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Marion Nelson

Marion Nelson

National Director of CYT (Children's Theater Group), Retired

By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
August 26, 2022

DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Friday, August 26th, 2022. I'm so happy to be here with Marion Nelson. Marion, it's lovely to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.

MARION NELSON: You're welcome. It's going to be fun. [laugh]

ZIERLER: Marion, to start, would you tell me your most recent or current title and institutional affiliation?

NELSON: [laugh] It is mother and grandmother of a lot of delightful people [laugh], and affiliated at a few addresses, but I am not in the working world right now. I'll tell you more about that later.

ZIERLER: What was your most recent formal position?

NELSON: My most recent formal position was the National Director of an after school children's theater program in San Diego.

ZIERLER: How long were you doing that?

NELSON: I began as a volunteer because my children were involved. I ended up working for the organization for about 18 years, first as coordinating one of the local groups, and then working in the main office, coordinating all the various San Diego and Riverside County groups, and then working on setting up groups nationally because this went national, and so I would go to other places across the country and help other people set up this after-school activity for kids. That was my most recent; probably not what you were expecting but that was my most recent. [laugh]

ZIERLER: Was that the culmination of a career? Did you spend a lot of time in either education or theater?

NELSON: I did, after Caltech and grad school, do a stint of eight years of teaching high school physics and math down here in San Diego. When my husband moved down here for grad school, that's what I did. Then after that, I took a break, and was raising a family. Then it turned out that our oldest child had—and has—a congenital heart defect. He's 42 now. But he had a very serious ailment, and we couldn't find anything that he could do well physically. He couldn't handle the soccer or the baseball. He just didn't have the energy other kids had, although otherwise he's quite healthy, and so what are we going to do with this kid? We found theater, and he thrived there, and then I just got slowly sucked in. [laugh] It also turns out that I started taking dance classes through the city recreation department when I was in my 30s. Tap, Jazz, a little ballet. I kept at it and have done a lot of performing these past 30+ years, including some local theater. I'm still at it today. So that also explains my heart for getting kids involved in the arts.

ZIERLER: Marion, what are some of the things you do in terms of volunteer work or community engagement, the kinds of things that keep you busy besides the momming and the grandmomming?

NELSON: Well, I've been a volunteer tutor in a low income neighborhood for a number of years with a local non profit. There have also been many informal things where anyone I know that says their kid is having trouble in math, I'll go, "I'll help them." I get taken up on that quite a lot. I lead a Bible study for our church, and sometimes that leads to church projects or people that need help. But I'm basically just at the center of the family. I'm the family hub person, and so I take good care of myself, and I engage in a lot of activities. But I'm often called upon to do something —especially with young grandchildren—to be there, to teach them piano, help with homework, drive them around, play with them, and I want to be available for that. I have purposely avoided getting myself locked into a tight schedule where I can't be available to my family, and that includes traveling, if they need me to travel to be with them, the ones that don't live locally. I have a pretty good life. [laugh]

ZIERLER: That's great. That's great.

NELSON: Yeah, it's really great.

ZIERLER: Marion, let's go all the way back, just to establish some context. Tell me about where you grew up, and what high school you went to. When you started thinking about colleges, what would come next?

NELSON: I grew up as the oldest of six kids in a very small town called Porterville, California. I went to Porterville High School. It was the only high school. It was a public high school.

ZIERLER: Where is Porterville?

NELSON: If you're familiar with California, you'd probably know Fresno and Bakersfield. It's about halfway between. It's right smack in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley: agriculture; orange trees; nut trees; small towns; a lot of farms and laborers.

ZIERLER: Had your family been in that area for a long time?

NELSON: Yeah, my mother grew up there. My mother grew up in an actually very poor family there, and she was the first one that went to college, and made it really well. She did well for herself. She actually was a physician which, at that time, was quite unusual. When she finished her medical degree, and after the fellowships and whatnot at Stanford and San Francisco, she came back to Porterville, and opened up a practice. She had met my dad somewhere along the line, and so he agreed to move there too, and that's how we got there.

ZIERLER: What were your parents' professions when you were growing up?

