Carl remembers the exact moment he first saw Debbie. It was the fall of 1969. “I was sitting in the Morse quad, on a very sunny September day. It was warm, and everyone was just hanging around, sitting on the grass. And I saw her walk. She was walking from where the Morse gate is down into where the dining hall is.” He says he thinks about it a lot. “She was really attractive. Blonde. But more than anything else, there was a very casual way she was walking. She smiled and was friendly to every person she saw. And I thought to myself, ‘Ok. I should meet this person.’”
It all happened very quickly. Soon after that sunny September day, Carl and Debbie met properly. They fell in love. A year later, they were married. It’s a classic, common love story, hardly distinguishable from the B-plot of a made-for-TV Lifetime romcom. But one thing does make their story unique: they were, according to the Yale Alumni Magazine, the first Yale College couple to get married.
Carl Eifler, MC ’70, was part of the last all-male class at Yale. Debbie Johnson, MC ’71, came to Yale as a junior after transferring from the all-women’s Mills College. If you own When Harry Met Sally on iTunes like I do, you probably remember the interludes of married couples sitting on a living room couch, happily recounting how they met. In a Nora Ephron-scripted tale of romance at Yale, Debbie and Carl would be that couple, sitting on the couch and very much in love.
My first September at Yale, I definitely didn’t find love-at-first-sight in the Morse courtyard. When I got into college, my best friend’s mom told me, “You’re going to marry a captain of industry,” but it’s hard to imagine any undergrad finding a spouse, or even thinking about marriage, in their time here. That said, the movies and moms of the world have drilled in this idea that college is where we become who we will be and find the person with whom we will spend the rest of our lives. In an effort to make sense of all this, I thought I’d track down married Yalies, past, present, and future.
So, I found Carl’s email address and asked if he and Debbie would answer a few questions. By the next morning, I received a response. “I’ve spoken to Debbie and we expect we would be willing to be interviewed for your article.” My eyes lit up. Then I read the next line: “We are no longer married.”
I won’t lie, I was a little dismayed. Does this mean there’s a curse on Yale love? It might explain a lot. But both Carl and Debbie were happy to talk, and I set up a time to chat, curious to hear about married life at Yale in days of yore.
“It was like whiplash,” Debbie (now Debbie Fennebresque) tells me over the phone. She’s describing how just 10 months after Yale announced its decision to co-educate, 588 female first-years and transfers were ushered in in the fall of 1969. In hindsight, she marvels at the immediacy of the transition. “Now that I’m a grown-up, I realize that was like nine months. It takes longer than that to re-do a kitchen in New York.” And Debbie is familiar with fast transitions: I don’t know much about the timeline of home renovations, but I imagine you could maybe redo a mid-size bathroom in the three months between when Debbie and Carl first met and when they got engaged.
“You go to the dining hall together, you have dinner together, you have lunch together,” Carl says about their relationship, more or less summing up dating at Yale now. “There were a lot of people dating,” he remarks, “but of the folks that we knew, we weren’t aware of anybody who was crazy enough to get married after only knowing the other person for six months.” He laughs and tells me that he doesn’t recommend it.
Neither is confident about where or when the proposal happened. Carl vaguely recalls buying a ring at a jewelry store near the Green in the winter or spring. As Debbie remembers, they were engaged by Christmas. The late Vincent Scully, then-Master of Morse College, threw them an engagement party in his home — Debbie still remembers the engraved invitations. The wedding took place in August of 1970, in Debbie’s hometown of Spokane, Washington. Carl’s roommate was his best man.
“What can I say? I was barely, barely 20. Idiot, you know, it was just an idiotic thing to do getting married that young. But I loved him,” Debbie reflects, with more affection in her voice than resentment. “Nothing about my relationship with Carl do I regret, except the fact that we didn’t make it work.” For better or worse, she says, “our relationship was bound up with our experiences at Yale.” To hear her tell it, their relationship in that first year was inextricable from the events that were unfolding in New Haven. In the spring of 1970, the antiwar movement and protests over the Black Panther trials overshadowed classes for many students. Debbie recounts running hand-in-hand with Carl up Chapel Street after tear gas was set off on the New Haven Green. Carl, who ultimately became a conscientious objector, spent many nights moderating student meetings trying to work out the logistics of the May Day strike and the Panther trials, Debbie in attendance. “We did everything together,” she says.
