Joan Hickey Gudefin ’43 still lives only two blocks away from 22 East 91st Street, but more than seven decades have passed since she exited the Red Doors. Joan came to Spence as an Upper School student in 1939 when boarders still lived in the building and students ventured out together for evenings at the Metropolitan Opera House, at that time located on 39th Street in Midtown Manhattan.
Her fond memories of the School range from “nice teachers” to “good training in the choral group” to lectures “on speaking properly.” Joan’s transition to Spence from New Rochelle, NY, “was sort of a shock because the School was really much more serious,” she says. “It was very, very good training and we always had interesting things going on.”
Joan went on to Connecticut College in New London, CT, a women’s college at the time, where she studied German and French, intrigued by both linguistics and literature. The campus, located on a hill overlooking the sea, “at the time had horses for us to ride,” Joan adds. She also studied at the University of Zurich—an opportunity for her to spend time abroad and practice her German. Upon her return, Joan held various jobs before marrying and traveling the globe, including to Latin America, which gave her a chance to learn Spanish. She collaborated with her husband and his brother on their company while also working briefly at Glamour and House & Garden before having children.
In the mid-1970s, Joan discovered the Hospitality Committee for United Nations Delegations (HCUND) and has volunteered there for the past 40 years. HCUND, an independent nonprofit volunteer organization privately funded and located within the United Nations, assists new U.N. diplomats and their families in their transition to New York City—helping with language and cultural differences as well as city knowledge and social activities. Part of its mission is “to promote and strengthen understanding and friendly ties between all levels of the United Nations diplomatic community and the people of New York.” The nonprofit also aims to “broaden an appreciation of American culture.”
To that effect, Joan has enjoyed playing the role of tour guide and friend while learning from the many people she has met over the years. “I have enjoyed my experience tremendously,” she shares. “It has opened my eyes to many things going on in the world, and I’ve made many companions from the various delegations while making them feel at home in New York.”
Currently, Joan helps organize a quilting group, which she says has generated a surprising amount of interest, and a monthly book club. “The idea is to get people to read in English. And personally, I love to have discussions with people from another country who look at the book or problem within it differently, from a completely different perspective,” she says. And recently, the group visited an exhibit at the Jewish Museum before Joan hosted them at her apartment. “No one wanted to leave,” she says. At other times she has organized field trips to Yale, Princeton, the Hudson Valley and Philadelphia.
Over the years, Joan has witnessed history through the eyes of the foreign visitors, “from the time that both East and West Germany existed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.” The group changes in parallel ways, but the people continue to “become a part of our lives. We still see and hear from them long after they leave New York.” The model of the committee has also been replicated in other locations, including Brussels. Aside from enjoying time with family, including two children, six grandchildren and one great-grandson, this “rich experience” remains an important part of Joan’s life.