NELSON: They were both MDs, both doctors. She was an OB-GYN doctor. He was a family practice doctor. They had an office together, and they worked together the whole time that I was growing up.

ZIERLER: Was there a wide range socio-economically of patients that they dealt with from laborers to their peers?

NELSON: Yes, there was a wide range. In fact, my mother was the only female doctor in town. It's hard to remember, but 70 years ago, when she started, it was very, very unusual. Men were doctors; women were nurses. That's just kind of how it was. Yes, socio-economically, she got a ton of patients from the largely Hispanic and laborer population that lives there because the men didn't want their women—their wives—to go see a man doctor, so they were all over that, having them go see my mom. She was always booked all the time; very busy.

ZIERLER: Marion, growing up with doctors as parents, was science more front and center for you than it otherwise might've been?

NELSON: Yes, definitely, my dad especially was very interested in science. Again, being the oldest child, I probably got more personal attention all the way through. But my dad was very interested in sharing things with me. He bought me a nice telescope, and I remember looking at the stars and talking about astronomy. I think at one point I said I wanted to be an astronomer. I thought it was really interesting. But I didn't really do much outside of just excel in school. I loved the science in school but, other than that, there wasn't really much else that I could pursue there in Porterville.

ZIERLER: Did you have an appreciation of how much of a path-breaker your mom was, being a doctor of her generation?

NELSON: I absolutely did. It was quite clear to me—and people told me all the time—how amazing she was. I was extremely proud of her. The only thing I was sad about was that I didn't get to see her a lot. She was busy delivering babies at all hours because in a small town, if the baby comes at 2 in the morning, you go. It's just what you do. I really treasured the time when she was home, like, when she had an afternoon off or we were on vacation. I just really loved—well, she was wonderful. But, yes, she was a groundbreaker, and I noticed that.

ZIERLER: Did you have a sense of how many other female graduate students were in medical school with her? Was she one of the first classes? Did she have to go far?

NELSON: Only two. There were only two others in her graduating med school class—

ZIERLER: Only two.

NELSON: —from Stanford in 1948 I think it was. I have the commencement program.

ZIERLER: Marion, a question I'm going to ask you in a few minutes but that could also apply to your mom, how did she even know that going to medical school as a woman was even available to her; that that was a possibility?

NELSON: She never told me that. She died pretty young, at age 53. I was only 23. I didn't get to ask or maybe learn as much of that as I would've liked to. But I think probably somebody at her school, at her high school, because her parents wouldn't have thought of it. Her dad was an auto mechanic. He was really good at it. Her mother stayed home. She had an older sibling and a younger sibling, so she was the middle child. She must've just done really well in school, and been encouraged to apply. I don't know. She went to Stanford as an undergrad also. I'm sure it was hard to get into then; not maybe as hard [laugh] as it is now. But somebody pointed her in that direction. I couldn't say who though.

ZIERLER: Marion, your schools growing up, was it a good school system?

NELSON: It was OK. Actually, my parents found this little place. It was called Venice Hill Preparatory School. It was kind of out in the countryside between Porterville and Visalia. It was about a half hour drive from our house. When I was in fourth grade, they moved us to that. We were in an elementary school in Porterville, and then they moved us over there, and I went there from fourth to eighth grade. Then there was nothing after that, so they put me back in public high school. They were looking for something else, but there wasn't much to be found. My high school was probably fairly typical of its time; maybe even today. But it was the only thing in town, unless maybe a few Catholic elementary schools, there might've been. I'm sure there were. But I got what I needed from the high school. They moved me along. I was a little bit young for high school. I had skipped a couple grades, so when I went into high school, I was 12, and graduated at 16. But they kept finding things for me. Like, they'd let me go take a class out at the junior college for math when I ran out of math. I'm sure my parents were instrumental in working that out, and making that happen. But I was able to kind of skip around to my level. But they basically had the sciences. You had biology, chemistry, physics. No honors, no AP, but it was enough apparently to get me started. [laugh]

ZIERLER: This obviously wouldn't have been true in your household, but in high school, was there any sense that there was a gendered divide for science; that, otherwise, math and science were not really as much for the girls as they were for the boys?

