Violet Strank Lehman and Vivian Strank Updyke. They’ve been called “Tempest” and “Sunshine.”
At first glance these dignified, well-dressed women with the striking, white hair seem as indistinguishable as identical twins should be. Dig deeper and you discover the differences.
“The twins,” as they’re known on the William Woods University campus, returned to WWU recently for their 75th class reunion. Now 94 years old, they have been returning annually for Alumni Weekend for as long as they can remember.
They are in remarkably good shape. Both get around well without use of cane or walker. Neither wears glasses, except to watch TV across the room. They maintain an active lifestyle that includes walking and playing bridge.
Violet is on the national alumni board and comes to campus regularly, but it’s a small trip from her home in Atchison, Kan., compared to other trips the twins have made. They have traveled extensively—all over the world in fact; to every continent except Antarctica.
“We’re world travelers; we went every year until the last two,” Vivian, who lives in Wellsville, Mo., comments.
It was a friend from Wellsville who originally convinced the twins to attend William Woods.
“She came here and talked us into coming. That’s what you call salesmanship,” Violet said.
William Woods was “like a girls’ finishing school” in the 1930s, according to Vivian, the self-described shy twin.
Violet, the more talkative one, elaborated, “We dressed up in long dresses once a week and went to the rec hall upstairs in Jones and danced—just girls. And we always went to chapel during the week in Dulany, and on Sundays we walked downtown to the Christian Church, properly dressed, with gloves and everything.”
When it came time for dates with the men from nearby Westminster College, Violet said, “A chaperone, a teacher here, had to get in the taxi with you and your date. Then she would have to sit all evening at the dance, and she became part of the wallpaper.”
Violet remembers fondly what it was like to attend an all-girls school.
“We were perfectly relaxed. There were no disruptions. Our social life didn’t interfere with college.”
Vivian was a music major, who especially enjoyed French and psychology. Violet was an education major—her favorite classes were history and psychology.
Despite their love for psychology, they didn’t really go to class as frequently as their teacher thought.
“My psych class met three times a week and the teacher told me I was coming too many times,” Vivian remembers. “She said, ‘This class meets three times a week, but you’ve been coming six times.’ You see, I went three days and Violet went three days and the teacher couldn’t tell us apart.”
Vivian only stayed at the two-year school for a year. She had a wedding for family and friends in the parlor of Jones Hall. Dr. Egbert Railey Cockrell, president of William Woods, performed the ceremony, and William Meldrum, her music teacher, played the white baby grand piano.
Her music lessons at WWU have come in handy as she has been the organist for her church for 75 years and still teaches piano lessons.
Violet, on the other hand, stayed at William Woods for another year. She was senior class president and valedictorian.
“I just like studies,” she said.
Violet went on to the University of Missouri to get an education degree and then taught in Centralia until she met her husband in 1938.
She may have been serious about her studies, but there was a mischievous streak to this twin.
“I remember being ‘campused’–that’s when you are restricted to campus and not allowed to go anywhere.”
She explained, “We were smoking down in the county courthouse. Why? Because we couldn’t smoke here. We were ‘campused’ for a month—one whole month.”
And she didn’t always follow the rules about chaperones either. As valedictorian, Violet gave the required graduation speech, but she didn’t stick around for the reception afterward.
“I slipped out the bathroom window of Cockrell to go on a date and landed in a spinach patch,” she said.
Vivian, who was already married and living in Wellsville, was part of the plot. She had come to campus for graduation, and switched places with her twin.
“Everyone congratulated me for a lovely speech and I just smiled and said ‘thank you.’”
Seventy-five years later, the women have neither lost their sense of humor, nor their love for William Woods.
“Memories make you want to come back. It was a fun school. My interest in William Woods has grown,” Violet said. “Since I’ve been on the alumni board, it has become an important part of my later life. I’m proud of it.”
Vivian added, “I feel the same way. I’m very proud of William Woods.”
Editor’s Note: During Alumni Weekend, the alumni board dedicated a room in the Alumni Guest House to the twins. In addition, Violet and Vivian announced that they had donated $10,000 to William Woods University to endow a student scholarship.
Vivian Strank Updyke (left) and Violet Strank Lehman on the campus of William Woods University.