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Sisters of the heart: Fanning Hall suite fosters six decade-long friendship for 10 alumnae

Kim Chaudoin | 

Alumni alumni standing in front of Fanning Hall.

Alumnae and former suitemates, from left to right, Mary Ann Winters, Mary French, Ann Secrest, Marsha Johnston, Janet Hicks, Elaine Head and Jimmie Lou Lee, returned to Fanning Hall in June for the first time since 1965.

On a recent sunny June morning, the sounds of spirited conversation and laughter emanated from Lipscomb University’s Fanning Residence Hall, Suite 203. 

The source of the commotion? Seven college roommates going through their morning routines, preparing for the day’s adventures. 

But these aren’t your typical college roommates. These women are members of “The Group” — nine members of the Class of 1965 and one member of the Class of 1964 who lived together in Fanning. For the first time since they left Lipscomb, seven of the ten members of The Group were together again June 5-8 in their former suite in Fanning to reminisce about college days and a friendship that has spanned six decades. 

Members of this special band of sisters are Jeanie (Hale) Cooper, Vantrice (Brown) Cunningham, Mary (Owen) French, Elaine (Ward) Head, Janet (Smith) Hicks, Marsha (Harris) Johnston, Jimmie Lou (Hedgcoth) Lee, Ann (Beaver) Secrest, Nancy (Osborn) Truex and Mary Ann (Mountain) Winters

After their freshman year at Lipscomb, they moved across campus to a suite in Fanning Hall, the newest residence hall on campus which had just opened. In the suite, the college students studied and did homework. They also laughed, engaged in a little mischief, cried at times and dreamed about their futures. 

It was in this suite where friendships blossomed and lifelong bonds were forged. The women say the time they spent together was the most treasured aspect of their Lipscomb experience. 

Headshots of Fanning alumni
The women in their suite in Fanning.

In June, Secrest, Johnston, Hicks, French, Winters, Lee and Head returned to their suite in Fanning for the first time in 58 years.

“I have neither time nor space to write a factual account of this group of women, because our lives have intersected and been intertwined for the past 62 years,” shares Hicks. “On June 5, 2023 we gathered in Fanning Hall — 58 years to the day of Lipscomb’s Class of 1965 graduation. We celebrate our 80th year on this earth and we come together, once again, renewing our longtime friendship.”

“They saved me from leaving (Lipscomb),” recalls Head. “I got a little homesick and I remember calling my mother and telling her that I was ready to come home. She encouraged me to stay one more night. And then the next day, several of the girls found me crying on campus and convinced me that they ‘needed me to stay.’ God put us together that day and I decided to stay.”

Members of The Group were involved in a number of campus activities including A Cappella Singers, band, social clubs and the Bisonettes among others. They went to the weekly Tuesday night devotional on campus and to worship services together, riding the church buses to several local Church of Christ congregations, including Hillsboro, Otter Creek and West End. During their time together, several also played matchmaker, connecting members of The Group to their future spouses. 

“When I found this group, I just felt like I was home,” says Hicks. “We did everything together. We went to dinner together. We walked everywhere as a herd. Three of them left after their sophomore year to go other places and we still kept a string on them.”

Beautiful Day

Members of The Group enjoy Beautiful Day.

Fun in Fanning

Dorm life with The Group.

More fun in the dorm

Going Separate Ways

After graduation on June 5, 1965, the women went their separate ways. Over the course of the 58 years that have passed, each has followed a unique path in their life’s journeys and several children and grandchildren have followed in their footsteps to Lipscomb.  

Cooper began her career as a home economics teacher for one year and then chose other pursuits. She married, started a family and moved to the Columbia, South Carolina area. She proudly held the roles of stay-at-home mother and foster parent for both the state and a Southeastern Children's Home group residence in Lexington, South Carolina. She ended her employment career as the assistant to the executive director of the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference. Her daughter, LeAnne (Cooper) Morris, attended Lipscomb from 1991 until 1995.

Watch WTVF-CBS feature about The Group's Fanning Reunion.

The Group on Graduatino Day

Members of The Group standing on the balcony outside their Fanning suite on graduation day, June 5, 1965.

Cunningham, from Alpharetta, Georgia and the lone member of the Class of 1964, pursued a career at Dekalb Tech. Her son, Kirk, graduated from Lipscomb in 1993 with a degree in marketing.  

