Connected for Life

A Class of 1964 quintet celebrates a milestone birthday, a special relationship, and the power of student learning outside the classroom.

Pictured from left to right: Burk, Reichenbach, Stowell, Bloomquist, Ouderkirk, Heller at the November 8, 2019 luncheon.

January 3, 2020 | By Chuck Carlson

For five Albion College friends, who in many ways are still closer than sisters nearly 60 years after they met, there has seemingly never been a time when Barb Stowell wasn’t there for them.

There were the talks that sometimes went deep into the night about every subject under the sun and some that weren’t.

“At Albion, she launched us into independence,” Shirley Ruemele Bloomquist said, then pauses with a bemused laugh.

“She even loaned us a book on sex.”

There were the woodland hikes around the Whitehouse Nature Center conducted by Barb’s beloved husband and College botany professor, Ewell “Doc” Stowell.

“At the end, you always knew there’d be a magnificent, sumptuous feast,” Bloomquist said. “Barb was a magnificent cook.”

There were the reunions and the dinners, and the celebrations, and the days of laughter and tears and memories.

And, oh yes, there was the day Barb Stowell helped avert a disaster.

“There was supposed to be a bridal shower for me at the Kappa Alpha Theta house,” Bloomquist recalls. “But the house was double-booked, so with one or two hours’ notice, she opened her home for a bridal shower.”

That memory, all these years later, still amazes Bloomquist.

“That’s who she is,” she said.

Staying in Touch

Barb and Doc were fixtures on the Albion College campus for more than six decades and their home at 1541 E. Michigan Ave., where they lived most of that time, was a focal point for students who had questions, who needed advice and, yes, who desperately needed to partake in Barb’s cooking.

She was best known for her Swedish pancakes and, especially, her unmatched cherry pie, made with cherries picked from an orchard south of Albion and which Barb and Doc pitted themselves.

“I said it made a better pie,” Barb said.

No one argued.

“I remember when they went on those field trips with Doc and I’d always have something for them afterward,” Stowell continued. “They are five very nice girls. That’s the great thing about a small college; they keep in touch. They’ve been very loving.”

Those five “girls” all met at Albion, graduated in 1964 and are retired now, scattered to most points on the compass. But they’ve never forgotten Barb Stowell, or Doc, who died in 2009.

“Barb really cared about us,” Bloomquist said. “We felt special. She always extended herself for all of Doc’s students. I think we admired her because she was so strong in her own right. She wasn’t a subordinate spouse. They respected each other and loved each other.”

And that love and respect has lasted through the decades for the five friends.

  • Carolyn Aishton Ouderkirk grew up in Chicago, lives in New York City and spent 24 years at Avon Products Corp., including as vice president for consumer affairs. She served on the College’s Board of Trustees as well as the Alumni Board and received the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2014.
  • Lois Skagerberg Heller grew up Detroit and went on to become a biology professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth Medical School. She is a 1982 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient and still lives in Duluth.
  • Joan DeShon Reichenbach grew up in South Bend, Ind., now lives in Essex, Conn., and is a retired biology teacher who at one time served on the Madison, N.J., school board.
  • Donna Gabehart Burk grew up in Detroit, became an educator and went on to coordinate the English as a Second Language program in suburban St. Louis. Now retired, she lives in Saline.
  • Bloomquist grew up in Cleveland and was a high school biology teacher, counselor and administrator before retiring. A 1999 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient who lives in Great Falls, Va., she is the co-founder of the Doc and Barb Stowell Scholarship, geared toward students studying environmental biology.

Planning the Event

They all came together again November 8, joined by more than 40 other friends, to celebrate Barb Stowell’s 90th birthday during a luncheon in Upper Baldwin Hall.

By turns humbled, grateful and embarrassed, Stowell accepted the celebration in her understated Scandinavian style.

“I think everybody had a good time,” said Stowell, whose actual birthday was December 21.

Then she paused.

“I had a good time but I was not comfortable,” she added.

For those five friends, it was a celebration months in the making as they sought to coordinate schedules and make sure Barb would show up as the guest of honor.

“We’ve all been involved in this celebration,” Bloomquist said.

There were even buttons distributed to all the guests, courtesy of Reichenbach, that featured a picture of Stowell and her beloved dog, Buddy, that said simply, “Birthday Barb—90!”

It was a day of sharing stories and honoring a dear friend and, perhaps, understanding that relationships like this don’t happen every day.

“There are a lot of people who wouldn’t do this,” Stowell said. “When they called me in September to set this up, I was surprised they wanted to do it.”

Perhaps she shouldn’t have been since these celebrations have gone on for years.

For Barb’s 80th birthday, they all gathered in New York City for a Broadway play. When there were class reunions, the five alumnae would all be there and they’d invite Doc and Barb. For their reunion last May, Barb was invited and a celebration dinner was held at President Mauri Ditzler’s house.

For these friends, this was a celebration not only of Barb’s life but a celebration of a lifetime of friendships forged at a time when the future was limitless and nothing was impossible.

“That’s what makes this so special,” Bloomquist said. “It’s over 55 years of connection and that’s a lot.”