The Trees Inclined

Bent Twigs are an ingrained Mills tradition. We examine the origins and take a look at some unique Mills family situations.

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By Lila Goehring ’21

The eighty-three students who constitute the Bent Twig group this year are a declaration of the confidence placed in Mills by grandmothers, mothers, aunts, cousins, and sisters who in their generations have blazed the campus trails for their Bent Twig descendants. –Mills Quarterly, fall 1943

Though Bent Twigs existed from the very beginnings of Mills College (known then as “alumnae grandchildren”), the tradition was officially recognized by the “Alumnae Office” in 1918 and named in 1924 by then-secretary Katherine Hayes ’23, in reference to branches on a family tree. In the spring 1925 issue of the Quarterly, Harriett Haskell ’27 wrote: 

Significant comparisons can be tapped from the new name. Bent Twigs do not spring from nowhere but are part of family trees which are rooted at Mills. The Twigs have heard of Mills before they come. They have shared to some extent the spirit and ideals of Mills which flow through the family trees of which they are a part. The Bent Twigs, as a natural growth, obey the natural laws of development. Strengthened by a background of Mills traditions, they are ready to blossom out when they arrive at college. 

The Bent Twigs carry Mills in their bodies just as they carry the lullabies of their great-grandmothers sung to the women before them, every song as strong as the chiming of the Campanil, which was always meant to meet their ears four times an hour, every day. They know a sense of belonging like no one else, and know above all what it means to come home.  

Fun Facts About Bent Twigs

The first photo of a graduating Bent Twig—with her Mills mother—was published in the fall 1977 issue of Mills Quarterly. After several intermittent years of coverage, the Quarterly began photographing new Bent Twig graduates with their Mills relatives after Commencement on an annual basis in 1984. We logged the 311 individual Bent Twigs1 and their 367 relatives who have appeared in our pages since then2 and crunched some numbers, which appear throughout this piece.

A Common Mind 

Like all Bent Twigs, Lauren Hawthorne Harris ’82 grew up with stories of the Mills campus and its magic told by her mother, Dolores Hawthorne Simpson ’58. Dolores is no longer with us, but Lauren spoke of her mother in only the most delicate, admiring way. 

In order for her mother to attend Mills, Harris’s grandmother—a single mother—scrubbed floors to afford her daughter’s tuition. “Whatever it took for her to be able to go and have that experience,” Harris said. “That’s the story I was raised with.” 

Coming from Cleveland, Ohio, Simpson and her best friend, the late Peggy Woodruff ’58, found Mills in a magazine about colleges and universities, and both made the decision to attend during their senior year of high school. The decision wasn’t an easy one—attending a college across the country meant extra expenses and traveling. With the option to attend many other schools, why Mills? 

“That was a question that I did some soul searching on, because it didn’t really click for me why she chose Mills,” Harris said, adding that someone first asked her 10 years ago. “I had never asked myself that question before.” So she went back to Mills for the first time in many years to seek answers. 

During her visit, Harris attended Reunion and reconnected with her own classmates, remembering and strengthening the bonds from her time at Mills. She met up with former members of the Black Women’s Collective, a group that remained so strong that some raised children together. (Simpson was likely the second Black student to graduate from Mills, making Harris the probable first Black Bent Twig.) The group recently held an ad hoc reunion. 

On the trip, Harris came to a conclusion: “Mills offered the best opportunity for [my mother] to become an educator. It had one of the best education departments in the country and a reputation as one of the best schools to train teachers for urban communities.” 

Still, it was the friendships that they both treasured the most. When Harris attended Mills in the ’80s, she met some of her mother’s friends from her college years. “There was a group of about four or five women who just gave her love. They were like sisters,” she said. Years later, these friends planned a memorial for Simpson when doing so herself was too much for Harris to bear. 

After Mills, Simpson returned to Cleveland and became a beloved, veteran teacher. “If [the kids] came to school hungry, she would feed them. We would go out shopping if they needed shoes,” her daughter said. “I remember going with her to visit parents in apartment buildings—she really loved her kids, and her kids loved her.” Some of Simpson’s students kept in touch with her all of her life. 

Harris is a middle-school teacher herself, which was not her original plan: She majored in computer science at Mills. But after dabbling in teaching, she finally made the decision to get her credential. “My mom is still in my blood,” she said. “I am following her footsteps, even though this is my second career choice.” Returning to school to become a teacher, she said, helped her understand who her mother was—why she herself made the same decision, and why she wanted to make the impact that she did on the next generation. 