NELSON: Well, I don't know if I would say it wasn't so much for girls, but the girls just didn't do it. It was just kind of the way that things kind of split up, and there were very few girls in my science classes, probably more in biology and chemistry because you had to take some science in high school; physics, maybe not so much. I can't quite remember. But there was kind of just a sense that it was far dominated by males. That was just the way it was. But I don't remember thinking, "That's not fair. That's not right," because I got to do it, and so I felt like it was all open. It was kind of similar to Caltech; the same thing. I knew I had the opportunity and the ability.

ZIERLER: Did you graduate near the top of your class? In other words, were the kinds of schools like Caltech, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, was that sort of in your purview when it was time to think about where you might go?

NELSON: Yes. I wanted to go to Stanford because my mom went there, with really good reason. It had a good reputation. My parents and/or some people at my high school pointed out to me that Caltech was opening up. I didn't really know much about Caltech except it was a science school, and it was a really good school, and it was in California; I wasn't interested in going too far away from home. They pointed me in that direction, and my parents definitely wanted me to go there. [laugh] Really, I only applied to those two schools. I don't know how I got away with that. But, again, I think it was a different world back then. It wasn't quite so unthinkable that you'd get into schools if you were a pretty good student. I was top of my class in high school, GPA-wise. But, two other people tied with me. We were all 4.0's. You couldn't get any higher than 4.0 back at that time. I had a good spot, and the school was OK, so I guess that was enough. Stanford and Caltech both liked me, and agreed to admit me. But I'll tell what happened is my parents [laugh]—God bless them—they thought Stanford was [laugh] way too liberal. [laugh] They were kind of trying to scooch me, like, "Caltech, Caltech," and I'm like, "Caltech, it seems kind of weird." They carefully orchestrated for me to visit Caltech, and not visit Stanford. [laugh]

ZIERLER: By "too liberal," we should note that this is the late '60s that we're talking about.

NELSON: Yes, and I know part of what they're saying, but that was their term, so whatever it meant to them. But it was politically and, of course, socially - the whole sexual revolution and drugs and all that stuff was happening then, and rock music, and all these things. I was a really [laugh] very clean-cut kid and, to be honest. I continued to be through Caltech—I'll admit it. They weren't worried particularly about me, I don't think, or something terrible happening to me if I went to Stanford. But they just didn't like the sense of where it was going, particularly compared to when my mom went there. She made comparisons. They arranged for me to visit Caltech. Caltech arranged for me to have a really nice time [laugh] by having really very attractive, charismatic young men all around me, and providing good opportunities for me to see what was going on. I ended up wholeheartedly agreeing that I wanted to go to Caltech.

ZIERLER: Marion, it's such an interesting question, I'm not sure if you'll have visibility on it, but this idea that parents, teachers, basically of that generation, they were aware that Caltech had gone coed. Do you have any idea of how that news would have reached them? In other words, would that have been something on the evening news? Is it word of mouth? Was it a newspaper article, a press release? How would they have even gotten this information, especially since you're not living in the LA metro area even?

NELSON: That's a good point. I really don't know. But they did read the newspapers, and they got the LA Times so it wasn't just the local news. I'm thinking maybe [laugh] some people who might've known about it that they were either friends with or maybe were patients of theirs might have told them, "This is an interesting thing coming up." I think a couple of Ivy League colleges had just gone coed the year before, so people had their eyes on it more. That's all I can guess. They never mentioned it to me.

ZIERLER: Now, one set of concerns when you're looking north towards San Francisco is the revolutions of the 1960s. What about any concerns about any difficulties that you might face being that pioneer class, that inaugural class of women at Caltech? Was that a concern either for you or your parents in any of your discussions on these things?

NELSON: Well, I think what made it seem not a problem was the size of the campus, the size of the enrollment. My high school was way bigger than Caltech, way bigger, so I'd already navigated that. I kind of knew how to be in that setting. Stanford, however, was quite a lot larger. I couldn't tell you what the population was then but certainly many, many times or at least several times larger than Caltech, let's just say. I think they felt that I was probably way safer at Caltech in that sense of being sheltered or less likely for something to go wrong in my continued growing, because I wasn't grown up yet when I went to college, not that anyone is completely, but I was really young. I'm still not quite sure why my parents let me go at 16 [laugh] to college but they did. They went with me too on the visit. They went their way, I went mine, and so they probably had a chance to see where we were going to live, and that the size of the classes were going to be small, and talk to people, whoever was orienting them, that made them feel good about it.

