In the spring of 1945, most 18-year-old boys thought they would soon be in military service. A few younger boys entered Illinois State (Normal) University (ISNU) when it was a single-purpose teachers’ college and had an enrollment of about 1,250. One member of the largest freshman class since the beginning of World War II was Joe French ’49, M.S. ’50. He had to wait two years for the right girl to come to ISNU: Margaret (Peg) Gallagher ’51.
In the fall of 1946, Joe was sophomore class president. He formed a comic partnership with fellow local boy Rod Abbott, ISNU cheerleader captain. They became clown partners for Gamma Phi Circus and stand-up comics at pep rallies. The two heeded the urging by Dean of Men Ralph Linkins and Dean of Women Anna Keaton for student participation in extracurricular activities, and for “townies” to convince “suitcase students” to stay weekends and enjoy college social life.
Joe and Rod not only encouraged students to attend dances and other weekend events, but also became part of the unofficial welcoming committee—especially of girls.
Although they were among those who considered “enjoying college life” as their major, Rod became a practicing physician and Joe a professor at Penn State.
Peg enrolled in the fall of 1947 and showed up with a girlfriend at the first Friday welcoming mixer, “looking lost and in need of guidance.” The four talked and played shuffleboard, but it was not “love at first sight” for Joe and Peg.
The following Monday night, Joe and Rod made their habitual visit to Milner Library to “study” (and cruise). Peg was quickly spotted with several girlfriends for a brief, whispering encounter. The next day, while visiting a friend in Fell Hall, Peg saw Joe walking by and asked about the boy with a “flat top.”
“Oh,” came the response, “he has a different girlfriend every other week.” Knowing she had more to meet, Peg replied, “Well, I have been here only a week.” Several days later, when their paths crossed on campus, a movie date was set. Soon after that only Rod had a different girlfriend every few weeks.
Peg was a speech major with an emphasis in theater, and played a major role each year under the direction of Mable Clair Allen in Capen Auditorium. Joe was a Vidette photographer and then sports editor. He served as president of the student government while working part time in sports for The Pantagraph.
For two years they talked lightly about marriage but serious talk, he felt, needed to wait until close to his graduation. She received a clock radio instead of a ring for Christmas in 1949. Her disappointment soon ended. At two minutes after midnight on January 1, 1950, Joe proposed. They were married 23 hours after his June commencement, while she was still a junior.
As Joe was about to finish a master’s degree in what is now known as psychology, he rejected a part-time job opportunity. He couldn’t afford a wife/student on a half-time salary. His master’s led to a full-time faculty appointment, with half in publicity and half in psychology. This was his start as an academic in psychology.
Joe was more than pleased to be mentored by J. Russell Steele, long time multi-tasker in publicity. Professor Stanley S. Marzolf, director of the Psychology Clinic, was another mentor who served on his master’s thesis committee and became a lifelong professional role model.
Peg, who played age-appropriate roles for three years, was challenged in her senior year to portray a stout, middle-aged woman. The role was made easier by the fact she was four months pregnant. Her four children gave Peg other roles for the next 20-plus years.
In addition to child rearing, she was a preschool volunteer teacher’s aide, did Baptist church duties beyond becoming the first woman to be chair of the Board of Deacons, and was recognized as one of the oldest den mothers in captivity during the time their three boys were Cub Scouts.
With the children nearing the age of reason, Peg entered the Penn State master’s program in acting, graduating at the top of her class. The headline in a local paper, “Oldest student has highest GPA,” was not one of her favorites.
She qualified for a professional actor’s Equity card during 81 performances at the Marriott Lincolnshire near Chicago as Momma in Fiddler on the Roof. She became a Penn State instructor, teaching acting and script analysis, as well as coordinating undergraduate programs.
For 20 years – fulfilling the expectation for theater faculty members in performance at Penn State and elsewhere – Peg was in 41 professional theater productions at Penn State and in regional theaters from North Carolina to Colorado to Maine. Her favorite roles include the leading ladies in Glass Menagerie, Hello, Dolly, Driving Miss Daisy, and a ditsy aunt in Arsenic and Old Lace.
After joining the ISNU faculty, Joe earned a doctorate at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and spent six years at the University of Missouri at Columbia as an assistant and associate professor. He became a professor in 1964 at Penn State, where he reorganized and directed the doctoral program in school psychology for 33 years. He became an emeritus professor on September 30, 1997, the day after his last externally funded project ended.
They now reside in Pennsylvania. For Peg’s 80th birthday, she got four “sticks” for shuffleboard. When they find some “pucks,” Joe and Peg are old enough to play a serious game of driveway shuffleboard as a remembrance of their first encounter.