On a warm June day in 1953, just hours after she graduated from Colby Junior College, Gretchen Hoch watched her family’s car drive off as she stood in the college parking lot. Gretchen was engaged to a man whom her father did not approve of because of religious differences, and given an ultimatum, she’d chosen her fiancé over her father.
It’s not a unique story, but what happened next is: Gretchen’s professors took her in, helped plan her wedding and on-campus reception, and Gretchen and her husband made New London their home. Together they absorbed — and reflected — an endless source of love that exists at Colby-Sawyer.
A Red Rose Every Week
Gretchen met Bradford White just a year before that tense scene. As a member of the choir, Gretchen had to remain on campus after the last day of classes ahead of Commencement. She had a summer job lined up to teach sailing back home in the Midwest, but she decided to call the Edgewood Inn (now Peter Christian’s) to inquire about temporary work. They asked her to wait tables.
Brad had graduated from Brown University that weekend, and his summer job working for the Ensigns, a family from Rhode Island who summered in New London, would not start for another week and a half. He also called the Edgewood Inn, and signed on there to wash dishes.
While working at the inn during that overlapping, 10-day intermediary space of time between school and summer, the two fell in love.
When Gretchen returned to New London for her second and final year at the college, Brad was working back home in Rhode Island. They wrote constantly and visited each other on weekends. The 1953 college yearbook reports that Gretchen’s bright blush “almost matched the single red rose which adorned her bureau each week.”
During the first week of May, Brad proposed, and Gretchen received her associate’s degree a month later. When Gretchen’s father found out about her engagement to Brad during graduation, he demanded Gretchen choose. When Gretchen chose Brad, he left and drove 600 miles home to Cleveland.
Faculty members Margaret Cawley ’41 and Jean London ’41 took notice.
“They scooped me up and took me home with them,” Gretchen said. She lived in the house they shared until she started work at Colbytown Camp, a summer retreat for refugee and underprivileged children.
Gretchen and Brad set Aug. 15 as the date for their wedding. With two months to go, they began their preparations.
A White Wedding
The couple didn’t have a lot of money. Gretchen’s dress cost $35. They picked creeping pine and wound it around railings for decoration. The wedding was held at Old St. Andrew’s Church, and two townspeople who heard about their situation let them use a floral arrangement intended for the next day’s service as their altar flowers.
“It was as simple as could be,” said Gretchen. “I guess in this day and age when weddings are so expensive, it’s just fun to see how simply you can do a wedding.”
But Colby-Sawyer’s presence wasn’t in short supply. Gretchen’s maid of honor was her friend Delite Fox ’53. The college offered the alumni lounge (now The Stable), for the reception, and the room was filled with familiar faces, including President Leslie H. Sawyer.
The faculty who’d come to Gretchen’s rescue were right there with her, too. She got ready for the ceremony at their house, and Professor Cawley played the organ as she walked down the aisle.
A couple hours before the wedding, Gretchen’s mother surprised everyone by showing up in New London. She had been traveling in Europe with Gretchen’s father, and after their ship landed in New York City, she rented a car to see her daughter get married. Everyone welcomed her to the festivities.
Brad’s employer, Walter Ensign, walked Gretchen down the aisle.
“It couldn’t have been nicer,” Gretchen said, referencing all the people from the community who made her wedding special.
A Colorful Life
After living in Rhode Island for a year, the Whites moved back to New London. They built long, meaningful careers and raised five children.
Gretchen has kept in touch with the college all this time. She practiced interior decorating and refurbished various rooms and buildings on campus. Gretchen was also active with the alumni association, serving in a variety of roles including president. In 1977, she received the Alumni Service Award.
It’s not so surprising that two of her children have also found homes at Colby-Sawyer.
Jen White ’90 moved back to New London after Brad passed away in 2008. After holding a faculty position, she currently serves as the college’s Director of Sustainability & Innovation. Her sister Lindsay White has been with the college as the accounts payable specialist for seven years. Gretchen lives locally with Lindsay and Lindsay’s partner, Bill.
Gretchen’s children grew up knowing the story of their parents’ wedding, and they took its message of kindness to heart. “It’s the sense of family and place that make Colby-Sawyer College and New London stand apart,” Lindsay said.
“It’s been a wonderful place,” Gretchen said. “The reason I chose Colby is that it had such a personal relationship with everybody. Everybody really cared about what happened to you.”
And though the college has been through many changes since her time as a student, Gretchen believes that’s still true.
Love contains many variations: the love between two people who commit to spending their lives together; the love between a parent and child; and the love between friends and classmates and colleagues.
And then there’s the love between a college and all who walk through its doors. Colby-Sawyer is made up of people like Gretchen and Jen and Lindsay who radiate a culture of long-lasting, personal connections here. The layers of love run deep.