Lois Ascher was the first woman hired as a professor at Wentworth Institute of Technology, and when she showed up on campus in 1972 she was about as welcome as the flu.
In the corridors of Beatty Hall, other faculty members averted their eyes and studiously avoided her. She had upset a male bastion, and many of her colleagues weren’t happy about it.
Then, one day, a professor stopped her in the hallway.
“Hey,” Frank Rooney said, shaking her hand. “I am so glad to finally see a woman here.”
The professor who Lois shared an office with did not share Frank’s sentiments. When Frank found out the guy was acting like a jerk, he walked into Lois’s office and moved all her stuff into his.
There was no women’s bathroom in their building, so Frank would go into the men’s room, make sure it was empty, then stand guard outside the door while Lois used the toilet.
It wasn’t just that Frank was the first person on campus to be kind to her. He treated her as an equal. They just clicked. They were friends.
They were both professors of literature. They held the same progressive views. Frank had marched for civil rights in the 1960s. To him, women’s rights were civil rights. After Lois told him that Wentworth administrators had informed her she would be paid less than her male counterparts for the same work, Lois and Frank had the same idea: start a union.
After founding that faculty union, they formed a union themselves. They moved in together, a nice Jewish girl from Brookline and a nice Irish Catholic boy from Somerville. They got married in 1979 and settled in Marblehead.
They drove to and from work together. Because they taught humanities, they often had the same students. They were each other’s sounding boards.
When they weren’t teaching, they sailed out of Marblehead harbor together. Frank converted Lois into a Boston Symphony Orchestra aficionado. He also turned her into an inveterate traveler. She and Frank loved London, where they recognized the street names as the same ones in the books they had dissected for decades.
After teaching at Wentworth for 50 years, Frank retired in 2008. Lois soldiered on, solo.
A couple of weeks ago, Frank got sick. He ended up in the hospital and it went downhill quickly. Lois got there just in time to put her lips to his ear and say, “I love you.”
Ben, her son from her first marriage, stood next to her, remembering that Frank insisted on adopting him when Ben was 28.
“He chose me,” Ben said, almost to himself. “He didn’t have to, but he chose me.”
A couple of days later, Lois Ascher got in her car and drove to Wentworth. This is her last semester. She’s retiring after 45 years. Her Frank was dead, her heart was broken, but her students were waiting. They needed their final grades. If anybody would understand why she had to go, Frank would.
She teaches a class that gets kids out of the classroom, brings them to various sites in the city, and gets them thinking critically. The other day, they were standing at a spot in the Fens which the class had decided would be a good place for a statue honoring Elizabeth Freeman, or Mumbet, the slave who sued to abolish slavery in Massachusetts in 1781.
When the final class was over, Lois tried to tell her students that Frank had died, but she broke down. One of the students knew Frank had died and stepped forward to tell her classmates.
After composing herself, Lois Ascher dried her eyes and looked around at her students.
“A lot of you might be wondering why I’m here,” she began. “Well, I’m here because I love you.”
And after she said that, her students encircled her without a word, enveloping her in a warm, tangled embrace that was magic, really magic, because Lois Ascher felt like she was in Frank Rooney’s arms again.
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