Before Talya Zemach-Bersin '07 began her
undergraduate studies at Wesleyan four years ago, she heard vague family
stories that her grandfather had attended the university.
But he died 11 years before Talya was born, and her mother knew few details
about his undergraduate years. When applying to Wesleyan, Talya mentioned
that her grandfather had been a Wesleyan student, but the Office of Admission was
unable to locate records for him.
During her final year at Wesleyan, Talya learned that the tales of
her grandfather’s tie to Wesleyan were true. Harvey Fischtrom was indeed a
Wesleyan alumnus from the class of 1955.
here he is," Talya says, pointing to a young man's class photo in a
weathered Olla Podrida yearbook. The man has thick, neatly combed
black hair and dark eyebrows slightly masked by round, tortoise-shell
glasses. He’s smiling, appearing content.
"It turned out my grandfather not only attended Wesleyan, he was a super
involved, all-star student," Talya says. "He was Mr. Wesleyan."
Talya learned about her grandfather's Wesleyan years from Suzy Taraba, university
archivist. While doing research for her senior thesis in Special Collections
and Archives, Talya briefly mentioned having a grandfather who
she thought, had attended Wesleyan. A few minutes later, Taraba returned with an alumni
directory that had Fischtrom's name, class year, hometown and a cross
symbol, which meant he had passed.
Talya, an American Studies major, learned that her grandfather majored in
history. Talya smiles. "I happen to really like history," she says.
yearbook mug shot was only the beginning. He had other yearbook sightings
playing violin with the music ensemble, gathering with the John Wesley
Society and attending a Wesleyan Debate Society meeting, donning a suit and
tie (pictured below, far left). He also edited sections for the student
newspaper, The Argus; was a student government chairman and was a
member of Phi Beta Kappa and Delta Sigma Rho. The yearbook also states
Fischtrom was a candidate for distinction honors, and the recipient of the
Thorndike Distinction Award and the Spinney Prize for Greek.
Taraba was also able to locate Fischtrom’s honor's thesis
"Gustav Mahler: An Essay in the History of Music." Talya made copies of the
manuscript and yearbook photos, and sent them to her family.
"When I first saw all this, I was very excited," Talya says. "My grandpa was clearly someone who was brilliant
positive history that Talya has been unearthing on her grandfather is comforting to her
family, who lost him in 1974
to a tragic death.
According to Talya's mother, Kaethe, Fischtrom developed a serious depressive illness around
1970. He committed suicide in London at the age of 41, when Kaethe, the
oldest of four girls, was only 16.
"The suicide of a family member can be
extremely challenging psychologically, and in our family's case, my father's
happier times were eclipsed in our minds by the dark years of his
depression," Kaethe Zemach says. "By exploring the archives at Wesleyan,
Talya has been able to recover the memory and partial record of his happy,
healthy days as a younger man for our family. She was able to change our
image of him, an image which as been in place for more than 20 years."
By finding out about her grandfather's time at Wesleyan, Talya feels as
though she's developing a relationship with the man she never got to meet.
It was only by chance that Talya, of Doylestown Pa. and Harvey Fischtrom,
of Newark, N.J., both chose Wesleyan, more than five decades apart.
"Wesleyan is the only place that the both of us have been, and it is
something that the two of us share," she says. "I feel closer to him knowing
that we have this in common."
Harvey Fischtrom was born in 1933. After receiving his
bachelor's from Wesleyan, he went on to get a master’s of arts at Brandeis
University. Fischtrom worked as history and
social science instructor at Boston University. Margot Zemach and "Harve
Zemach" as he called himself to the publishing world, authored and
illustrated 13 book together, including Duffy and the Devil, which
won the 1974 Caldecott Medal – an award that recognizes the artist of the
most distinguished American picture book for children.
confirming that her grandfather attended Wesleyan, Talya says she can't
walk across campus without thoughts going through her head. Seated on the
front steps of Olin Library, she gazes at the campus view in thought.
"I look at campus in a totally different way now," she says. "When I look at
what is now the Center for African American Studies, I can see him sitting
there with the John Wesley Club (pictured at left). When I go into the '92
Theater, I look at the stage and think, 'My grandpa was here.' When I go
into the old squash building, I just have a feeling he was there before. And
when I walk to class, I wonder if he walked this same path. He could have
taken classes in the same buildings I do. He might have studied right there.
He could have sat right here."
Talya is eager to learn more about her grandfather. She's in the process of
locating any living members of the John Wesley Club, or other 1955 alumni.
Anyone with any tips can contact her at
"I hope I can find a few people who remember him, and be able to tell me
anything about him," she says. "I want to know what kind of person he was. I
want to know what he thought about Wesleyan."