ZIERLER: For you personally, was it daunting at all to think that you would be part of this first class of women, or you didn't pay that much mind?

NELSON: It was a little daunting. Looking at the numbers, it was just this is going to be really strange. There's 30 of us. Even though the total enrolment's small, it's still 800, so that's kind of strange. I grew up in a normal one-to-one high school, so I kind of knew what that was like. That was really the source of most of the odd things about being there, being that women were just so rarely seen there. [laugh] Just there was a sea of men. [laugh]

ZIERLER: Marion, what sticks out in your memory from those first few days when you got on campus?

NELSON: Well, I was kind of adjusting just to the whole nature of not being at home for the first time, for the foreseeable future. They were trying to make us feel welcome but I don't know if there's really any way to do that. They put up a really stupid sign on the student center that said welcome, and then it was C-O-dash-T-E-C-H-S, so Co-Techs. But what does that mean? It was kind of—I don't know—like nice try but that's really kind of offensive, in a way. [laugh] But I was open. I just felt very visible and scrutinized. Maybe I would've felt that way even on any campus when you're around a bunch of new people. But I felt like I was kind of an oddity, and that people were looking at me, and I think they were [laugh], so it was that. One thing that made a huge difference for me, my experience, was that within the first few days, I met my friend, Debbie. I don't know if she's on your list, Debbie Dison Hall. We just hit it off. We were very similar in a lot of ways, and so we hit it off, and we decided to become roommates, and we roomed for the whole four years on campus together. We still are friends today. But if I hadn't had that, I think I would've felt a lot more alone and just wondering what was I doing here. But, instead, we laughed together about it, and we'd share our stories, and we'd feel better, and it made a huge difference.

ZIERLER: Marion, do you have recollection of anyone on campus, either administration or faculty, simply acknowledging this historic decision to admit women? Was that made a big deal of at all, as far as you know?

NELSON: Well, I don't remember any particular event, but I do remember that Debbie and I were recruited to be on (Caltech President) Harold Brown's Christmas card that year. Two girls and two boys were walking with him. I don't know if you've seen that picture. I think I shared it recently because someone from the Caltech magazine asked me for some vintage pictures.


NELSON: Anyway, that was sort of like, hey, Caltech went coed, and he sent it to all his friends around the world. I remember that. I'm not sure what else. I don't remember. I don't really remember. We were just intermingled right away in our groups; you have an orientation group when you first get there that you kind of go around with for the first week. My advisor was David Brin, who turns out to be a very interesting guy. I'm pretty sure I was the only girl in his group of about seven people. But, no, no big master acknowledgement that I remember.

ZIERLER: Was that actually preferred for you and the other women students? In other words, maybe that was attention that was not so welcome at that point in your life.

NELSON: Yeah, I think so. We just wanted to get on to being normal. We're starting something new here. We just happen to be the first just because of the chance of that year. Nobody was trying to make any kind of statements or rah-rah or anything. We just kind of wanted to be one of the Techers—and we were. We did but just they looked at us a lot.

ZIERLER: Marion, what aspects just living on campus felt very rushed in terms of accommodating women who had never been there before?

NELSON: Well, in the place where I was housed at first, Blacker House, they had actually gone to a lot of trouble. They had remodeled all the rooms that the girls were in. We had this one hallway of girls because that's how they did it at first because they wanted to [laugh] protect us. Anyway, they had a hallway of rooms, and the rooms were very nice. They were all new and painted, new furniture in them, and they had some pink here and there, and we had our nice bathroom and shower. There was nothing coed about it, but it was within a house where all the other hallways were men. In Ricketts and Dabney I don't think they had done as much upgrading. I can't think of any other accommodations where anything was lacking. I don't remember anything because they seemed to have everything in place in the main campus because, obviously, there were women professors, women grad students.