Did attending Mills bring about a similar understanding? “It really explained to me where her heart was,” Harris said. Though she returned to Cleveland, Simpson always longed for California and hoped that her own daughter would attend Mills one day. “When I graduated, [my mother] came, and it was a star moment for her—me following in her footsteps,” Harris said.

Three Branches 

Susan Ito, MFA ’94, started her family’s Bent Twig tradition when she chose Mills in 1992 to pursue her MFA in creative writing. A practicing physical therapist at the time, she was determined to make the switch from “physical therapist who also writes” to, simply, writer. Her debate between Mills and San Francisco State ended the day she stepped foot onto campus and sat in on a writing workshop. “I knew this is where I wanted to be,” she recalled. What Susan didn’t know was that exactly 30 years later, her youngest daughter would be the third Mills graduate in the family, and herself a professor of English and ethnic studies at Mills with 26 classes on her CV. “So here we are, the three of us,” she concluded with pride. 

Together, every inch of the Mills campus—and the people on it—make up a web of memories, coincidences, and full circles for Susan and daughters Mollie Ito-Washington ’14 and Emma Roark ’22. As a graduate student, Ito became pregnant with Emma during her time as a teaching assistant for Professor Kathryn Reiss—who was also pregnant. Ito gave birth just a week after her graduation, and the two mothers formed a baby group. 

Still, the small world grows bigger. Both of Ito’s daughters attended the Children’s School, a decision first made out of “geographic convenience” when Ito was a graduate student— but the excellence of the education kept the family connected to Mills long after she finished her MFA program. That same philosophy—the close attention, the ratio of students and teachers, the holistic perspective—would be taught to Mollie during her time studying child development, with some of her former preschool teachers as professors. “Now they were teaching her the theory that she had experienced at the Children’s School,” Ito said. Emma, too, encountered former teachers who recognized her face from their memories of her as a baby, like Natalee Kēhaulani Bauer, whose own two children now attend the Children’s School. In the ethnic studies department, she is Ito’s supervisor. 

“I have pictures from when [Mollie and Emma] used to go trick-or-treating around the Oval and through the first and second floors of Mills Hall,” Ito recalled. “We would often have a snack or dinner at the Tea Shop after school.” Recently, Ito attended the Mills Pow Wow with a friend whose 6-year-old daughter enjoyed pushing Disco on Holmgren Meadow. The sight brought a wave of nostalgia as Susan remembered her daughters doing the same. “This was one of the most exciting things for them to do—to be able to feel you had the power to move this giant metal disk,” she said. “We just have so many decades of memories and generations of experience being on the campus.” 

In the years after she had graduated and before she joined the faculty, Ito’s connection to the campus remained strong. “One day we were going on a trip, and on the drive to the Oakland airport, I took the exit to Mills,” she remembered, laughing. “My husband said, ‘Where are you going?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, that’s where the car automatically goes!’” In those years, she would often come to campus to work in the library, the only place to trigger her focus in a Pavlovian way. “Mills was still a place for me. I hope they feel like that too,” she said of her daughters. 

The year after Mollie graduated, Ito took a position teaching the graduate workshop in the English Department—the “dream of dreams,” she called the job. Since then, she has more than accomplished her goal of becoming a writer and teaches widely loved classes like Mixed Race Narratives. 

Now with a granddaughter, the family will continue the Mills tradition. Whether or not she attends the Mills her mother and grandmother knew, Ito’s granddaughter will undoubtedly carry forward the memories and values that brought her into the world—and at the very least, know the same power of pushing the Disco. 

The Latin word destinatio translates to “purpose” or “design,” and is closely related to destiny. Both contain “predetermined” in their definitions, just as the Mills motto hints: One destination, many paths. I have often wondered which “destinatio” this refers to: the journey to Mills itself, which we all came to by different paths—or the larger, holier destination of what we will bring into the world as Mills alumnae, our ultimate impact, in all of the different ways that we can do such a thing. 

