Over 50 Years of Friendship: The Story of Five NIU Golden Huskies
By Lia Kizilbash Gillet

Five Class of 1974 alumnae, who remain friends since meeting their freshmen year at NIU, connect weekly on Zoom.
From top left: Marianne Epstein, Ruth Kyme, Christine Joniak. From bottom left: Rhonda Wassell, Rachel Bergman.

In 1970, Rachel Bergman (née Scanland), Marianne Epstein (née Riedel), Christine Joniak (née Rohmann), Ruth Kyme (née Semma), and Rhonda Wassell (née Rothballer), five college freshmen, became fast friends after being alphabetically assigned to live on a wing in Neptune Hall at NIU. Half a century later, their graduating class (Class of 1974) will be celebrated at the Golden Huskies 50+ Reunion during Homecoming in October.

As loyal friends as they ever were, these Huskies meet virtually on Zoom on a weekly basis. They fill 80 minutes with laughter and support.

“We decided to connect virtually during the pandemic and never stopped,” said Epstein. “We have so much to talk about that we have to schedule two back-to-back calls to take advantage of the free 40 minutes allowed.”

“We talk about all sorts of things when we Zoom,” said Joniak. “We share similar values, are well-informed, interesting, caring and respectful, and give each other good advice! I learn something new every time we Zoom, I really do. It’s always fun and lively, and we keep talking for 80 minutes straight.”

Wassell added, “We appreciate each other and know the details of each other’s lives. There is a lot to follow up on; you have more to talk about the more often you talk.”

Despite not connecting as frequently before the pandemic, they rarely missed a year without seeing each other. They attended each other's weddings, organized gatherings with their husbands and kids after their children were born, and often met in Chicago when their children grew up. They remained close as their children got married, attending their weddings and receptions together. 

“Rhonda would always initiate us getting together; she is the social one,” remarked Kyme.

“There were some wild times when the kids were little—14 between us,” said Epstein. “We are lucky that our husbands get along well. We lived life together; we got married and had children at about the same time. In 2001, when we lost our daughter in a car accident, these women were by my side quickly and for a long time afterward. It was comforting to know they were there for me.” 

With the NIU Golden Huskies 50+ Reunion happening this fall and Epstein serving on the reunion committee with her husband, Shelley, '74, the five women began reminiscing about their NIU days.

Top left and bottom right: NIU alumnae gather for a group photo. Top right: Marianne Epstein and Chris Joniak pose in their NIU dorm room. Bottom left: Rhonda Wassell and Ruth Kyme pose in their NIU dorm room.

Class of 1974 Memories

Bergman came to NIU to study journalism, Wassell came to study English, and later earned a second bachelor’s degree in journalism. Epstein and Joniak came for education, and Kyme, Theatre Arts, and English. 

“We met on the first or second day when we arrived at Neptune North dorm in 1970 when we were just 17 years old,” said Joniak. “Our friendship was originally by chance (or good luck) since we were assigned rooms alphabetically based on our last names, but we were all kind, friendly and fun.”

“We were thrown together and didn’t know anyone, so we had to adjust to this new college life together,” said Wassell. “We were young, and it was a challenging adjustment at first. I didn’t get along with my roommate, so I was especially dependent on my neighbors.”

"Our rooms were pretty spartan compared to college dorm rooms today,” remarked Kyme. “There were no TVs, and microwaves hadn't been invented yet. We had little hot pots for boiling water or heating up soup. We made a lot of popcorn in old-fashioned popcorn poppers. Rhonda and I made bagels from scratch once and actually boiled them in a popcorn popper.”

The five went to meals together, hung out in each other’s rooms, played cards, attended basketball and football games, and went to weekend parties, movies, plays, and dances. They hung out at the Lagoon (in nice weather), and Joniak fondly recalls The Junction Eating Place.

“We stayed on campus on the weekends and rarely traveled home. Weekends were the time to enjoy new friendships and life on campus,” Joniak said. “I remember the bells on top of the union building ringing loudly and early every Saturday and Sunday morning, waking us up every weekend.”

I have fond memories of hanging out in various dorm rooms, just talking, avoiding school work or sleep,” said Wassell. “It was an introduction to real life.”

