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Manhattan’s First Females Reflect On Making History

by ALLY HUTZLEREditor-in-Chief, and TARA MARINAssistant Editor

The seventies were a progressive time for the United States: the Supreme Court legalized abortion, Steve Jobs founded Apple, the U.S. left the Vietnam War, and colleges across America finally opened their doors to women. In 1973, Manhattan College became one of those colleges.

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Manhattan began admitting women in 1973. Archives/Courtesy

However, there was one woman who actually graduated from MC in 1969, five years before the school officially became coeducational. Her name is Patricia Ruback-Kehrberger.

Kehrberger grew up in a small town in Orange County, N.Y. When she was just 8 years old, her father passed away from cancer at the age of 33, and her mother raised her and her three younger siblings on her own.

“I had a very happy childhood. It was, in essence, carefree because of her. She never complained,” Kehrberger said.

Her mother stressed the importance of education. Kehrberger was expected to treat school as a job, while their mom took care of the rest. She went to public school until eighth grade and then attended John S. Burke, a private catholic high school.

As she made her way through school, Kehrberger discovered a passion for both math and science, and civil engineering captivated her.

“I loved when we would go on trips to visit my grandmother on Long Island because we went on highways through New York City,” she reminisced. “The ramps, the bridges, how it all stays together and transports people fascinated me.”

As her senior year drew to a close, it was time to start thinking about colleges and careers. When she first floated the idea of being an engineer, her mother thought it was the perfect fit, but other relatives were very negative about it.

“They told me it’s a man’s occupation and that education for me, as a young woman in engineering, would be a waste,” she said. The idea was that women would eventually get married, have children, and never return to work.

A lot of criticism came from her girlfriends’ fathers, who encouraged their own daughters to attend two-year schools or concentrate in areas of study that were less intensive.

Anytime she was marginalized, her mother stepped forward and said, “Pat, I am so angry at people for saying things like that to you. You do whatever you want to do.”

Kehrberger was the valedictorian of her graduating class in 1965. At that point, she had already put down her registration money for Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.

What Kehrberger didn’t know was that the principal of John S. Burke, who was a nun, happened to know the president Manhattan College at the time, Brother Stephen. She told Brother Stephen she had a young woman, the valedictorian of her class, who wanted to attend a catholic college and become an engineer.

“She asked him ‘Why in heaven’s name don’t you take women at Manhattan College?’and he said it was probably time they started,” Kehrberger said.

It was only a few days before graduation. Kehrberger remembers rehearsing her valedictorian speech when her principal approached her with an idea: how would she like to go to Manhattan College instead?

“The females in my life really rallied around me and reinforced my decision. I never hesitated for a second,” Kehrberger said.

In 1965, MC was still years away from becoming a coeducational institution, so they did not have housing or facilities for female students. An arrangement was made where Kehrberger would dorm at the College of Mount St. Vincent but be a full time student here.

“I never saw Manhattan College or Mount St. Vincent until I arrived the first day of freshman year,” Kehrberger said.

It was pouring rain when Kehrberger arrived for her first day of classes at Manhattan. She had to ask the guard at the main gate where the engineering building was located and still remembers walking through the back door of Leo Engineering Building.

“It was all guys. I was just sitting there in class and the guys were looking around expecting this male school,” she said. “But from the start everybody was welcoming. It was almost serendipity; it worked itself out from there.”

By sophomore year Kehrberger would spend all day at Manhattan taking classes, only returning to Mount St. Vincent around supper to do homework and sleep. By then, the men had gotten used to her and she simply felt like a part of the student body.

“They did have to adjust their thinking a little bit though,” Kehrberger said.

Every year, the civil engineers held the Father and Son Communion Breakfast for the students at the school. Kehrberger, who already stood out in the crowd, did not have a father to bring.

“I told the brother that I’m bringing my mother. We were at the father and son breakfast, but even mom was welcomed,’ she said.

Kehrberger always felt she had something to learn from everyone around her.

Pat Kerhberger Graduation (1)

Patricia “Pat” Ruback-Kehrberger stands among an all-male class at her graduation ceremony at Madison Square Garden in 1969. Archives/Courtesy

 

“I learned that it isn’t all that different. People are people, and people are wonderful. You do your best work and everyone will accept you for that,” she said.

When Kehrberger graduated in 1969, she was the first laywoman to receive a degree from Manhattan College. She wasn’t just breaking the mold – she was making history.

“I knew I was the first, and I knew it was a gift. I just wanted to be an engineer,” she said.

Kehrberger went on to receive a master’s degree from the University of Michigan. When she returned home to New York a year later, she went to work for an environmental engineering company called Hydro Science. Several professors from MC had formed the firm and a very large percent of employees were graduates from here. She stayed at the company for the rest of her career.

While Kehrberger managed to fit perfectly into what was an all-male Manhattan College, she knows that the women who came after her experienced hardship.

