More Stories Worth Sharing: Lesser Known Vassar Alums (II)

A couple of more hours spent on Wikipedia and here I am again, writing about more Vassar alums. If you didn’t catch the first installment in this series, you should. Something about niche research on topics that remain only peripherally connected to my own life really gets me going. I hope I can translate some of this interest into writing so that you, dear reader, don’t have to waste time clicking through articles about businessmen who happened to graduate from Vassar, like I have. Just for you I have hand-selected only the most riveting stories—stories to inspire your post-graduation plans or perhaps just provide you with another piece of useless information. So, while they may not grace the pages of most history books, I think this next trifecta of notable alumni have life stories worth sharing. 

Joseph Bertolozzi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s start with Joseph Bertolozzi from the class of 1981. Bertolozzi is a lifelong Poughkeepsie resident who was born here to Italian immigrants. Music was his forte; he decided that he would become a composer at age nine, but his original instrument of choice was peculiar: the organ. Allegedly, he began organ lessons not in order to perform, but to learn how to notate the compositions he wished to create. He has since become quite an accomplished composer, playing at venues as diverse as the Vatican and the US Open. He is most famous for two musical projects, “Bridge Music” and “Tower Music,” both of which I listened to while writing this piece. These projects, however, are not mere imitations of classical music performed by an ensemble of musicians, they are made from the sounds Bertolozzi collected from the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and its Poughkeepsie equal, the Mid-Hudson River Bridge. He acquired these sounds in more ways than imaginable—there are hilarious photos of Bertolozzi hitting the bridge with hammers, mallets, drumsticks and logs—all while he is lightly closing his eyes and grinning. Funny enough, the bridge was designed by engineer Ralph Modjeski, a skilled pianist. In a way, the bridge was made for music. I’ll try my best to describe the listening experience but honestly I think everyone should experience it in their own right. 

It starts with deep, echoing bangs perhaps made from a hollow beam, adds in some bings and bongs that sound like the work of a xylophone, and then expands into an ensemble of echoing, yet jumpy sounds. Honestly it’s very well put together, I can imagine that the only music I could produce with a hammer and a bridge would be a grotesque fury of sounds as the product of excitement at being paid to hit a bridge with a stick. 

While the project’s plans to be a live performance fell through, Bertolozzi garnered international attention and set his eyes on another monument, the Eiffel Tower. His connection to the tower is touching; on a trip to Paris in 1975, he worked up the confidence to kiss his crush, Sheila. Joseph and Sheila Bertolozzi are now happily married. Using “Bridge Music” as proof of his commitment to her, he convinced French officials to allow him to hit the tower with various objects, thus using the tower as an instrument. 

“Tower Music” is an entire album and  sounds even weirder than “Bridge Music,” believe it or not. The first song, “A Thousand Feet of Sound,” is really funky—it’s fast and upbeat, some of the sounds remind me of the deep echo of Taiko drums. Another good one, “Continuum,” makes me want to bounce around with the frantic, energized echoes of the tower. My best attempt at describing the album would be: heavy metal (literally), xylophone-esque, drum-adjacent music that’s great for dancing. 

Ōyama Sutematsu, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This next alum requires a real deep dive into history, a journey all the way back to the 19th century. Princess Ōyama Sutematsu, class of 1882, was born into a traditional samurai household before traveling to the United States for her education. After learning English and graduating from Hillhouse High School, she attended Vassar, becoming the school’s first non-white student. She flourished during her time at Vassar, becoming class president as a sophomore in 1879 and president of the Philalethean Society (the largest social organization at the time). In 1880, she was a marshal for the college’s Founder’s Day celebration. She also spent her free time mastering chess and whist, an English card game. When she graduated in 1882, she became the first Japanese woman to have a college degree. 

Ōyama Sutematsu, Vassar College Library Special Collections

Ōyama returned to Japan after graduating and quickly married Ōyama Iwao, a 40 year-old wealthy general for the Japanese Imperial Army. The two quickly became a power-couple in Japanese politics; his military career boomed after successfully leading the Japanese Second Army in the First Sino-Japanese War and she climbed the ranks in court. Ōyama Sutematsu’s official title was “Advisor on Westernization in the Court,” a role that was especially important in late 19th-century Japan, also known as the Meiji restoration period. She advocated for women’s education and heavily encouraged upper class ladies to volunteer as nurses, a role she was familiar with as the Director of the Ladies Relief Association, Ladies Volunteer Nursing Association and the Japanese Red Cross Society. She even found herself rolling bandages on the front lines of the Russo-Japanese War from 1904 to 1905. Surviving a war zone and navigating Vassar as the only non-white student, she sounds like quite the badass. 

Margarita Penón, courtesy of Dereck Camacho via Wikimedia Commons

Another Vassar graduate who promoted women’s rights stepped on campus nearly 100 years after Ōyama Sutematsu. Margarita Penón, class of 1970, is a well known and well respected Costa Rican politician. In 1973, she married Óscar Arias Sánchez, a politician who, although unknown at the time, would go on to become the Prime Minister of Costa Rica from 1986-1990 and 2006-2010 and win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. Penón’s achievements, however, were by no means overshadowed by her husband’s remarkable career; as First Lady of Costa Rica she took on a multitude of important roles. She was instrumental in the passage of the 1990 Act for Promoting the Social Equality of Women, an act that gave women in Costa Rica more rights and protections across the board. Social welfare remained at the forefront of her work throughout her entire political career; she worked on projects such as the establishment of parks, anti-drug work, the prevention of violence against children and conservation of land and native traditions. In 1993, three years after her time as first lady, she came for her husband’s old position and became the first woman to run for Prime Minister. She ran under the National Liberation Party, a member of the Socialist Internationale that remains loosely affiliated with democratic socialism. Although her campaign was a failure, it opened the door for women in the Costa Rican political arena. In 2002, she was elected to the Legislative Assembly as president of the Women’s Committee, a position she held for three years. Pretty inspirational for political science majors, if you ask me. 

Well, that adds three more people to my growing army of lesser known Vassar alums. Rewriting history, flipping the script—whatever you want to call it—I’m on a mission to bring glory to people I found on Wikipedia. Jane Fonda who? No, this is the school that produced the first Japanese college graduate, a powerhouse in Costa Rican politics and a composer who makes music from bridges. Attentive Misc readers might even be able to name a Soviet spy, a master behind the wheel and a pair of master class Broadway performers. I hope that by telling these stories I can produce a reciprocal relationship between alum and current students; a relationship that garners at least an ounce of worthy fame for these lesser known alum and a tablespoon of inspiration for current students looking out into post-Vassar life. While you may have missed the time window for bringing social equality to Meiji-era Japan, if you ever need inspiration for what to do with your life, I’ll be here churning out stories of inspirational, or at least interesting, Vassar alum.  

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