ZIERLER: Marion, what course of study did you want to pursue? What were you most interested in even as a freshman?

NELSON: I was pretty wide open, because I knew you had to take everything—meaning physics, chemistry, math—so I didn't feel like I needed to decide, and I didn't right away. I came in thinking I'm good at all these things [laugh], and then, of course, Caltech has a different bar. [laugh] One story I'll tell is that when I started in chemistry, chemistry 1, and you buy this big book by Harry Gray—and I forget the other two authors—and it's like wow. I looked at it, and I go, yeah, I took this when I was a sophomore in high school [laugh], so I'm going to have to review some stuff. I'm looking at the book and going, yeah, it's way more advanced. Well, it'll come back to me when we go over it from the beginning . We get to the first lecture, and whoever it is—probably Harry Gray—says, "OK, we're going to assume you know everything in the first seven chapters." Here we are in chapter 8 in molecular orbital theory or something like that, and my eyes just went like that and, like, oh, man, I'm in trouble. [laugh] I didn't rule anything out, but I just gravitated toward math, and I ended up with a math degree. I think by the time I was at the end of my freshman year, I'd made that commitment.

ZIERLER: Marion, was there intelligence among the women or even to some of the upper classmen which faculty were known to be encouraging of the women, really supportive of this decision? Of course, the flip side of this is which faculty maybe not so much?

NELSON: I think there were only probably just very personal incidents that may have been taken place, but there was no grand sense of a scorecard, or [laugh] it didn't sort out that way to me. Most faculty impressed me positively. I only had one negative experience—and I'm not sure that that was because I was a girl—with a professor. I don't think it was because of that. I don't know. But I was personally so impressed by Dean Wood—I can't remember but his first name might be Robert. You might know. He was old when we were there. [laugh] We thought he was old. But he went out of his way to tutor my roommate when she was failing physics. He's the dean of the campus, and he said, "Come in to my office at 8 o'clock each morning and I'll help you." He really went beyond what could've ever been expected to help her succeed, and he really made a difference.

ZIERLER: Marion, what about for you? Which faculty were really supportive that you developed a really close relationship with?

NELSON: Well, my advisor in the math department was really a lovely man—Marshall Hall. By the time I got to where I was starting to apply to grad schools, and taking his classes, I felt that he was very kind and helpful to me. But, other than that, the classes were pretty big. I just said they were small. But in the sense of you go to a class for 10 weeks, you don't necessarily get to know the professor all that well, unless you're going to do research with him or something, which, I confess, I did not do. I did not take advantage of the research opportunities because every summer, I wanted to go home, and be with my friends and my family. J. Kent Clark was another professor who was extremely supportive; I took several classes from him. He was delightful.

ZIERLER: Marion, in class, did you ever feel additional pressure not to make a mistake because you'd be second-guessed as a woman?

NELSON: I'm afraid I already had that problem before [laugh] I came to Caltech. It had nothing to do with being a girl.. It's just I always did that, even in high school. If I wasn't sure I was right, I didn't volunteer it, so I hardly ever volunteered. It's really not a good thing. But I think it compounded at Caltech, on top of what I already had as sort of an insecurity thing where I thought I had to be right.

ZIERLER: Marion, socially, did the 30 women form a friend group? Were you more friendly with women just by virtue of how small the numbers were, or was it more mixed than that?

NELSON: I'd say it was way more mixed than that because you tend to form friendships with people who live near you or in your classes, or you have common ground. Debbie and I were a team. We just kind of traveled always in a team. Then whichever house we were in, we'd get involved; with people that are your neighbors maybe more. But if somebody's not in my house and not in my classes, just because she's a girl doesn't mean I know her. But I certainly knew her name.

ZIERLER: When we say the '60s, of course, that bleeds into the early '70s in terms of the politics and the culture. Were you politically active at all? Were there things about the '60s that felt their presence on campus when you were there?

NELSON: I was not personally politically active. All I remember is watching the Watergate stuff in 1972. It was always on the TV. Was it '72? I think it was '72.

ZIERLER: Well, it's a long process. It ends in '74.