Debbie returned for her senior year at Yale as Debbie Eifler. She and Carl lived in an apartment behind Saybrook and she continued her studies while Carl completed his conscientious objector service through Dwight Hall. Debbie admits freely that the balance between being a wife and a student was hard to manage. On a campus still dominated by men, though, she remembers, “The nice thing about being married is you can be friends with men. It’s no issue… Once I was Carl’s fiancée I could sit down with any group of men and be friends with them, and I really loved that.” There’s a lot to be said about gender dynamics at Yale now, but I didn’t have to get engaged to become friends with boys, so I guess that’s something.
As I end my interview with Debbie, I ask if she has anything else to add. She pauses a bit before saying, “I know you’re looking for romantic things, but…the thing I would want emphasized is the experience in Morse and at Yale — it was a troubled time at Yale, but in a way it was great to be there. Yale kind of showed its best stuff then. It showed itself to be an institution of integrity… that it could nurture good things in people.” And though a lasting marriage may not have come of it, Yale certainly nurtured the good in Carl and Debbie.
Mary Carde, SM ’72, didn’t recognize Carl or Debbie’s names when I cold-called her on a Tuesday evening. Initial wariness in her voice, probably out of fear that I was trying to sell her something, subsided when she found out that I just wanted to pry into her love life. “Oh, you’re kidding!” she gushed. I wasn’t kidding. Mary met her husband within the first few weeks of co-education, and I was on a mission. Luckily, Mary, a clinical psychologist, didn’t read too much into my fixation on her marriage.
After talking to Carl and Debbie, I wanted to learn more about love at Yale in the early days of co-education, maybe even find a story with a happier ending. Carde, then Mary Kaufman, was among the first women to come to campus in 1969, transferring from University of Pennsylvania her sophomore year. She was a year below Debbie, and on the other side of campus in Silliman. She met her future husband, Scott Carde, SM ’71, in his suite within her first few weeks on campus. Their first official date wasn’t until Halloween, she tells me fondly, when “One of his roommates called me and said, ‘There’s someone here who wants to ask you out.’ [Scott] was very embarrassed that his roommate had done that.” The two went out, as (apparently) college students do, to a football game. “We had a horrible time. It was terrible. Yale lost badly to Dartmouth. He was in a really crappy mood. I couldn’t believe that anybody could take football that seriously.”
After an underwhelming first date, Mary and Scott decided it was better to just be friends. Even if you don’t own When Harry Met Sally on iTunes, I’m sure you have gathered that they didn’t just stay friends. “We talked and said, ‘Okay, we’re just never going to date again.’ And then we just never stopped seeing each other, so a lot of good that talk did,” Mary tells me. “Friendly” Friday dinners in Silliman somehow always ended with Scott inviting Mary over to his suite, where he and his suitemates were somehow always throwing a party, and you know how the rest goes.
“I wanted to just be in college. I didn’t want to be married. Being married seemed like something for later,” Mary says pretty emphatically when I ask her if she considered getting married as an undergraduate. After her graduation, Mary and Scott lived together for a year before they tied the knot. They had known for a long time, though, that they were going to stay together. She chokes up while telling me how he proposed. “It was just the two of us. I had gotten home first. I was in the apartment we were living in, and he came home and he got down on his knees and said, ‘We might as well do this.’” Even waiting a year after her graduation, Mary — who skipped a year before college — was only 21 when she got married. She seemed as surprised by that number as I was (my big plan when I turn 21 is to get a horizontal driver’s license), and she’s the first to admit that luck played a part in her now decades-long marriage. “Scott and I always say we were fortunate that we grew up together in a compatible way. It doesn’t always happen that way,” she says with a hint of warning in her voice, and I start to wonder how many people I will have to reassure that I’m really, really not close to getting married.