Epstein and Joniak were paired together during their freshman year in Neptune. Wassell and Kyme chose to be roommates their sophomore year, and all but Joniak (who had joined a sorority) rented a townhouse together their junior and senior years. Wassell and Bergman recall painting the townhouse together.

“I had never done any painting,” said Wassell. “We painted the kitchen bright orange. We had a radio and paint supplies, and it turned out okay; nobody complained!”

During their senior year, Bergman, Kyme and Epstein decided on a whim that they should meet NIU President Richard Nelson before they graduated. While driving around campus, Epstein and Kyme jokingly dared Bergman (who was driving) to stop by the president's house—and she did! Epstein recalled Mrs. Nelson inviting them in and serving lemonade while they had a pleasant visit together.

Wassell, Joniak, Kyme and Epstein share a favorite memory "tray sledding" when Epstein first met her husband.

“I met Shelley when we were sophomores,” said Epstein. “Some guys were chasing us and throwing snowballs. We ran into Shelley and his friends, who proceeded to defend us. They had been sledding on cafeteria trays by Grant North, and we happily joined them. We didn’t see each other again until I worked at the Northern Star a year later.”

All of them, in fact, eventually worked at the Northern Star, proving to create an even stronger bond.

The Northern Star Family

Bergman was the first to begin working at the Northern Star copy desk during her sophomore year.

“It was a home away from home,” she said. “Rhonda joined me at the copy desk, later Ruth joined to work in production, and Marianne and Chris job shared as the receptionist. That’s when Marianne saw Shelley again; he was in the sports department. We made a lot of friends crammed in there!”

“Most of my free time and social interactions revolved around the paper and the students who worked there,” said Wassell. “We worked hard. We spent time together in class, at the newspaper office, or hosted or attended parties that included everyone in the Northern Star family. We formed our little niche group. I am lucky that I found my connection at the Northern Star and shared it with my roommates.”

Lessons Learned

“Although there were some stressful times completing assignments and taking exams, my years at NIU were very positive,” said Joniak. “I experienced personal growth, new opportunities, and so much freedom.”

Joniak and Epstein quickly learned to avoid scheduling 8 a.m. classes after making the mistake their first semester freshman year. Epstein recalls “trudging from Neptune to Anderson bright and early.”

Wassell learned not to procrastinate, which delayed her second degree, although she said she admittedly still does. Joniak and Epstein learned an equally hard lesson in one class they shared.

“Marianne and I were getting an A in this class we took together,” recalled Joniak. “The graduate assistant teacher told us, ‘You both have solid A's. We have one more class, but you don’t have to come.’ So, we thought that sounded good and didn’t go since we knew we had our A's. locked in. We went to shoot pool instead, and we ended up with B's in the class because he docked us a whole grade for that.

We talked to him, and he said, ‘An A student would have shown up,’ Joniak continued. "We were just kids, still learning about life.”

Bergman recalls only going to a class once the entire semester because she could still get a decent grade with her writing skills and turning in the paper assignments.

“We all have stories where we follow up and say, ‘Don’t do what I did’ when talking to our children or grandchildren,” said Kyme.

img_2736NIU Golden Huskies gather in Nashville in 2019 for their last in-person gathering.

Gathering Again

During their most recent Zoom call, with personalized "NIU Neptune North Girls" coffee cups in hand that Joniak made everyone, they agree that 50 years passed quickly and they can't believe the Golden Huskies 50+ Reunion is approaching. 

“We are all retired now, but gosh, our 50th reunion makes us sound so old,” chuckled Bergman.

Homecoming will reunite the five on NIU's campus again for their next in-person gathering. Kyme says although she hasn’t been involved with NIU since graduating, she plans to attend the reunion and looks forward to spending time with her friends. 

As they reminisce about their college days and plan future get-togethers, including a long-overdue girls vacation, these five women remind us that true friendships can stand the test of time. 

Click here to learn more about the Golden Huskies 50+ Reunion during NIU's 117th Homecoming. A Golden Huskie is anyone who graduated from NIU at least 50 years ago. Each reunion weekend, the NIU Alumni Association features those who are celebrating their 50th.