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A Century of Stories: At 108, Emerson’s Oldest Alum Reminisces

An old newspaper photo of someone dressed as a clown and another person in a dress
Alumna Mary O’Keefe ’36 and Marjorie Kemp from an Emerson College, dormitory newspaper. Photo/Emerson College Archives

At 108 years old, Mary O’Keefe Dentler ’36 is the oldest living Emersonian, and one of the College’s biggest fans.

“Radio, TV, and communications. I’d recommend it to anyone. You couldn’t find a better college,” said Dentler.

A woman sitting celebrating her 108th birthday with a cake in front of her.
Mary O’Keefe Dentler ’36 celebrates her108th birthday. Photo/Karen Vadala

Dentler learned about Emerson from her high school English teacher, Lillian Hartigan, at Cambridge High and Latin School (now Cambridge Rindge and Latin), across the Charles River. Dentler would later be a colleague of Hartigan’s, after Dentler became an English teacher herself at the school.

One woman on the ground, another stands, and another is wearing a created art piece with multiple heads on it as part of the play
In the play Tree of Faces: Mary O’Keefe ’36 and June Hamblin as the organ grinder. Hamblin later was a longtime faculty member at Emerson. Photo/Emerson College Archvies

“I was always interested in theatre and things like that in high school. I was in several plays and enjoyed that,” said Dentler. After visiting the College, she enrolled in 1932.

Her first year she was in a large building at the corner of Dartmouth Street and Huntington Avenue.

“They had classrooms, a library, and down in the basement there was a stage that was very well equipped with lighting and that sort of thing. We used to use that stage for plays and it worked out well,” recalled Dentler.

She was also on the debate team. In a debate with Bates College, she took the affirmative position for socialized medicine, which made her chuckle when she reminisced about it because it’s still being debated today.

“I loved every minute of [my time at Emerson College]. I loved all of the subjects,” said Dentler. “I made so many wonderful friends that I kept throughout the years.”

Five people sit together in an auditorium
Front row left to right: Karen Vadala, her mother Mary O’Keefe Dentler ’36, and Allee Hamilton Wood. Back row: Wood’s son Doug and daughter-in-law, Chris. This was at Dentler’s 75th class reunion. Photo/Karen Vadala

At her 75th class reunion, she met up with friends, including Allee Hamilton Wood. Dentler also attended her 80th class reunion in 2016.

Her sophomore year, she moved to 130 Beacon Street, which she said was the beginning of the College’s expansion.

“And look at how it’s grown,” remarked Dentler.

During her time at Emerson she acted in numerous performances, including The Taming of the Shrew, Polly of the Circus, and The Tree of Faces.

Three people stand dressed in 1700s style dresses
Left and center: Allee Hamilton Wood ’36 as Lady Wishfort; Mary O’Keefe ’36 as Mrs. Millamant in a production of William Congreve’s The Way of the World at the Repertory Theatre, December 4, 1935. Photo/Emerson College Archives

After college she was employed through the President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program Works Progress Administration (WPA), and was trying to get substitute teacher work.

Knowing she had acted, a neighbor asked her to try out for a role as a 12-year-old boy in a play.

“After the first reading they weren’t impressed. But my friend said, ‘Mary, can you get a pair of boys’ knickers?’ I said, ‘Yes, I have two brothers,’ and knickers were in style then. She said, ‘Get them and a boys’ white short, and I’ll fix your hair,” recounted Dentler. “I read the part again and I got it. Some of [producers] had no imagination and you had to look the part as well as read it.”

Dentler went on to start her teaching career, which lasted until she became a mother and raised three children. She has since retired to New Hampshire.

When asked for advice about how to live a long happy life, Dentler had a simple response.

“You go from day to day,” said Dentler.  

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