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Archives/Courtesy

“I guess I was a pioneer because they realized the place wasn’t going to fall down if a woman was sitting in the classroom, but the notion of being a coed school means a lot more than having a few people sitting in classes,” she said. Women had to fight for adequate housing and facilities, academic programs and athletic teams.

Kehrberger has returned to campus several times over the years and is proud of women in the program today. “I meet the young women and they are so talented and they do so many other things: they are singers, actors, and athletes. They are wonderful,” she said.

Kehrbergers’ advice for the young women at Manhattan College today is to appreciate how far the school has come and how much work and sacrifice, from parents and alumni, have gone into the creation of the school we know today.

“Enjoy the richness of it, enjoy the diversity, enjoy the men, enjoy the women and celebrate that. Every once in while think back: It wasn’t all that long ago that things were very, very different.”

Five years after Kehrberger graduated, MC officially became coeducational. Marybeth McCall, M.D., class of 1974, attended Manhattan College during this transition. Like Kehrberger, she was an engineer as well.

MC was hosting a science program in nuclear physics and computer programming between McCall’s junior and senior year in high school, and she was one of the sixty students in her region who were accepted into the program. McCall remembers it as a time with some of the brightest people she’s ever met, and she was also able to familiarize herself with the campus and create a clearer vision for her future.

“I got to know the campus and many of the professors, and of course I wanted to be an engineer. I looked into programs that were around that I could commute to easily. I knew the folks at MC, so I called the nuclear physics professor and asked if it was possible for them to take me from Mount Saint Vincent,” McCall said. “He told me, ‘we’re not sure what we’re going to do, but you can come.’ They were still considering going co-ed at the time, so I registered at Mount Saint Vincent and took classes here. I just really identified with Manhattan and I loved engineering,” she said.

Extracurriculars and athletics were not geared towards women yet, but that didn’t stop McCall from being involved. She was the president of her fraternity while she was here and was also the very first woman to be inducted into the Pen and Sword Honors Society.

Although it was years ago, she still remembers the excitement and gratification she felt. “It was absolutely an honor, especially since that was across the whole college, not just the engineering school,” she said.

Since McCall attended MC when it was transitioning to a co-ed institution, there were other women here as well. Although she was part of the minority, McCall never felt intimidated or excluded. “It wasn’t unusual to be around them. They were like brothers, and I was too busy to go out with them,” she said.

“Busy” is an understatemwent. To support herself financially, McCall worked as a lab technician at a hospital from the time she was sixteen. She was also granted a $1500 scholarship which, believe it or not, fully paid for her tuition here. While her job and schoolwork kept her occupied, it also kept her fulfilled and motivated.

“I was able to live at home and work in a hospital, support the family, study, and it was a really good experience. It was a busy time, but I had a really positive attitude,” McCall said.

However, working in a male-dominated atmosphere proved to have its difficulties.

“As engineering went on, I did well. My junior year, I was working a lot in the lab but I had an altercation with a physician. I was giving him lab tests, and he challenged me, saying, ‘why are you bothering me little girl? I don’t know what these mean’ and I said to him, at nineteen years old, ‘if you don’t know what I mean then you shouldn’t be ordering them’.”

Although she wasn’t at fault, McCall was reprimanded for insubordination but didn’t get fired. Then something dawned on her, and her ambitions expanded: “I realized I should be a physician if I wanted to work in healthcare.”

When she brought up the idea of going to medical school, she remembers people asking her, “why would they ever want a woman engineer in med school?” but McCall was far too passionate and determined to let these outside voices influence her. She graduated magna cum laude and was promptly accepted to medical school at Georgetown University.

“It was really a wonderful experience,” McCall said about Georgetown. “The kicker in the whole thing, which is very unusual, is that one of the students in that summer science program from high school was also at medical school with me… and I married him!”

She and her husband got married between their second and third year of med school and then went into their residences together at University of Pittsburgh. Intelligence runs in the family too; both of their children would become successful engineers as well.

While McCall’s life was flourishing, obstacles still presented themselves along the way, but she found brilliant ways to overcome them.

“Tuition started increasing significantly for medical school. I had saved $3,000 from working, but prices were going up to $12,000,” she said. Her next move was bold and unprecedented: she joined the military.

“I joined the Air Force and I received a military scholarship for medical school. It was a great experience. I had my daughter during my residency – she was terrific – and I was able to do active duty during my breaks. I learned a lot,” McCall said.

After her residency, she was assigned to an air force base in Nebraska, where she lived for four years while working in their strategic headquarters. As if this wasn’t remarkable enough, McCall was even promoted to Major in the Air Force Reserves. However, the drawback was that she and her husband couldn’t be assigned together.

“We both left the military and got jobs in upstate New York in private practice for a while. Then I did nursing home work, I was the medical director at St. Luke’s Memorial Hospital, and I also helped with a merger for two hospitals in my community,” McCall said.