Mary emails me right after we end our interview. She told me that her husband Scott had called, as he always does, when he’s about to drive home.
On average, men and women in America are getting married later — ages 29 and 27, respectively, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1969, when Carl met Debbie and Mary met Scott, the average ages were 23 and 21. Obviously, there is more good in this shift than there is bad — women now are consistently delaying marriage to pursue higher education and long-term careers. But I’m trying to craft an inspiring romantic narrative, and an inspiring romantic narrative doesn’t live in the past. Those that do, like The Notebook or Titanic, are trying to make you cry. I’m not trying to make you cry. Besides, getting married and pursuing a profession are not mutually exclusive. Even at a place like Yale, where some would rather enter into government work than a government-certified union, some still choose the road (or aisle) less travelled.
Stephan Riemekasten, SM ’17, majored in Psych-Neuroscience at Yale and plans on going to medical school in Germany (that is, after he tries to make the German national rowing team for the 2020 Olympics). He has been engaged to his high school girlfriend, Sophia, since the summer before his junior year; the wedding is planned for the end of June. “Also, I should mention we have a child together. We have a daughter and she’s three months old,” he mentions after musing on his last season with the Yale crew team. Her name is Maya. “Whoa,” I say, acutely aware of the fact that in the few years Stephan has managed to do all of this, I have done very little except kill two desert plants. I’m stunned, but he goes on. “She was born 5 or 6 months after I graduated Yale so, I guess you could do the math.” “Whoa,” I say, acutely aware of how I probably shouldn’t think too hard about the math. Long distance wasn’t easy, Stephan admits. “I mean I counted the days until she would return to campus,” he recalls. But Sophia completed part of her studies in New Haven. “When she was at Yale we would basically live together. Whenever I was done with all my work for the day, which was usually around 11 or midnight, we would just take a 30 minute walk. We did that almost every day. It was so therapeutic.” We ended the call — it was around 9:30pm for him, and he had practice the next morning — but he messaged me a few minutes later. “sorry, just realized i think I said we “had” Maya at yale. That is misleading, she was conceived at yale, we had her in October 17.” Thanks, Stephan!
Sure, Stephan is kind of impressive. But he isn’t married yet, so as far as I’m concerned, he’s just doing ok. Others still on campus have already sealed the deal. When Esther Issever Zakuto, TD ’19, finishes a day of classes, she returns to the home she shares with her husband Niso, whom she married in August of 2017, the summer before her junior year. The two met over four years ago in Turkey, where Niso is originally from, but didn’t start dating until a few years later. Niso commutes from his job in New York to their home on Olive Street by the State Street Station. “I come home everyday to, really, a home. As opposed to the dorms. I would say it’s less stressful in that way because in a dorm, you’re still surrounded by people who are constantly stressed about school. They’re constantly studying,” she says when I call her from my dorm room. At that moment, my suitemates are playing the same scene from La La Land on repeat in the common room and eating Sour Punch Straws by the pack, but I know what she means.
Coming from an Orthodox Jewish background, Esther has many friends from home who are in the same phase of life that she entered last summer. “It’s something so normal for me, for someone in their early 20s to be married. That’s why I know that, even though at Yale it’s not so common, I don’t feel so uncomfortable with it…I mean like, I have friends who are 21 and they think their time is passing,” she tells me with a chuckle. I decide not to tell Esther about my plans to get a horizontal driver’s license.