NELSON: '72–'73, yeah, well, whenever there were the hearings.. But I remember that was a topic that was just such a head-scratcher for everybody. Like, what is going on? But myself, no, not active. Again, I was pretty young, so I was a little bit behind everybody else in terms of caring about that kind of stuff [laugh] perhaps; a sheltered life; not really dealing with that yet.

ZIERLER: When it was time for graduate school, what were you thinking? What options were available? What did you want to do?

NELSON: Well, I hadn't thought about what I was actually going to do as a career, which was not a smart thing. I look back, and realize that was not a smart thing. I just figured I'm in school. I'll just keep going to school. That's what I do; I go to school. I applied to three grad schools, got into all of them, and one was Stanford, again, and one was UCLA, and one was USC, because I was going to stay in California. Then, by that time, I was dating my husband (Norm Nelson, BS 1976) whom you just saw, and we've been married for 47 years. [laugh] So I didn't want to go up to Stanford. Even though it would've been a super smart thing to do, career-wise or future-wise, I didn't want to go there. I picked USC because it was closer [laugh] than UCLA. I hate to admit that but it's true. We were going to get married, and I wanted to have a place I could go that was not going to be a horrible commute every day, and so I chose USC. I'm sorry, USC, I don't mean to put you down but that's the reason. [laugh] I started in the PhD program, and it was not too hard. But, as a grad student, most of the time, you end up teaching a section of a course, at least, one per quarter or semester. When I started doing it, I just really liked it. I really was enjoying it, and I found I could really connect with these kids. Again, I would say back then, USC was probably a little less selective than it is now. [unrelated conversation] There were a lot of kids in there, including athletes, that had a lot of trouble with math, and so I really enjoyed trying to make it something they could understand by being their teacher. By the time the first year had ended, I was like I think I'd like to be a teacher. I'm in the PhD program. I go, yeah, but I kind of want to really just teach. After about, I guess, at the end of the first year, I realize I'm just going to change directions here, and I'm going to get the master's, and I'm going to also concurrently work on a teaching credential because that's really all I need to teach. I thought maybe I'll teach in junior college. Maybe I'll teach in high school. I don't know. But I wasn't into the research, especially math. If you're going to do research, probably math—sorry. [laugh] I love math. I always thought it was great. But I didn't see myself doing math research. That's why I say I should've thought about it. I don't regret it, but I can see it possibly going a different way if I had thought more about career along the way. Anyway, it took me one more year to get the master's and the credential. Coincidentally, my husband was graduating that year from Caltech. We're the same age but because I was ahead of him—I started college early, so we're the same age, and so he finished two years after me. Then he wanted to go to grad school, and I was ready to be a teacher, and so that's what we did. We came down here (San Diego), and never wanted to leave. [laugh]

ZIERLER: Marion, going back to Caltech, when you were thinking about your next steps, I'm sure you've heard this subsequently, but the idea in real time that you may or may not have heard that I'm asking about is some of the resistance, this very backward-looking resistance to admitting women has nothing to do about the innate equality of women to succeed in these subjects, but it was more of a sociological assumption that why would we waste this resource on women, only for them to become mothers, and drop out of the workforce? Were you aware of that as an undergraduate? Was there a motivating factor to go on to graduate school to prove them wrong, or even to say so what if I drop out of the workforce? I can do that. That's my right. Were you thinking about those sort of larger questions in real time when you were an undergraduate?

NELSON: Probably not as an undergraduate. But the more that I switched and changed things up as a graduate student, and after that, I definitely thought about it. Having the mom that I did, I just assumed, of course, I'm going to be a working mom or woman. That was my model and, of course, I was going to do the same thing. It made me feel kind of bad when I backed off a little bit—well, if you call that backing off—changed my direction a little bit. I didn't go for the PhD thing. I hear what you're asking, but I think really what impacted me most was when I decided not to work. Then I really felt it. I felt like, oh, I'm proving them right that they shouldn't have let me in Caltech because, look, I'm the one that didn't set the world on fire academically or career-wise. I chose a different path, and I chose it with a lot of thinking, because I could've gone back to school if I really thought that was the key to everything. But the more that I did it, and the more that I—you have young kids—the more that I learned who I was going to be in a family setting, it just kind of threw me, like maybe I'm not going to work. Maybe I'm just going to do this. But I definitely have always been just a little bit ashamed that's what I did. Like, I'm sorry, Caltech. I'm sorry I didn't become one of those people that you can brag about, or something. But I also said, well, what about me? I have my life. My life is my life, and so if I choose to stay home and raise children, I should be OK with that. But there is a little bit of an internal struggle, or there was; not anymore but at the time.