After being the medical director of three different hospitals, one of which she helped save from bankruptcy, she discovered another passion.

“I wanted to look at bigger things, and I knew that healthcare reform was happening. I realized that payment mechanisms structure how people behave, so I felt that if I could be on the insurance side, I would be able to affect positive change,” she said.

After receiving another qualification in geriatric medicine and completing her master’s in medical management at Carnegie Mellon, McCall would go on to become the Chief Medical Officer and Vice President of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield’s Central New York and Southern Tier regions, which is where she currently works.

“We’re working on something called value-based reimbursement, which is instead of having people pay for the procedure, they pay for the outcome. It’s a difficult transition, but we’re sticking with it,” she said.

She reflects back on this phenomenal career path with humility, and notes that even though her father wasn’t around, her mother played a major role in her journey. “My mother came to live with us when we were doing our residencies, and she took care of my kids full time. She ran the house and shopped and did everything. Things were better for her then – we had a stable income, a better house, a nice community.”

She also attributes her success to being vocal about her desires: “If you want something, ask for it. I don’t wait for someone to think that I might like something, I just say, ‘I’d be interested in doing that project, taking that trip, going to that conference…’ I’ve gotten where I am because I like to work, I have pretty high energy, I’ve got a good smile, and I ask.”

In regards to women’s issues that are prevalent today, she says, “I think that different groups have different needs, and women do have needs that are different than men’s. That’s why we need to speak up and let people know about them. I could say the same thing about transgender and gay communities – everyone needs to understand that the ‘usual’ isn’t going to deliver what everyone needs,” McCall said.

McCall graduated from here in 1974, which was the first year that women were officially accepted into MC. One of them was Dr. Lisa Toscano, who was one of six women enrolled that year.

Toscano had been considering Iona because she received a basketball scholarship, but they didn’t have a physical education program, which is what she wanted to study.

“They were having an open house here, and my mother said ‘let’s go look at Manhattan’ and I went, ‘Manhattan?’ I lived on City Island so I had never thought of it. But I came here, I saw the program, and I said, ‘I’m coming here’. I liked that it was small and very family oriented. All the Lasallian values that we talk about today attracted me even back then. It was that homey feel, the Christian brothers, and the faculty,” Toscano said.

What happened in her first semester was a huge milestone for MC: our division one women’s basketball team was founded, and Toscano was one of the first women who paved the way for it.

It was a challenging and humbling experience that ultimately turned into a success for Toscano, her teammates, and for the many gifted female athletes who would come after them.

“I didn’t think that it would happen. It’s an interesting story; we kind of walked around and knocked on doors in Overlook and asked people if they had played basketball in high school. They would say, ‘I was on the JV team,’ and we’d say, ‘Ok, good enough!’ I remember the first year we looked like a real motley crew. The second year, more women came out and we got better. The third year, we won the Hudson Valley League, and my senior year we went varsity and got to play in Draddy Gymnasium,” she said.

At the time, there wasn’t even a bathroom for women in our gymnasium. To use the bathroom during practice or a game, the women would have to run all the way to the bottom floor of Miguel Hall.

Luckily that isn’t the case anymore, and our athletic programs have come a long way since those days – we now have ten D1 sports teams for women. Toscano certainly made her mark on MC when she attended here, but that was only the beginning of her prominence here.

“I graduated with a degree in physical education, taught at Sacred Heart High School in Yonkers, and got my masters at Queens College in exercise physiology. Then in my eighth year of teaching high school, MC called and asked me to teach Kinesiology, so I came back in ‘87 full time and I’ve been here ever since. I like the place a lot I guess!” she said.

Toscano now has a doctoral degree in education, and on top of being a professor, she was an athletic trainer as well. She reflects on her experiences here with fondness and appreciation.

“Each decade and each year brings new fulfillment – from my college days, to working with the athletes, and now teaching… It’s been amazing. The kids are really great, and working with them keeps me young. I still feel like I’m in college even though I’m an old lady!” she joked.

Although Toscano was part of the minority when she was here, she didn’t feel that way, and notes that her male peers and professors made women feel welcomed and supported. Today, there are actually more women enrolled in college than men, but women’s issues, such as the wage gap, are still unresolved.

“I think certainly we have a ways to go but at least we’re talking about it and it’s in the forefront. It wasn’t even talked about when I was in school, and if you did talk about it you were kind of an annoyance. So at least we’re discussing it now – that’s the good news – and I think women today are savvier than when I was in college. They’re just ahead of the game,” she said.

One of the most heartening aspects of Toscano’s story is that Alumni Hall, where she has taught kinesiology for almost thirty years, actually used to be the gymnasium where she played basketball when she went here. “My time here has been wonderful. I’m teaching on the same floors that I played ball on. Every once in awhile I do a jab step.”

About The Quadrangle (682 Articles)
The Quadrangle, founded in 1924, is the student-run newspaper of Manhattan College.
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