Phyllis Bergquist Billington '49 Recalls Her Fulbright Days
Our conversation with Phyllis began when she called our office recently, after reading about Northwestern having the second-highest number of Fulbright scholars in the country this year. She asked if perhaps she was the first Northwestern Fulbright scholar, having won her award in 1950. Our trusty archivist, Kevin Leonard, reported that Phyllis was actually in the second "class" of Northwestern Fulbright scholars, but records show that she and Helen Wachs were the first female recipients of the award. Leonard also told us that Phyllis, was a philosophy major, Phi Beta Kappa, and a campus beauty queen. Not wanting to miss out on a good story, we asked her to write her own account about the Fulbright experience, in the days when crossing the Atlantic was still by ship and Europe was busy rebuilding after the devastation of the Second World War. Here is the letter she sent in reply.
This is getting to be a project! I will list events as best I can but it has been and still is a long, wonderful, eventful life and trying to condense it makes it seem even more so!
Following graduation in 1949, I went to New York to support myself and my music as a photographic model for John Robert Powers, the original modeling agency. I became a national cover girl but never took it seriously—I had begun to read Kierkegaard (!).
I was a Fulbright Scholar to Belgium in the second year of the program, 1950-51, to the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. I also studied the harpsichord and had permission to practice on an antique Rückers instrument in the Conservatory museum. My teacher was a concert performer trained by Wanda Landowska, the leading virtuoso. I was in the piano Cours Supérieure for the year, taught by a Spanish expatriate, Edouardo del Pueyo, who was a great friend of my New York teacher, Dora Zaslavsky of the Manhattan School. By coincidence, Marcel Maas, formerly teacher of the "Conservatoire," had just been hired by Northwestern for our School of Music.
There were twenty or so students and two or three faculty in our group, but most important was David Billington, Princeton '50, who came to study post-war reconstruction, fell in love with me on the boat—which I ignored—but our friendship grew on weekends. I settled into a nice apartment in town, rented a piano, and a month later was told I was living in a house of ill repute—with mistresses of Brussels businessmen! It took a lot of desperate talking to get rid of the rental contract! I was rescued by two elderly ladies I promptly named "the Countesses," who took in young ladies for company and conversation as well as for finances. One lady, Hedi Kuranda, had caught the last plane out of Vienna before the Nazis arrived. She owned a marvelous family art collection—some of it hanging in the house. Meals in three languages were common. David, meanwhile, was learning Flemish and about pre-stressed concrete from Gustav Magnel, one of the two pioneers in the new field. (I learned how it works in between practicing.) His Fulbright was renewed for a second year, 1951-52, as Magnel invited him to work with him in Ghent. He spoke Flemish with the lab workers.
After marrying in Chicago in summer 1951, we took up housekeeping in Ghent in a carriage house with no heat but tantalizing radiators. For heat—and cooking—we had a coal and wood stove in the kitchen and a "feu continue" (Franklin stove) upstairs in the parlor. I used the bell on my metronome to remind myself to add coal to the stove while practicing! No heat in the bedroom, only mosquitos in summer! I learned to cook very fast—and went "winkel" (store) shopping daily. We also had a two-plate gas burner, cold running water, indoor plumbing but no bath tub—bowl and pitcher method—and no refrigerator, of course. I had a French/Flemish cookbook and was a fast learner—I had never cooked! One memorable dinner occurred when we invited Professor Magnel and his wife to dinner. I was roasting a beautiful piece of beef when the oven door fell off!! Desperate, I hunted for help and found my leather music brief case was just the right size to fit the space! The Magnels loved the dinner, the roast beef was wonderful. How do you do it, Mme. Magnel asked…. Our wonderful landlady's son-in-law, the Baron, delivered our mail. I had piano lessons with Marcel Gazelle, pianist for Yehudi Menuhin.
We returned to the States in the summer, settled in suburban New Jersey, and David began a job in New York City, planning a career in civil engineering. He was the youngest member of an American group invited by the Russians to observe construction in Moscow in the mid '50s. I became a housewife, raising a family in Glen Ridge, trying to keep up practicing! David began teaching part time at Princeton and had a book germinating in his head, and after two years and a second offer, we made the change to academia in 1960 and came to Princeton, N.J.
We had four children by 1960 and added two more in the '60s, six in all and now eleven grandchildren! Three came to Northwestern, two to Princeton, and one is an independent scholar with a Ph.D. in history and two published books, working on a third. Our oldest grandchild, Zoe, is at Princeton; her parents are both Northwestern grads (Stephen Billington, B.A. and M.A. in Music '87 and Miriam Kouzel Billington, Speech B.A. '88). Jane is Education '79 and Phillip is '87.
Since our Fulbright years, I have taught piano privately to about 200 children and adults; co-founded the University League Piano group; was a performing member of the Music Club of Princeton; studied piano again, with Karl Ulrich Schnabel; gave three public recitals at Princeton; and designed "Illustrated Performances," a Princeton Adult School course on classical composers. David is still teaching, 50 years, all at Princeton. His courses have been taken by an estimated quarter of the alumni since 1974. We have traveled extensively in Western Europe, South Africa, and Japan.
Sixty amazing years after our Fulbrights! Our lives would have been so different if we had never met. Life without David is unimaginable. And when friends asked me, "Why did you major in philosophy?" I answered, "I never could have gotten through life without it." Philosophy taught me to analyze, to see what was important, to keep my mind open but not be afraid of convictions.
Writing this has renewed many long ago memories. It is lovely to renew a tie to Northwestern. Thank you for asking me.
Phyllis Billington '49Back to top