ZIERLER: I'll just note editorially, though, it's rather unfair. For many male alum of Caltech who have pursued a similar career trajectory as you, I bet very few, if any, of them have ever felt that they needed to ask themselves that question.

NELSON: Yeah, you're right. It is different, and I definitely saw it coming after a while. What happened was when I was teaching—and I was a good teacher, and also I sent a couple students to Caltech. I was a good teacher, I was an invested teacher, and I think I was a smart teacher. I forgot what I was going to say. [laugh] Oh, I know. When my first child was born, I had been there about four years, and I go, oh, this is cool. Great. Put him in day care. That's fine. We'll do that. Then I had a second child and, OK, good, two kids in day care. This is great. Then it just started wearing on me like, wait a minute. Because I was a teacher, they would have special things. Do you want to be this? Do you want to be this mentor? Do you want to go to this conference? I'm like, "No [laugh], I just want to go home." Then on the flip side, I'd leave my kids; I'd take my kids to drop them off, and I'd go, "What am I doing? I'm missing out. I'm not doing right by them either." I was in this middle ground where I wasn't being the best teacher, and I didn't think I was being the best mother either, so I had to pick one. [laugh] Well, I didn't really. I didn't have to pick one. But the one I picked ruled out the other, so that's what happened for me.

ZIERLER: Marion, in your teaching career, where is the Caltech DNA, in other words, the things that you learned at Caltech, and the approach that it took to math and science that you have been able to pass on to your students over the years?

NELSON: Well, just I think enthusiasm is part of it; that appreciation of the beauty of it, and the orderliness, and the fun of it; that it's sort of fun. Physics is really fun when you're at high school. You get to do all these cool experiments. It can be fun, and so I think I portrayed that. I also portrayed just the possibility that it can be understood. "It's not out of your reach. I'll help you. Look at it this way. Look at it that way. I'm here for you. I made it through a pretty tough program. You could too. You'll be OK." But mostly the enthusiasm part. I'd like to think that, especially, as I was very young, obviously, I was one of the more vibrant, fun teachers going on. I hadn't been doing it forever. Some of the people in my department had been there forever, the science department, oh, my gosh. [laugh] But I was young and excited about it, so I think that's probably it.

ZIERLER: Marion, in what ways have you remained connected to Caltech over the years?

NELSON: There's a handful of people that I went to school with that I have continued to associate with or see when I can—a very small number but a few. Sometimes, I go back for the reunion weekends when they have those. Like, every five years or so, I go back. I read about it. I'm interested in that. We, as a couple, both graduated from there. But being far away from Pasadena, fairly far away, it's not something I can really stay physically connected with. I think it's super exciting when I'm on campus. I can't believe it. I walk around, and just wow, and I love it, and I can't even find my way because the streets are gone and the buildings are new. But it's a place that I think of and, when I am there, I'm extremely fond of in my mind. I have nothing but good thoughts about it, and remembrances.

ZIERLER: Marion, today, of course, the ratio among the undergraduate student body is nearly fifty-fifty. Have you kept track at all, at least informally, of how it has grown from that first class of 30-some odd women to where it is today?

NELSON: For the first few years, I kind of just did the math the four years I was there. Then, I would read articles in the magazine, and see that, obviously, from even the content of the magazine, and then the articles, that it was heading in that direction. But I don't really have a sense for when it became fifty-fifty. I think it might be similar to things like medical schools and other professional schools, which also started very small in certain areas, and they're dominated now even sometimes by women—more women than men. I didn't really follow it, but I'm aware that it's there now.

