At 92, She Still Pursues Her 'Labor of Love'

The New School Observer, November 1985.




For the eighth year in a row, she takes her seat in the workshop on "Writing Non-Fiction" that Hayes B. Jacobs teaches.

Her persistence is impressive enough, but the fact that Margarethe Wiss Sinon is 92 years old makes her dedication all the more remarkable.

"Gretchen Sinon is the kind of vital, intelligent, enterprising person for which The New School was created," said Mr. Jacobs, director of The New School Writing Workshops. "She is just what a teacher looks for in a student."

Born in Newark, N.J., in 1893, Gretchen Sinon, as she prefers to be called, has never stopped living the full life. A 1915 graduate of Wellesley College, she has traveled the world, reared four children and committed herself to adult education at The New School for the last 22 to 23 years. Some years ago, she wrote the lyrics and melodies of the songs "Because of You" and "Up in Old Vermont."

When one of her grandchildren suggested that she write her autobiography so as to lay down her recollections of a time few today can remember, Mrs. Sinon found it difficult to express herself in writing. So she signed up for Mr. Jacobs' class.

"Her life has been quite remarkable," said Mr. Jacobs. "It's flattering to me that someone of her age and experience feels I have something to teach her. I'm really honored by that."

A Sinon chapter begins this way: "When I was nine years old my father bought his first automobile. It was a 1902 one-cylinder Knox."

She goes on to tell of cross-country motor trips before there were paved roads, of breaking down near a farmhouse and having to stay with the farmer for a week while the local blacksmith fashioned a part for the car.

She tells, too, of Germany, where she was studying when World War I broke out, and of the rats in the ship's hold where they slept, three to a bunk, on the return voyage.

What Gretchen Sinon also recounts are her experiences in Asia, Europe and Africa and as a driver for the Red Cross.

Since education has been of paramount importance in her life, it is a recurrent theme in her writing.

At night school in Maplewood, N.J., which she attended "from the time the adult school had been started by the alert principal of our junior high school," she was influenced by teacher Rebecca Reyher. Author of Zulu Women, Ms. Reyher spoke so arrestingly about South Africa and African women Mrs. Sinon later accompanied her to Africa on a four-month studying expedition of women tribal leaders.

As she recorded a lifetime of memories, Mrs. Sinon became hooked on a particular figure from her past, Katherine Lee Bates, a member of the Wellesley faculty at the time Mrs. Sinon was a student and the lyricist of "America the Beautiful."

Although Mrs. Sinon vigorously petitioned the U.S. government to honor the woman with a commemorative stamp, the effort was unsuccessful.

It was Mrs. Reyher who told Mrs. Sinon about The New School and the myriad courses available across the river from Maplewood.

Since then, she has studied under numerous New School faculty members, mostly in the current events and political science areas.

"She was a dyed-in-the-wool Republication before she started at The New School," said her daughter, Mary Louise Sayer. "Now she's a dedicated Democrat!" Just before the march on Washington in 1971, Mrs. Sinon had become so radicalized that she wrote every U.S. congressman and senator, as well as representatives of the judicial branch, to express her opposition to the war in Indochina.

She lets nothing stand in the way of what Mrs. Sinon terms the "labor of love" she undertakes by attending The New School. Until she was 90, when her vision became impaired, she drove herself to every class.

Mr. Jacobs recalls her offering excuses only twice. In the first instance, Mrs. Sinon apologized for submitting a hand-written paper, explaining that her typist had died. In the second, she notified Mr. Jacobs that she would be attending a wedding in Colorado and would fly back in time for class, hoping he would understand if she was a little bit late.

She still travels some, but Mrs. Sinon refuses to leave the New York area while Mr. Jacobs' class is in session. She even attends twice a week during the summer term.

"I hate to miss a class," she commented. "It's just so interesting!"

Added Mr. Jacobs: "Her presence in the classroom is a genuine force. She makes well-considered and thoughtful contributions to discussions. The other students are aware of her years and there is a wonderful relationship between the young people and her."

"That people her age continue to seek intellectual stimulation is part of what The New School is all about."

Even if her autobiography is far from finished, Gretchen Sinon plans to go on trying as she goes on perfecting her writing in Hayes Jacobs' course.

"I want to keep my mind alive," she maintained, leaving no room for doubt that she would succeed.