French taught second grade at Bordeaux  Elementary School in Nashville for one year before starting a family. Twenty years later, she taught physical education at Lipscomb Academy Elementary  for 11 years. While there, she also coached the high school girls tennis team one year. She and her husband, Mark (’63), live in Nashville and have two sons, Mark Jr. (LA ’84) and Paul (LA ’89) who attended the academy from first-12th grades.

Head married her husband, Clyde, the day after graduation. She began her teaching career in Vallejo, California, where her husband taught at the Navy Nuclear Power School. Later, she was a substitute teacher, then added English to her degree and taught the subject at Goodpasture Christian School in Nashville. Her daughter Dana Head Bass (’95) graduated from Lipscomb with a degree in elementary education and now teaches at Goodpasture. Dana’s husband, Billy, is a 1987 Lipscomb graduate. Their daughters both attend Lipscomb. Elizabeth is a senior nursing major, and Emily is a sophomore education major. This fall, Emily will live in Fanning Hall in the suite just below where her grandmother once lived. Elaine’s son, David, has two sons who graduated from Lipscomb, Sam (’21, MAcc ’22) and Ben (’22). Sam's wife Marryam is a 2019 graduate. Elaine lives in Hendersonville, Tennessee.  

Hicks, and her husband, Ron, moved to Memphis, days after they married in Atlanta. She taught school in Memphis for two years while he finished dental school at the University of Tennessee. After graduation her husband enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was stationed in Quantico, Virginia, for two years as a dental naval officer. In 1969 they moved to the Atlanta area, and Ron opened his dental practice where he worked for 30 years. Hicks was a stay-at-home mom while her children were home and later joined the practice as office manager for 20 years. Two of their children, Jeff (’92) and Shay Hicks Correa (’93), are alumni. Her grandson, Carson Dugger, graduated from the IDEAL program in 2018.

The Group on the Balcony of Fanning.

The Group outside their Fanning suite in June 2023.

On the balcony in 1965

Two members of The Group on the Fanning balcony in 1962.

Johnston worked in medical technology at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital for seven years and was a teaching supervisor in that program for two years. When she and her husband moved to Memphis, she earned her master's degree in clinical immunohematology at the University of Tennessee-Memphis, where she worked in various labs, conducted research and taught medical students. After seven years they moved to Birmingham for a short time and then to Montezuma, Georgia, where she worked in the hospital there. They eventually returned to Memphis where she taught at a college but they currently live in West Chester, Ohio.

Lee, of Hendersonville, Tennessee, was a teacher at Nashville’s Maplewood High School when she married. Her husband was in the U.S. Air Force at the time, which led them to London for three years among other locales. As she continued her career, Lee was selected to join a $5 million grant project and spent the last 13 years of her training teachers in inquiry-based, hands-on science curriculum for the Smithsonian/National Science Resources Center. Her children, Chris (’95), Jon (’95) and Jeff (’01) are Lipscomb alumni as are her grandchildren Kendon (’20) and Easton (’22). 

Secrest taught math and science in a program for gifted students for 20 years. Along the way she took design courses at Appalachian State University, moved back to her hometown of Statesville, North Carolina, where she launched an interior design business. 

Truex, of Canton, Michigan, was an accountant for a local ABC affiliate before devoting her time to rearing a family. Her granddaughter, Alyssa Calkin, graduated from Lipscomb 2015.

Winters, who began her career in education and then worked at IBM in their office products division, moved with her husband to Spokane, Washington in 1985. After going back to school to get a library tech degree, she worked in the Eastern Washington University Library until she retired.

“But through all that, we stayed together,” explains Johnston. “God brought us together and God has kept us together,” French adds.

The Group through the years.
The Group through the years.

Staying Connected

In 1967, the women began a group letter that circulated to each member because “the internet didn’t exist and making a long distance call cost a lot back then,” explains Hicks. When each woman received the envelope, they read the content then added a letter and photos of themselves before sending it on to the next person — in a specific order, of course. Then that person added a letter and photos and sent it on to the next until it made its way to all ten individuals and then it began all over again. The group letter has been circulating for decades, with only one glitch when it got lost enroute to Lee when she lived in London and necessitated a restart of the letter. The letter arrived at Hicks’ house just before she headed to Nashville for the reunion. She saved the letter to read after she returned home. 

“When my kids were home and I would receive the group letter they would say, ‘okay, Mom's got the group letter, leave her alone,” remembers Winters. “They also always knew when I was on the phone with one of the girls because I would immediately go into a southern accent. They would just say, ‘Oh, she's talking to somebody in The Group!’” 