ZIERLER: Over the decades, either in your capacity as a parent or in working with students, what do you think has changed, and what remains the same, when you look back at your own undergraduate experience, for women?

NELSON: For women? Well, I have the shared experience with my daughter. I have three sons and one daughter. My daughter, who is aged 40, went through the UC system as an undergraduate, and I perceived that she was absolutely, completely integrated immediately into everything. Of course, UC wasn't Caltech, but she had absolutely no barriers in her way. She did not have any discomfort about the social situation that she was in. She had every opportunity. She went on to grad school in Indiana—Indiana University—and then to a PhD in cognitive science today. She lives in San Diego, and she's the only one of my four children who gave me grandchildren so far. She has three.

ZIERLER: She's local. How great is that?

NELSON: She's local, yeah, so there you go. She's more than happy to have the support. [laugh]

ZIERLER: Did you form a bubble during the dark days of COVID? Were you able to see the kids?

NELSON: Yes, we absolutely did. We were a bubble, for sure. I guess I didn't really answer your question. But I'm trying to think of what other input sources I would have. Even in my high school teaching, the girls were the ones really that were usually the better students [laugh], if I can stereotype a little bit. Even in my science classes, the girls were doing great—and math. I really didn't have any personal experience with something like I had at Caltech.

ZIERLER: Marion, looking back, what are you most proud of in terms of your initial decision to go to Caltech, going through the program, and what it did for you as a result?

NELSON: I am proud that I got through a very, very academically demanding program. I'm proud that I was able to grow up into a healthy adult from age 16 to age 20 by the time I got out of there. I'm proud that I'm in that group, even though I'm not the one that everybody would point to and say, "Look." But I was in that group, and I really have enjoyed a few special events Caltech has had for us to reunite as women in that first class. That was really, really fun and rewarding. I've used that in a theater bio. "I was one of the first women admitted to Caltech." [laugh] It's a thing. It's really good. It doesn't even matter really what happened afterward. Just to be in that group is really special, and so let's say that.

ZIERLER: Marion, last question to tie it all together. From past to present, in light of the fact that as an undergraduate, Caltech didn't make a big deal of it, and that was sort of welcomed, that was the right move as far as the women themselves were concerned, to the fact that in subsequent years, there have been recognition of just what an important event that is, what's the big takeaway in historical perspective, in your view?

NELSON: Well, looking back, it just seems so obvious. [laugh] It's hard to put my mind back there, like, why did the boys in '68 and '69 have to push so hard? What was the deal? You've brought up a couple of those points. But I think it was great that it happened when it did. It was a little later than some. But it was more likely, I think, to succeed here than almost anywhere because of the nature of the campus. It's such a community, and it was so easy to become part of that community. I think they did the right thing, and they took good care of us. I still wonder why only 30. I scratch my head about that a little bit. Why 30? Why not 50 or 100? I just always thought that was kind of a small number. Were there really only that many qualified?

ZIERLER: Just the takeaway of the fact that it wasn't really commemorated while it was happening—

NELSON: That commemoration thing, yeah, OK.

ZIERLER: —but in more recent years, that has been recognized. What can we learn from that fact?

NELSON: I think the difference might be that they were a little bit worried about is this going to work, and what's going to go wrong? Whereas, very quickly, it became obvious that nothing was going to go wrong. Every woman was going to be fine. They chose some great women. It turned out to be something they didn't need to worry about, so now let's celebrate it. It's still historic. It's true the world that existed then was one where women were in a different place, though in my upbringing, I didn't have that view so much. It was time, but the fanfare wasn't necessary. I think it would've made us feel even more uncomfortable because, literally, you could walk down the hall or the Olive Walk or somewhere, and people would point at you. "Ooh, there's one." You'd see it, and that's really odd.


NELSON: It's really weird.

ZIERLER: School's not hard enough on top of everything else?

NELSON: Yeah, exactly, and pointing us out more would've been one of those unwelcome attentions, I think. Whereas afterward, you feel proud and you feel happy that it all worked out, and you had a good experience.

ZIERLER: Marion, on that note, this has been a wonderful conversation. I want to thank you so much for spending this time with me.

NELSON: You're welcome.