May 2015, Smithie of the Month – Barbara Pilvin


Name: Barbara Pilvin

Class Year:1973

How long have you lived in Philadelphia?

I’ve been here since Sunday, October 10, 1982…drove up into a huge traffic jam and learned the next day that it was caused by Super Sunday, with lots of local organizations having their booths with goodies to eat and information and other stuff that I’ve forgotten or mercifully blocked out.

What’s your favorite restaurant in the city?

As for my favorite restaurant, I have several: the City Tavern (at 2nd and Walnut), Charles Plaza (at 10th and Vine), two Vietnamese places run by the same family (Vietnam Café at 47th  and Baltimore Ave. and Vietnam Restaurant in Chinatown, around 11th), and a very informal Vietnamese place near me called Pho and Café Saigon.  Do I like Asian cuisine or what?!

What are you up to now?

I’ve been a reference librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia since August 4, 1986. Most of my work (and fun!) at and outside FLP involves history, genealogy and consumer-health information and advocacy. I also write, travel,  am devoted human to three spoiled cats, love to walk everywhere I can, sing in the University of PA Choral Society since January 1983 (yes, 1983!), and am as active as my time permits in a variety of organizations…including the Smith Club!

What house did you live in on campus and what was your favorite thing about it?

I was in Dawes House—the real one, which the College foolishly razed to erect the Friedman Apartments. What I loved about Dawes were several things: it looked like a real home, albeit a larger one than I’d ever lived in; its exterior was a warm lemon yellow that was very inviting, and I loved the large front porch; it was on the small side, so there were no more than 30 of us living there. We spoke French much of the time…and let’s face it, first and foremost, it was my home for four years, even though I spent my magical junior year in France!

Why did you choose Smith?

I chose Smith for the simplest reason imaginable: of the four colleges I applied to—in 1969 computers were primitive and we could only apply to four; if none of them accepted us, we could go for a fifth afterwards—Smith was the only one that accepted me outright.  Two wait-listed me and one rejected me, but by that April I had decided Smith was my first choice anyway.  No idea what I’d have done if Radcliffe (i.e. Harvard) had accepted me or Bryn Mawr or Brandeis hadn’t wait-listed me…probably gone to Harvard and been miserable at such a big place!  I loved the idea that Smith had a teaching faculty, not one that focused on publishing or perishing, and that I’d be able to spend a year studying abroad (once I’d been at Smith for a little while I knew I wanted to go either to Paris as a French major or Geneva as a history major; I ended up majoring in both, but just taking comps in French because my mother died senior year and I had enough going on then with one official major); I also loved the uniformly high caliber of the course offerings and the faculty’s credentials (and the way Smith students I met spoke of them), since when I started I had no idea what I’d major in although I did want a humanities major.  The fact that it was a women’s college had literally nothing to do with my decision to apply there, but the fact that everyone I met there was so warm and welcoming when my family and I went on the typical college tour of New England (and elsewhere) in my junior year of high school was a huge factor, as was the beauty of the campus…which to this day I consider home.

What is your favorite Smith tradition and why?

Where do I begin?  Let’s start with Friday afternoon  tea, a time when the temptations of tea and baked goods compelled me to put down the books for a little while and just relax with friends and housemates.

Who was your favorite professor/what was your best class?

I had several favorites, and I wish they were all still alive to hear me say so.  One was Patricia Weed (Trish to friends), whose boundless energy, humor and common sense helped me get  through some rough times and inspired me to put a lot of my own energy into studying French.  Another favorite was her friend and fellow French Department professor, Josephine (Jo) Ott, who’s still going strong or was the last time I saw her at Smith two years ago, just before her 88th birthday; she was our advisor in France, and in my senior year I took her translation course…lots of work, very hard (translating is not easy!!) and loads of fun.  A third was Nelly Hoyt. I took her seminar on the French Revolution and remember it to this day. Smith has many remarkable faculty members, always has and always will!

Do you have a defining/favorite/most memorable/transformative Smith moment?

My year in France.  That year opened my mind to the fact that the world outside my own country was in no way inferior to it; every country is home to many people, and the vast majority of them will go to great lengths to improve it in those areas that they believe need improvement, rather than leave it forever.  As kids we were taught to worship America, and it was a bit of a surprise to me to actually understand that most people have much the same view of their home countries!!

What makes a Smithie unique?

Are we?  I like to think that most young women, and even some young men, are bright enough, strong enough and bold enough to be Smith material!

How did your Smith experience shape your life?

By opening my mind to the rest of the world; see above.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s