'Dames Club' Was Much More Than a Social and Charitable Group
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'Dames Club' Was Much More Than a Social and Charitable Group

dames-club3-1961In the 1957 edition of the Iris – Pennsylvania State College of Optometry’s (PSCO) yearbook – there is a note from the married students to their wives.

It reads:

To our wives:
She is a loving wife who helps her husband go through college, whose sacrifices urge him to gain that special knowledge. The wife who does not think in terms of luxury today, but who is patient for their time to live a better way. She is the woman who provides that golden inspiration to keep her spouse intent upon success in his vocation, and grateful is the husband as he makes his way in life. To her, who is his helpmate and his understanding wife, upon that graduation day he says to her sincerely, “I thank you for your faith in me. And, oh, I love you dearly.”

Certainly it was a sign of the times in what was then a predominantly male student body at PSCO, later renamed to the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) in 1964. But the formation of the “Dames Club,” an organization composed of the wives of married PSCO students, played an important role, enough so that it was listed as one of the campus organizations in all of the Iris annual editions throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

According to the 1957 Iris, the club was “a member of a nationwide organization which is represented on every optometry campus. The main purpose of the club is to have each wife learn about her husband’s future profession so that she may be an asset to him in his future career.”

The yearbook description includes details on the club’s undertakings, including “projects to enhance the physical surroundings of the College and running social affairs in the form of parties, dances and informal get-togethers.”

Despite how that may sound to the modern ear, the club was much more than that.

dames-club2-1962“The women were very often the breadwinners while their husbands were in school,” said Judie Koch, a member of the Dames Club, whose husband, David Koch, OD ’69, FAAO, started school at PCO in 1965, the year they got married. “We met at night. Some of the girls actually were pregnant or already had babies. The women that I dealt with in the Dames Club were amazing, they were wonderful wives and mothers. They rolled up their sleeves and worked with each other. We ran charities, most of us worked full-time, and they just made it happen.”

Judie Koch said the Dames meetings were held once a month at the College. And, the big event was an annual charity drive for underprivileged children in the area.

“It was non-denominational. We sponsored children that were needy. We were in touch with orphanages and these were the kids we raised money for,” said Judie, who added that funds were raised through bake sales and auctions within the group. “And, then we would host a holiday party, at the school, the old campus, where the kids would attend.”

Judie herself was supporting the two of them while David was in school by holding a full-time teaching job at an Elkins Park elementary school.

“Most of the girls were the breadwinners. They supported the groceries, found the apartments, while the guys were in school,” said Judie. “It was rigorous. The teachers were tough and the guys often had advanced classes.”

By the time David reached his third year at PCO, the Koch family had grown when daughter Melissa was born in 1968. But children didn’t hinder the Dames Club at all. In fact, they were oftentimes incorporated into the club activities. Daycare for children wasn’t really an option then like it is now.

“Most of the time it was girls’ night out, we went dressed. There was decorum and happiness to see each other,” said Judie. “A lot of the girls brought their babies to Dames Club. More often, though, the guys were home in the evenings and watched the babies. Once in a while a young baby would show up and the mother would put her in a stroller and let her sleep.”

dames-club1-1962_4AIn addition to the Dames Club, there was further recognition for the wives in that era in the form of the “PhT Degree.” According to the 1960 Iris, the “PhT Degree” – which stands for Putting Him Through – was first bestowed at PSCO in May 1959. “It is a gesture on the part of the administration, the faculty and the student body to show the sincere appreciation and admiration for the patience of the wife, who is in such great measure responsible for so much of the happiness that reigns in a home. Therefore, this degree humbly extends thanks for the help given to married students by their most priceless companions . . . their wives.”

“There was always a banquet at a well-known restaurant,” said Judie. “We would go and the guys would come and we’d have dinner. And, president (Lawrence) Fitch would be there to present the PhT awards. And, everybody was very proud. It wasn’t that we felt that we were lesser persons. A lot of the girls had their own degrees. But it was that we were a team.”

David Koch recalls how important it was then for the wives to be the family’s principle wage-earner, which freed up the husbands to concentrate on their schooling.

“The important part was that they got support from one another by being involved in the Dames Club,” said Dr. Koch. “It was not only an opportunity to do some good, but it was an opportunity for them to share and to communicate and develop relationships, which were beneficial to their husbands, in probably as meaningful a way as there could possibly be.”

Dr. Koch, who would on occasion don the Santa suit for the holiday party, emphasized that the support he was getting from Judie was imperative while he pursued his studies.

“The cost of an education then compared to today was equally as great a hardship on all of us. If we didn’t have the financial support of our wives, and we didn’t have that emotional support, then we wouldn’t have been able to function,” said Dr. Koch, who added that there was only one woman in his class at PCO. “Plus the fact that it allowed the wives, very importantly, to communicate on what we were going through and what they were going through. Being a wife of someone who is in school, the responsibility to a certain extent, is not only to yourself but the way an individual attends classes and the way they study and what they have to do to succeed. That support is immense.”

Although it may seem to be a quaint notion now, Judie looks at the Dames Club as the start of an evolution of sorts for women.

“It was a coming together of women. It was a time when women were becoming more assertive,” she said. “It’s not just ‘I’m the school mom’ or ‘I’m the nurse in a hospital.’ It was more, ‘I am collectively stronger. I’m a force, my girlfriend is a force.’ It was a collating of the female bond and a sense of making things happen. It was more than bringing your knitting and your cookies to a meeting. The women in the Dames Club were amazing.”