“I went on two tracks,” Harris explained of the questions that prompted her soul-searching journey a decade ago. “Why did my mom go to Mills, but also, what is Mills?” She went back to the basics, physically returning to Benicia to see the place where Mills began, and retracing and learning its history piece by piece—who Susan and Cyrus were, how Mills found a home in Oakland and harbored immigrants in the area, how it empowered women, how Susan Mills was like a mother trying to make a difference in the world. “At the time, it was just a phenomenal thing to say, ‘I am going to start a college that’s for women,’” Harris said. And she found her answer: “What Mills is is just a continuum of that purpose and goal—how Susan felt she needed to make an impact on this community, and that it has such a far-reaching impact on all of the women going out over 170 years.” It was the place that made Harris who she is today, just like her mother. 

Summer 2007

In 2007, the Quarterly published this page of Bent Twig photos—but no captions! If you are in one of these photos or know who is, email us at so we can update our records.

[UPDATE: Top row, left to right: Jamila Williams ’07 with sister Aisha-Lorraine Williams ’96; family friend Gloria Goyena, MA ’00, with Gema Ornelas ’07 and Ornelas’ mother Patty Oregal ’86.

Second row: Nhu Thuy Tran ’04 with sister Thom Tran ’07; Elizabeth Douglass Paine ’47 with great-niece
Katie Rogers, MFA ’07; Jana Rogers Pastena ’07 with mother Sari Herzig Millard ’88.

Third row: Elizabeth Clayton Wester ’07 and mother Karen Clayton, MFA ’94; two still unknown alums; Melissa Johnson Michael ’71 with daughter Lisa Aurora Calderon ’07.

Fourth row: Kathryn Peck McCarthy ’07 with mother Victoria Fawns, MFA ’75; two still unknown alums.]

Fall 1947

As the twig is bent so are twenty-nine daughters and granddaughters of Mills alumnae, who are now students at Mills. Pictured below are alumnae of a generation ago, while Bent Twig daughters and granddaughters, three of whom have mothers in the above pictures, are gathered in the group picture above. Below right is a snapshot of Rachel Evans Hester ’27, mother of Carol Ann Hester (in group picture). Carol Ann not only has a mother who attended Mills, but also her grandmother, Stella Bransford Evans ’02; her aunt, Ellen Evans Wyatt ’24; and her cousin, Stella Wyatt Inge ’47. The postcard group, below left, all belong to the class of 1922. Left to right, front row, are Ann Beckman Bugby, mother of Ann Bugby ’47; Gladys Rebok Marble, Martha Moore Thomas, mother of Jeanne (in group picture) and Ann ’47; and Mildred Jackson Balsdon. Left to right, back row are Esther Waite, aunt, and Wilma Waite Taves, mother, of Cynthia (in group picture), and Betsy ’46; and Geraldine Leek Von Geldern.

Bent Twigs are, bottom row, Joan Harrison, daughter, Gladys Halstead Harrison ’20; Lydia Ann Park, daughter Ann Ireland Parks ’20; Patricia Murphy, daughter, Frieda Kegel Murphy ’19; Mary Wetsel, daughter, Mary Cornelison Wetsel ’28; Sally Swearingen, daughter, Marion Salmon Swearingen ’26; Louise Merry Thompson, daughter, Frances Merry Thompson ’19; second row, Marjorie Craig Merrell, daughter, Ruth Craig Merrell ’15; Ann Ruble, daughter, Margaret Bush Ruble ’26; Jeanne Thomas, daughter, Martha Moore Thomas ’22; Elizabeth Elliot, daughter, Frances Miller Elliot ’24; June Barnum, daughter June Dubourdieu Barnum ’31; Bonnie Close, daughter, Barbara Ryder Close ’24; Carolyn Liston, daughter, Anita von Husen Liston ’26; Carol Ann Hester, daughter, Rachel Evans Hester ’27, granddaughter, Stella Bransford Evans ’02. Third row, Betsy and Peggy Ross, daughters of Ruth Collison Ross ’24; Constance Stone, daughter, Minerva Holzman Stone ’24; Margaret E. Hillard, daughter, Edith Beam Hillard ’15; Jean Ross, daughter, Helen Stewart Ross ’22; Mary Louise Vicars, daughter, Mary Louise Webster Vicars ’25; Winifred Williams, daughter, Christine Webster Williams ’25; Pat Campbell, granddaughter, Laura Preston Campbell ’86; Cynthia Taves, daughter, Wilma Waite Taves ’22. Top row, Loadel Harter, daughter, Norma Petro Harter ’21; Anne Johnson, daughter, Helen Fay Johnston ’24; Joan Howarth, granddaughter, Lillian Kittredge Howarth ’84; Marcia Lee Smith, daughter, Doris Lee Smith ’24; Bonnie Baker, daughter, Jessie Stinson Baker ’23; Sarah McKinstry, granddaughter, Annie Hedges McKinstry ’62; Caroline Rodgers, daughter, Esther Steinbeck Rodgers ’14.