In addition to the letter, the women gathered for an in-person reunion for the first time in 1988. The second reunion took place five years later. When one member of The Group was diagnosed with cancer they decided to meet every two years and in 2005 they began gathering in person every year. They first met at Hicks’ lakehouse, then at Johnston’s home in West Chester, Ohio, for three years until Head found a cabin in the Smokies for their reunions. As technology developed through the years, the women embraced the new communication methods and utilized cell phones and emails for instant access in addition to continuing to circulate the letter and meeting in person each year.

The Group scrapbooks

During the pandemic, they used video conferencing technology to connect and they soon discovered it was a new way they could support each other even while being thousands of miles apart. 

“The Zooming brought us even closer together,” Winters shares. “Last year, Mary was going through cancer treatment. So, every three weeks we would get on a Zoom before her chemo treatment. After that we decided we need to do that once a month.”

“It was great to be able to see each other. After I got off one of those calls around Mary’s chemo I thought, ‘you're here in Spokane, and you just saw your best closest friends from all over the country,’” she continues. “We were laughing just like we are right now. We were able to see each other and that was just such a blessing.”   

So, The Group added monthly video conferencing to its repertoire of routine communications.

The Group through the years.
The Group through the years.

The Group Returns to Fanning

When planning this year’s in-person reunion, French suggested meeting at Fanning Hall. She contacted Lipscomb’s Office of Alumni Engagement with her idea, and she found instant support for making this a reality. 

“It was incredible to see the love this group of friends has for one another and for Lipscomb, and to know these lifelong relationships began during their days as suite mates in Fanning Hall,” Laura Sears, assistant director of alumni communities and events. “They are such a blessing to each other and to the entire Lipscomb community.” 

While back in their Fanning home for the 2023 reunion, the women poured over scrapbooks they’ve compiled through the years, recounted stories about some of their Lipscomb professors and adventures (including some of the mischief they may or may not have gotten into while students), caught up on the latest happenings in each other’s lives, celebrated their 80th birthdays, played Rook, ate from an abundance of snacks set up in the suite’s common area, worshiped and prayer together, shed a few tears and shared much laughter. They also expressed gratitude for the place that brought them together and for the priceless friendships that resulted.

“The thing I'm most thankful to Lipscomb for is what's in this room,” Secrest shares.

The Group sitting in the courtyard of Fanning

The Group enjoying the Fanning courtyard.

The Fanning group with President McQueen

The Group meets with President Candice McQueen, whose parents were classmates of the women.

Cooper and Truex were unable to attend this year’s reunion, but The Group made sure to include them with phone calls and text messages during the week. Even from afar it is evident what The Group means to them. “We just seemed to blend,” shares Truex. “We came from different states and just became a family.” Cooper adds, “This group has been the sisters I never had. They’ve been an example of the godly woman described in the Bible. Lipscomb was the most influential institution in my life. It’s where God gave me my wings to fly.”

The women have celebrated marriages, the births of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and career achievements. They have also supported each other during tough times. Several had spouses in the military during the Vietnam War. In 1993, they lost group member Cunningham to breast cancer at age 49. Five others in the group are cancer survivors. Some have lost spouses. Through it all, their friendship has been a lifeline.

“We’ve been through life and death together,” says Johnston. “Vantrice’s death was very hard. I went with her for her last (cancer) treatment in Chicago and spent a week with her up there to be with her. We’ve just all been there for each other. When you're spiritually down, these women don't let you stay down. You just know that somebody's gonna come pick you up.”

“I think going through these times together have kept us together,” shares Lee. 

“It’s very rare to have a group of friends like that,” French adds. “But we're cemented by our faith, especially as we've gotten older. It might have started that way. We always get online and ask for prayers when we have a special need, and we know that everyone is going to be praying. I think the scripture, ‘A friend loves at all times,’ … that we have embodied that for all these years. God brought us together and God has kept us together.”

As the women enjoyed their time together once again in Fanning, they shared several bits of advice for the students who will be living there when classes begin this fall. Their advice? Keep in touch; put down cell phones and talk to each other; reach out and get to know people; and as Hicks encourages, “live in the moment you’re here and enjoy it — every moment of it, even the hard ones because it’s gone in a flash.”

— Photos: Kristi Jones. Archival photos submitted by members of The Group.