Esther knows of one other married undergrad at Yale, Joey Adler, TD ’18, and his wife Eliana Sugarman. She doesn’t feel like she needs a community at Yale, but she does think “It’s nice to know that you’re not the only one and you’re not some strange creature from outer space who gets married at college.” Joey laughs when I tell him what Esther said. “I totally feel like I’m from outer space,” he says. Joey and Eliana’s story reads similarly to Esther and Niso’s. They met when they were 19 and working at a Jewish summer camp (“We’re like that classic couple,” Joey jokes) and got married the summer after Joey’s sophomore year at Yale. In their Orthodox Jewish communities, Eliana says, “People get married as young as 20. We were 21 and we had been dating for two years. It was kind of just a given at that point.”
Esther and Joey both married people they met when they weren’t at Yale. Stephan, too, will be marrying his high school sweetheart. Based on this reliable sample size of three, it seems like the key to finding love at Yale is to find it somewhere else. Or maybe there’s hope. Because the same year that Stephan came back to school engaged, two of his classmates were starting a relationship that, this past summer, became a marriage.
Stephanie Addenbrooke Bean, JE ’17, and Andrew Bean, DC ’17, technically met on the Yale Accepted Students Facebook page — “a terrible, honest truth, but that’s how it is,” admits Stephanie. She gathered from comment threads that Andrew shared her taste in music. Andrew still remembers that Stephanie, originally from Liverpool, posted about having a father who is a pastor. At the beginning of their junior year, after two years running in similar circles, they started dating. It was also the year when Stephanie became Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Daily News, a commitment generally considered more time-consuming than marriage. The perfect time to start dating your future husband. “People thought we were crazy, which is legitimate,” Stephanie tells me, but she also insists that the experience only helped her and Andrew learn about themselves and each other.
By senior year, Stephanie and Andrew knew they had to make decisions about their future. “For both of us, our principle on dating is that it will lead you to marriage at some point. And so if we didn’t see ourselves getting married, why are we still dating?” Stephanie recounts. In December, Andrew proposed outside of the new colleges. “I mean, when we started as freshmen, or first years, nothing was there. And so when Andrew proposed, he told the story of how our relationship meshed with the construction of these colleges,” Stephanie explains. “Andrew’s really deeply philosophical about how building construction means you believe in things that you have no proof will be good, but you believe they will be.” I, for one, will never look at the four-story L.L Bean store being constructed on Broadway the same way.
Stephanie and Andrew got married right after graduation, with many of their friends and both of their Deans in attendance. “Trying to write a senior thesis and plan a wedding is not something I would recommend,” Stephanie laughs. The stress of pulling it altogether was alleviated by the fact that, as was the case with Esther and Joey, both Stephanie and Andrew came from communities where younger marriages were more commonplace. “Of my friends from high school, a lot of them were married or were getting married. Even though it was uncommon in my community at Yale, it wasn’t uncommon among the wider spread,” Stephanie says. Their ceremony took place at the Trinity Church right by Timothy Dwight College; they took their photos in the Pauli Murray courtyard (“definitely the first people who had their wedding photographs there”) and continue to live in New Haven. Stephanie is now in her first year at the Divinity School and Andrew works at a financial firm in Westport. Pauli Murray, an important theologian as well as lawyer, is one of Stephanie’s inspirations as she studies the theologies of liberation.
This Valentine’s Day will be Stephanie and Andrew’s first as a married couple. The same holds for Esther and Niso. It will be Stephan’s daughter’s first Valentine’s Day on the planet. And just this year, Mary Carde finally threw out the teddy bear that Scott gave her on their first Valentine’s Day together (“It what kind of yucky after all those years…”).
And Carl and Debbie, while they haven’t spent Valentine’s Day as a couple in decades, made sure to tell me that they wouldn’t take any of it back, that they are still on good terms, that their daughter Elin also ended up going to Yale. Elin sent me some of Carl and Debbie’s old photos. In one, the two are decked out in their wedding finery, engrossed in petting two abnormally large dogs. In the other, they are sitting together on a couch, with the infant Elin between them. They might not have grown old together on that couch, as Nora Ephron would have had it, but both of them believe that it’s still worth it to try to find love at Yale. “Sometimes it ends up being really romantic and sometimes not so much,” Carl says. “But it ends up being a good part of the experience.”