Five Bent Twig daughters or granddaughters are not in the picture. They are Toni Menaglia, daughter, Catherine Schultze Menaglia ’10; Suzanne Armstrong, daughter, Lois Anderson Armstrong ’24; Marcy Rosenblatt, granddaughter, Amelia Marcus; Mary Mae Wild, daughter, Virginia Frear Wild ’24; and Evelyn McKinstry, granddaughter, Annie Livingston McKinstry ’58.

Fall 1943

The eighty-three students who constitute the Bent Twig group at Mills this year are a declaration of the confidence placed in Mills by grandmothers, mothers, aunts, cousins, and sisters who in their generations have blazed the campus trails for their Bent Twig descendants.

Some of the Twigs are many times bent, none more so than Frances Korbel, Margery Foote, and Laura Elizabeth Hallberg, all three from different towns in Sonoma County. Frances Korbel’s grandmother is Ida Denman McNear ’78, her great aunts are the three Denman sisters from Sonoma County, loyal supporters of the college and Alumnae Association since the first of them graduated in 1874. Margery Foote’s grandmother came to Mills from the fine old family home which still stands in its surrounding acres near Calistoga, a monument to the days that houses were shipped in pieces around Cape Horn to take their places in the California landscape. Laura Elizabeth Hallberg, distantly allied to the Denman clan, has a mother, an aunt, and seven other relatives on her Mills ancestral tree.

Bent Twigs with alumnae mothers and grandmothers assembled for their picture under the oak tree in front of Student Union planted by Dr. Reinhardt the first year of her presidency and named for her son “Fritz.” The companion tree planted at the same time and now towering above the building was called Paul for her son “Fritz.” A circular bench for the exclusive use of Bent Twigs is soon to be built around the first of the two trees with a fund started by the class of 1923 at last June’s meeting of the Alumnae Association. In the group of Bent Twigs pictured above are five daughters of the class of ’22, and daughters also of classes contemporary with ’22: 1918, ’19, ’21, and ’24.

Standing, left to right: Babette Harris, daughter of Marcelle Lehman Harris ’22; Jane Ann Edwards, daughter of Marie Fabre-Rojotte Edwards ’22; Isabelle Wilder, daughter of Weslie Wort Wilder ’14; Phyllis Mae Robinson, granddaughter of Sarah Merritt Robinson ’88; Elise Ross, daughter of Willma Scodie Ross ’10; Laura Elizabeth Hallberg, daughter of Elizabeth Barlow Hallberg ’11; Frances Korbel, granddaughter of Ida Denman McNear ’78; Marion Ross, daughter of Willma Scodie Ross ’10; Margaret Wasteneys, daughter of Ruth Fennessy Wasteneys ’32 and granddaughter of Elna Miller Fennessy ’00; Margaret Kellam, daughter of La Vina Atterbury Kellam ’16; Margery Foote, granddaughter of Kate Holmes Foote ’74

Second row, seated: Florence Eyre, granddaughter of Florence Atherton Eyre ’80; Nancy Bernheim, daughter of Alma Eisenberg Bernheim ’21; Mary Carolyn Murphy, daughter of Frieda Kegel Murphy ’19; Marilyn Gene Steinmetz, daughter of Frances Jones Steinmetz ’18; Ann Thomas, daughter of Martha Moore Thomas ’22; Priscilla Williams, daughter of Catherine King Williams ’21.

Front row: Ann Bugbee, daughter of Ann Beckman Bugbee ’22; Margaret Hitchcock, daughter of Pauline Chamberlain Fisher ’24; Betsy Taves, daughter of Wilma Waite Taves ’22.

  1. Nine of these 311 Bent Twigs received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Mills and took photos after their multiple Commencement ceremonies with the same relatives.
  2. Several early issues of the Quarterly included lists and/or photos of all the Bent Twigs attending Mills at the time: fall 1921, fall 1943 (with a photo), and fall 1947 (with a photo). Look for those at the end of this story!