‘Letters Home from Stanford’ Shares Unique Student Perspective

A Multi-Generational Tradition, Started by a Late Palisadian

Alison Carpenter Davis
Photos courtesy of Alison Carpenter Davis

By GABRIELLA BOCK | Contributing Writer

In the summer of 1944, the late Mary Lesnett Carpenter was readying to board an LA county train when her mother gave her an ultimatum: “Write home twice a week or your tuition will be pulled.”

That train was headed to Stanford University and, as Mary eagerly agreed to her mother’s terms, the incoming freshman would unknowingly institute a multi-generational tradition that would later inspire a project of epic proportions.

Three decades after Mary first boarded the Coast Daylight train to Stanford, her daughter, Alison Carpenter Davis, would take a similar route up north and, although fewer contingencies would be placed upon her stay, letters—whether of achievement, worry or begs for extra pocket money—would always find their way back home.

These letters, and many others, can be read in Carpenter Davis’ book, “Letters Home from Stanford: 125 Years of Correspondence from Students of Stanford University.”

Published in 2017, “Letters Home” offers an exclusive look inside the minds of college students—from letters penned the day before Stanford’s opening in 1891 all the way to present day texts and tweets—and reveals common, coming-of-age experiences that transcend time and unite us all as humans.

Carpenter Davis, who grew up in The Huntington, told the Palisadian-Post that she first discovered her mother’s letters during her 20s and, every so often, would dig them out and compare them to her own.

“My grandmother saved four notebooks full of my mother’s letters and my mother saved one full of mine,” she said. “Each time I leafed through them I realized how, even though we had attended college 30 years apart, many of our hopes, fears and focal points were so similar.”

The author went on to explain that, although she had always wanted to compile her family’s letters into a book, it was a visit to her alma mater that inspired her to start a “search and rescue mission” to seek out and recover other students’ long lost letters home.

“I had been visiting Stanford a few years ago when I had that ‘a-ha’ moment,’” she told the Post.

“I began thinking about the letters that had passed through that building over the years and realized that there were probably so many forgotten letters just sitting in attics and collecting dust.”

From there, Carpenter Davis—a former magazine editor and accomplished journalist—enlisted the help of several Stanford archivists and together they spent more than two years recovering old letters, in addition to emails and texts from more recent graduates, and sorting through the university’s countless stacks of archived correspondence.

Through her research, Carpenter Davis found that not only did the letters demonstrate the often-tumultuous transition into adulthood, but that they also act as a vessel to showcase the enormous social changes that have redefined American history in each passing era.

And although penmanship has dramatically declined over the decades and corset-wearing has become nearly extinct, today’s pie-eyed college students are still just as curious, just as eager and just as delightfully self-involved as they were in centuries past.

“[In the book] there’s a letter from 1894 that reads, ‘Don’t kiss me and talk out loud in the library when you come,’” Carpenter Davis, who now has a notebook of her own daughter’s college letters, revealed with a laugh.

“It just goes to show you that, no matter what year it is or what school they attend, there will always be that push and pull from home—all the while being so desperate to return and see you.”

“Letters Home from Stanford” can be found on Amazon and at Diesel, a Bookstore located in the Brentwood Country Mart.