In the fall of 1973, a bunch of freshmen sat on mattresses pulled into the hall of Second South Graham*, gabbing and eating popcorn—meetings of the Second South Procrastination Society. Five Iowans emerged from this gaggle: Julie Walvoord Cohen ‘77 and Ina Van Haaften Boeke’77 (both from Pella), Karen Mennenoh Mayrhofer ’77 (a farm girl from Audubon), Nancy Perkins ’77 (the only one of us whose high school class in Fort Dodge was bigger than our Central class) and me, Gail George ’77 (who was thrilled to go to a college with no one from my hometown of Nevada, Iowa).
We roomed with each other in different combinations during our college years, switches prompted by Julie and Karen studying in Vienna for a year. As seniors we all shared a suite in Scholte except Ina who had married Jim Boeke ’77. Soon after graduation Karen married an Austrian she met while studying in Vienna, Hermann Mayrhofer, and she moved to Vienna. Julie married an Englishman, Phil Cohen, whom she met while picking up her master’s degree in Newcastle upon Tyne. Nancy’s career took her from coast to coast and back again, while mine took me around Iowa.
We kept in touch, but after kids started arriving, it became harder to put a gathering together. One of our attempts had a memorable scene at a Cedar Rapids restaurant involving three toddlers and so much food covering the floor that the local hosts did not return for two years.
“My Central friends gave me something to aim for.” — Gail George ‘77
Then in 2001 at the age of 46, I was diagnosed with stage-2 breast cancer—with a good prognosis but requiring chemotherapy. Looking back it wasn’t physically that bad. But at the beginning, facing six months of chemo felt like a mountain with a peak too tall to see.
My Central friends gave me something to aim for—a celebration trip to Vienna to visit Karen and Hermann. In the fall of 2002 the five of us toasted in Karen’s home and at the wine cellar, went to castles and concerts and hiked in Durnstein and Hungary. Karen’s talent as a social director shined as she cared for our little group.
But our climb was not over yet. Three months after our trip, Julie was diagnosed with a form of stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma with a poor survival rate. But the doctors had a new trial chemo and she was tough enough to try it. When I visited Julie in the midst of her chemo, her face ashen but voice upbeat, I suggested we go outside for a walk and fresh air. She wasn’t sure she could do it, but she made it around the block—the only time in my life I could walk faster than Julie. (She has the long legs of her father, former CUI basketball coach Jack Walvoord ‘54.) A few days later we took measured steps in a park with spring wildflowers. She adopted a version of Churchill’s war-time slogan—if you’re going through hell, keep moving.
And move she did. I cheered her on as she walked the Midnight Sun Marathon in Alaska a year later. We hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. She was on a roll.
Julie became our coach as we all prepared for a three-day rim-to-rim hike into the Grand Canyon in 2007. Training became bearable with an adventure at the end. We left before dawn from the boreal forest of the North Rim, leaning on our trekking poles as switchbacks took us deeper and deeper through the red rock layers to the desert floor where we camped. We got on a first-name basis with a Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake (Floyd) before hiking out the South Rim with California condors soaring overhead.
In the intervening years, various members of the group have hiked in Scotland, Costa Rica, the Shetland Islands and Spain. Nancy (with a political science major) researches the culture we are visiting to fill in the historical and political context. As a biology major, I like to point out birds and wildflowers. And Ina (math major) is our intrepid treasurer and calm presence in challenging moments (except for during that half-mile zip line over the jungles of Costa Rica).
We all made it to Vienna two more times as springboards for trekking tours, once in the Czech Republic in 2010 and another trek in 2014 in the rugged country of Armenia. We heard chants echo among the stones of medieval monasteries and were grateful for shelter during a mountain storm when a 94-year-old woman let us crowd into her one-room hut.
Our bucket list of hiking trips is always growing (Iceland, New Zealand and Tasmania are current favorites) having learned the truth of a toast given by our Armenian guide:
Good friends are those who go great distances together.
*Graham Hall, the starting point of our journeys, was also home to Julie’s mother, Joan Wassenaar Walvoord ’54 and Ina and Jim Boeke’s daughters, Renae ’06 and Rachel ’09.