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Talya Zemach-Bersin ’07 reads through Harvey Fischtrom's senior thesis. She recently learned that Fischtrom - her grandfather - graduated from Wesleyan in 1955.
Posted 05.16.07

Senior Meets Grandfather She Never Knew at Wesleyan

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.

“Look, 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.

Fischtrom’s 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 and involved."

The 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.

Since 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."

By Olivia Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection editor. Black and white photos from the 1952, 1953, 1954 and 1955 Olla Podrida.