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Martha Kuehn, 103, Hillsdale College’s oldest living alumna, enjoys a dinner out with friends. Monica Van­der­Weide | Courtesy

Looking at a yearbook, Judy Knapp can pick out many of her mom’s class­mates; she remembers them from a decades-long “round-robin” chain letter that her mother’s friend Martha Kuehn orches­trated for six members of Hillsdale’s classes of 1937 and 1938. Now, as the last living member of the cor­re­spon­dence, Kuehn sends Knapp post­cards to stay in touch.

“She’s a fire­cracker,” Knapp said. “She still drives, you know. I’ve ridden with her. If you didn’t know she was 103, you’d think she was 75.”

Kuehn, the college’s oldest living alum, has kept her Hillsdale rela­tion­ships strong for eighty years after her grad­u­ation through her support of Pi Phi sorority, Slayton Arboretum, and an endowed schol­arship for stu­dents from her current home in Wash­ington state. Today, she lives outside Spokane and visits friends at college events like a lun­cheon in Coeur d’Alene this October.

One lesson Kuehn has learned in her long life is not to trumpet her wisdom: “I’m not one for speeches,” Kuehn said when asked to share a few words at the lun­cheon, but she came up with a few valuable ones that sound with the spirit of 1930-era higher edu­cation: “It pays to get a college edu­cation.”

It’s an edu­cation Kuehn, a daughter of an Iowa farmer, had to work for in the middle of the Great Depression; she first attended sec­re­tarial school and did office work for the dean of women to help pay for college.

“Everybody had some­thing going then,” Kuehn said. “Nobody had any money, so we worked to get schol­ar­ships.”

At Hillsdale, Kuehn majored in eco­nomics, joined Pi Beta Phi sorority, and edited the yearbook. Her favorite pastime was playing intra­mural bas­ketball; in the 1930s, there were no col­le­giate women’s teams.

Pi Phi is the link between Knapp and Kuehn: “Marty and my mom, Carol Stroud, went to school together before college, and then they were in Pi Phi together.”

After a visit to Hillsdale’s campus in 2012, Knapp’s mother looked back on Pi Phi fondly: The house has been rebuilt since Stroud ’37 lived there. And the wardrobes are bigger, Kuehn remembers: Sisters used to share space in the basement for their one or two formal dresses. Today, she’s amazed by the closet space.

Outside the house, too, Hillsdale was cozier. Classes were small and located mostly in Central Hall. The com­munity was con­ser­v­ative; stu­dents attended chapel every day at a Baptist church down the hill. The attitude of the college, even amidst the Depression, was pos­itive: Everyone worked to get by.

“We sur­vived,” she said.

After Hillsdale, life got bigger: Two years after grad­u­ation, Martha married Kenneth Maxwell Kuehn, an old friend from her church group.

“I guess that’s one of the funny stories of my life,” Martha said. She attended church one day during vacation, and a friend said, “Con­grat­u­la­tions!”

“I said, ‘For what?’ He had announced our engagement in the Plain Dealer news­paper without telling me about it. We talked about it later,” Martha said. “That’s just his sense of humor. We were together for 76 years, so I guess it stuck.”

Martha did interior design and banking work in Cleveland while Kenneth served in the mil­itary during World War II. After 1945, his Navy post moved him around the country, but they even­tually landed in Los Angeles, where he became a toy salesman, and a friend recruited Kuehn to teach ele­mentary school. She taught fourth grade for eighteen years.

That’s where Knapp met her, after a long cor­re­spon­dence, in the 1990s — after Knapp picked up the pen to keep alive her mother’s side of the round-robin.

“I know Marty and Ken through my mom,” Knapp said. “After my mom passed away, I made a point to keep in touch.”

In 1999, the Kuehns moved to Wash­ington, where Martha now lives next door to her son and daughter after her husband passed away three years ago.

Kuehn stays in touch with Hillsdale by sup­porting the upkeep of the Slayton Arboretum, where she remembers a failed attempt at ice skating on the pond with a boyfriend. Two years ago, she also donated $50,000 to support schol­ar­ships for Hillsdale College stu­dents who struggle to pay for college just like she did.

For Vice Pres­ident for Insti­tu­tional Advancement John Cervini, this interest in sup­porting stu­dents was worth a cross-country trip.

He visited Kuehn at her home in 2005: “She wanted to make a gift to the college, an endowed schol­arship with pref­erence for stu­dents from Wash­ington. I said, ‘Let’s see what we can do about setting up a schol­arship with matching funds from alumni.’”

Their plan worked, and on her 100th birthday on December 17, 2014, Alumni Director Grigor Hasted and the women of Pi Phi thanked Kuehn for her gifts to Hillsdale’s stu­dents.

At the Coeur d’Alene lun­cheon in October 2017, Kuehn intro­duced Pres­ident Larry Arnn, who, with Cervini “made too much of a fuss” over her.

“Martha got up and wel­comed everyone before Dr. Arnn gave his talk,” Cervini said. “She got up and said she was proud to be a member of the class of 1938. That got her a standing ovation.”

Kuehn was equally impressed.

“It was such a lovely lun­cheon,” Kuehn said. “I was thrilled to have a picture with Dr. Arnn, John Cervini, and a couple of other men from the office. They’re nice men, healthy and handsome, and they think good thoughts. You can tell that from their faces.”

On her own health, Kuehn said, “I’m in good shape. I only take one pill a day, and I’m not shaky. I’ve learned that if you treat your body well, it hangs in there with you. I’ve been very for­tunate.”

And sharing an 80-year history with Hillsdale College and the people con­nected with it helps keep Kuehn sharp.

“This is a woman who’s over 100 and looks like she’s 80, and her mind is sharp,” Cervini said. “She told me once, ‘You know, the only thing I don’t do anymore is drive on the freeway.’”

Eighty years after the grad­u­ation that made the round-robin pos­sible, a version of that cor­re­spon­dence goes on.

“We talk on the phone and send each other post­cards,” Knapp said. “My mother loved receiving mail, so I try to keep that going.”

  • Mary Oxaal

    What a delightful article!