By Nancy J. Brandwein
Many students—and recent alumni—don’t realize that The Alumni Association of the School of General Studies (GSAA) was founded in 1948 and established as a nonprofit organization in 1954. Alumni such as Barbara Voorish Levy ’48 and Mrs. Helen Gilbert Baer ’50 (for whom Lewisohn Hall’s Baer Room is named) cultivated a robust and active organization. In fact, Baer received the alumni medal in 1960 for her contributions to the School.
According to Philip Ehrlich ’88, president of GSAA from 1994–1998, there were 21 members of the original board, and amazingly, though names and faces changed, that number of involved individuals held constant for fifty years. The GSAA was in a unique position as an entirely independent organization, which, nevertheless, was totally supportive of the School. Ehrlich thinks it amazing that for many years there was only one dedicated staff member, Carol Burton, who handled alumni relations and development. Yearly dues enabled the GSAA to raise enough money to not only endow a yearly scholarship that was established by former president Lucille Roussin, but also to put out a yearly mailing and host social and educational events such as lecture series. Ehrlich cites memorable speakers such as Nobel Prize winner and father of modern brain science, Eric Kandel and the immensely popular history professor James Shenton. On one memorable evening astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson (host of the re-tooled hit television series Cosmos), then a Columbia grad student, took a group of GS alums up to the Pupin Hall observatory where he showed them the rings of Saturn.
The Owl also got its start through GSAA funding. Melissa Bell ’93 and Kate Mellor ’91 took this publication from a sometime newsletter to a biannual publication, and Bell, a playwright and content developer, was editor from 1993–2000. She remembers walking the proofs to the printer in Journalism Hall, and says a highlight for her was compiling the Alumni Notes because GS graduates followed such interesting paths. Ehrlich, for instance, went from philosophy to art; his 22 inch polished bronze owl sculpture, dedicated in 1996, presides over the GS student lounge and can be seen from the Lewisohn foyer.
Over its history, the group accomplished many successes, yet ironically, Ehrlich says his principal achievement as president was leading the effort to integrate the group’s operations with the School’s enhanced alumni relations program, therefore paving the way for increased investment in the universitywide Columbia Alumni Association (CAA) and eventually, for today’s re-launch of the GS Alumni Association. “Although we became inactive as an organization, several of us remained active as individuals,” said Ehrlich, who regularly participates in events sponsored by the CAA and annually, along with GS Alumni Association Scholarship founder Roussin, attends the GS Scholarship Reception and other events where they proudly meet the recipients of the group’s commemorative scholarship.