Updated at 1:35 p.m. ET on August 6, 2021
Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with Kappa Delta sorority sisters who attended the University of Virginia in the ’70 and ’80s. They’ve stayed close over the 40 years since graduation by hosting regular dinner parties—and they recently turned some of their favorite recipes into a cookbook. They discuss how the fun of ’70s Greek life morphed into a lifelong support network, and how they make time for play and friendship.
Susan Goewey, 62, a freelance writer who lives in Vienna, Virginia
Vicki Healy, 62, a retired nurse who lives in Vienna, Virginia
Melinda Malico, 64, a retired communications officer who lives in Potomac Falls, Virginia
Pat Silverman, 63, a retired development officer who lives in Arlington, Virginia
Mary Ellen Slattery, 62, a construction project manager for the Smithsonian who lives in Annandale, Virginia
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: What made you all want to join a sorority?
Melinda Malico: Obviously, it was for friendship. Nowadays … there were 400 people in my daughter’s sorority; it’s insane. We had a small group, so you could really make friends.
Pat Silverman: UVA started to go fully coed in ’70. We started Kappa Delta and got our house in 1978. We worked very hard to get that sorority off the ground, and it made us much closer.
Vicki Healy: We didn’t really start the sorority, we recolonized it. Some nurses and teachers started it in the ’30s, [then it went away]. At the beginning, we all were in the same boat, trying to live in a house that didn’t have bathroom doors or enough refrigerator space.
Mary Ellen Slattery: University of Virginia was a very large school, and they only had housing for you your first year. After that, you were on your own, and you could feel really, really isolated. Finding a group to belong to was a tether.
Susan Goewey: We had this big friend group and felt like we belonged. We all dreamt, We’ll grow old together. We’ll be old ladies together. And we did.
Beck: What was the social vibe like at the sorority? How Animal House was the ’70s Greek-life experience?
Vicki: We broke a few rules. We weren’t supposed to have alcohol in the house without a permit. But University of Virginia was—and is still—a huge party place. We went to a lot of parties across the street at the fraternity houses.
One time our house manager got stuck in a snowstorm coming back after winter break. Stupidly, she called and said, “I won’t be home.” We ended up having an impromptu party.
Beck: Of course you did.
Vicki: I think a few things got broken.
Melinda: We also had “Derby Days,” which were for charity. There were all kinds of crazy games, and foam and stuff like that. Athletes and guys would come.
Mary Ellen: I do think it’s important to know, the drinking age was 18 when we went to college.
Beck: After college, you stayed in touch with regular dinners—how did those get started?
Pat: Two women were instrumental in getting the first dinner together in ’82. They had an apartment in Washington, D.C. They seemed so sophisticated. In 1983, I moved back [to the area from Boston], and I hosted a dinner because I wanted to reconnect. Then we started rotating houses.
Melinda: If we were trying to get together a KD dinner, we had a phone chain of people to call. I can’t even remember how that worked. How did we tell everybody? It would be more of a potluck, too, because people just brought whatever. Now, with email, you can make sure you have salads, hors d’oeuvres, wine, and all that. Back then, sometimes it was all wine.
Vicki: Most of us got married at the end of our 20s or 30s and then we were having babies. In our 40s and 50s, enough of our kids were launched, and we could start getting away together for longer periods of time. That’s when I started inviting people out to our place in Colorado. I wrote everyone a note and said, “This is what you need to ask for for Christmas: an airplane ticket to Steamboat Springs. Come spend a week out here.” People around the country [came]. But the core group was always in Northern Virginia.
Susan: There were periods of time when life got in the way, but we still had the dinner. Sometimes you’d go and there’d be five people; sometimes there would be 15. If somebody was coming in from out of town for a visit, that would spark a KD dinner.
Vicki: We have a Christmas extravaganza every year. Everyone brings an ornament. We do a swap. There is a lot of pressure to bring the perfect ornament to this Christmas party every year.
Pat: We shop year-round.
Susan: I read somewhere that the opposite of play is not work; it is depression. At the Christmas party, we play. We wrap these ornaments; we shop for them all year; we get highly competitive about who found the best ornaments, and the funniest.
If you are familiar with the five love languages, our KD dinners meet all five. Acts of service: making food to share and hosting our friends. Quality time: being together. Touch: hugs and kisses. Gifts: That’s the ornament exchange. And then words of affirmation: That’s the listening, caring, sharing, and supporting each other.
