-anniversary party in April, each member selected and read a book published in 1937, the year of the club’s founding.

Sykes and Graham read “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck. “I think it is worth reading today as much as it was then,” Sykes remarked. Graham found the American classic to be “depressing and hard,” but the ending was redemptive.

Grimes, Cole and Annie Miller selected “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. “I loved this book. I’m re-reading it,” Grimes said. “What amazed me was how current it is.

“She’s writing about being a woman and holding on to her dreams,” Grimes commented. “It’s just a wonderful book about finding out what matters in life. She (Hurston) writes so beautifully. I’ve fallen in love with this book.”

Cole noted that a lot of the book is written in dialect. Miller also cited the dialect and the style of writing.

Yvonne Myers chose “And To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” Dr. Seuss’ first book for children. “He wanted children to read by themselves,” she related. As a bonus, Myers showed other children’s books from the 1930s that her husband, Robert, read as a boy.

Hatzopoulos selected “They Came Like Swallows” by William Marshall. The novel, set in the period after World War I, concerns a family with two sons; the pregnant mother, who was “the pillar of strength,” dies in the Spanish influenza epidemic.

The author depicts “the relationship between each individual and the rest of the family members,” Hatzopoulos said. She thought the book was written beautifully, with a timeless story.

Pam Fields read “Out of Africa” by Isak Dineson. “I found it very fascinating her talking about Africa and the natives,” she said. Fields pointed out that while a love story figures largely in the film version of Dineson’s memoir, that story serves as “a little subtle undertone” in the book.

Judy Pyles picked “Remembering Laughter” by Wallace Stegner. The novel, republished in 1996, is set in Iowa farm country where a couple’s lives are unsettled when the woman’s sister comes from Scotland and falls in love with her brother-in-law (the Iowan’s husband).

Ellen Sanford read “Busman’s Honeymoon,” Dorothy L. Sayers’ 11th novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. “It’s a good mystery,” Sanford said.

Halford-Staffel re-read one of her favorite books, “A Bullet in the Ballet,” a mystery by Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon. “It was the first that they wrote together,” she said.

“It is delightful nonsense – all of their nonsense is grounded in history,” Halford-Staffel said. Adding historical flair to her presentation, she wore period-style attire for the occasion.

Stepping back from 1937, members of the Bethany Book Club paused in their reading and reviewing and took time to celebrate their collective milestone by enjoying hors d’oeuvres and, of course, a 75th-anniversary cake.