Mary Ellen: There was a period of time when we were all griping about our husbands. So we started a thing where we all had to go around and say something nice about them.
Beck: During the pandemic, you made a cookbook—can you tell me how that came together?
Melinda: I have recently retired, and I was looking for things to do. I like to make things, and for many years people were always asking, “Can I have that recipe?” So I just decided, why not do an actual physical cookbook?
The best recipe in there is by [our sister] Anita. She’s from out of town, and her recipe is champagne: Bring the bottle and pour. That’s what out-of-towners bring. Just show up with a bottle of wine and you’ll be fine.
Mary Ellen’s Nantucket Cranberry Pie Recipe, from the KD Cookbook
- 2 cups chopped cranberries
- ½ cup chopped walnuts
- 2 large eggs
- ¾ cup butter
- ¼ teaspoon almond extract
- 1 ½ cup sugar
- 1 cup flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Chop cranberries and walnuts.
- Put the chopped cranberries and walnuts and 1/2 cup sugar in a buttered 10” pie plate.
- Mix 2 large eggs, 3/4 cup melted and cooled butter, 1 cup sugar, 1 cup flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon almond extract. Stir the batter until it is smooth and pour it over the cranberry-walnut mixture.
- Bake in middle of oven for 40 minutes.
Beck: How have your life milestones over the years intersected with your friendship?
Mary Ellen: Sue lost her mom very young, and we’re all now experiencing parental loss. Our sorority’s flower is a white rose. So when somebody experiences a tragedy, someone says, “I’m sending the white roses.” When my father died, white roses arrived. Every time the grief would overwhelm you, just looking at the white roses was like a hug from your sisters.
Susan: It’s also the actual physical help when we need it. When my daughter had an operation, I just was overwhelmed. Vicki set up [a system], and all of a sudden it was like, “Cindy’s bringing meals this night; Pat is going to bring it the other night.” Three of my KD friends have lent me their teenagers as babysitters for my son.
Melinda: One sorority sister’s husband died very unexpectedly. We all banded together to help her. I befriended her kids and went to all her son’s basketball games. I provided her with a cleaning woman for a year.
Vicki: I remember walking into that funeral, and the whole first row must have been 12 or 14 KDs. It’s not all about the happy, happy, joy, joy, because not everyone’s life is totally happy. We try to be there for the good and rejoice in that and be there in the bad and support when that happens.
Susan: Laura’s husband died right at the same time my brother was dying. We had a Christmas KD dinner planned, but neither Laura nor I had planned to go to it, obviously. Then we found out that they postponed it because of us until a happier time. Even now, I’m teary-eyed that they did that.
Melinda: I had my only child at 41, and I couldn’t breastfeed. My daughter would not latch, so [another KD sister] drove to my house and taught me how.
Pat: I called Vicki two or three days after I got home with one of my children, like, “Vicki, can you walk me through?” Because she already had two and she was a nurse.
Melinda: We all call Vicki with our nursing issues.
Beck: Sometimes with college friends, you see each other every once in a while and you update each other about your separate lives, rather than continuing to make new memories and be in each other’s lives deeply. How has this group managed to avoid that?
Vicki: You’re right, we’re not just rehashing old stories. Your life’s going to get stale with those people unless you make new memories. Almost every year we come out [to Colorado], and we make new memories every time.
Mary Ellen: I think we learned early on that we have women of wisdom in our group. Our reliance on them and willingness to ask for help when we needed it helped us to be not just “catch up on each other’s life”–type of friends but the real-life relationships you rely upon.
Susan: It’s so important to model for our children that Mom has friends, Mom has a life that has nothing to do with them. These are our selves before they were born, before we were married. We’ve been friends for so long. It’s impossible to think of that with anything but wonder and amazement.
Beck: How has your friendship changed from your sorority days, and how have you stayed the same?
Susan: We’ve grown up together.
Vicki: I think we were all naive and maybe a little unrealistic in college. Like Sue said, we grew up, and we learned that life isn’t always easy and that we can rely on true friends to help us through the hard parts. We’re all better people than we were when we were jumping off the mantel at Sigma Phi Epsilon. It’s been a great journey.
If you or someone you know should be featured in “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at email@example.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.
This article originally spelled Vicki Healy’s last name incorrectly, and misattributed two of Mary Ellen Slattery’s quotes to Vicki Healy.