What It Was Like to Attend the Best Secretarial School in 1960s America

Updated: May 04, 2023

As a Katharine Gibbs girl, she learned typing, shorthand and punctuation, all while wearing high heels and white gloves.

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Career choices were very limited for a young woman in the early 1960s. I found secretarial work more enticing than nursing or teaching, and in my senior year of high school, I was selected to attend the best secretarial school of the day: the Katharine Gibbs School. Once my acceptance letter arrived, I was headed to New York City!

My dorm was the Barbizon Hotel for Women.  I was in awe the first time I entered the sweeping lobby and surveyed my new home. Katharine Gibbs had reserved several floors of this grand hotel just for its students, as well as a private dining room.

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I had my own room, too, with a colorful bedspread and matching curtains. In front of my bedroom window was a desk with a typewriter. After my mother helped me unpack, she went back home to Ithaca, New York, and I was on my own for the first time in my life.

In the following days, the Barbizon became a hive of activity as more girls arrived. Many of them came from other states and were just as dazzled by New York City as I was. It wasn’t long before I met a bubbly redhead named Connie from Ohio. We became close friends and fierce competitors.

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All of us soon settled into our new routine. Each morning I would put on my business suit and hurry out the door to catch the bus. Classes were held in the upper level of Grand Central Station. As we dashed down the sidewalk, construction workers would shout, “Here come the Gibblets!” We stood out from our peers: We were the only girls our age carrying briefcases.

For lunch, Connie and I would get 15-cent hot dogs from a street vendor and then pie and coffee at Horn & Hardart, the famous automat. After lunch, it was back to class.

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When we came back home, we were in so much pain from our high heels that we’d take them off the minute the bus pulled away and limp to the hotel. But by the end of the year, we could wear them all day without problems.

After dinner came the grueling homework. The biggest nightmare was the dreaded typing assignment. If you made a typo, you had to start all over again with a clean sheet. Tears were shed, but we learned to type accurately.

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Punctuation lessons became our own private language. We’d say things like, “However, comma 22, I need to wash my hair tonight.” We assigned every punctuation mark a rule number. It became an obsession; we couldn’t stop ourselves from writing rule numbers over punctuation marks.  If you saw a small number written over a comma on a street sign, you just knew a Gibbs girl had been there.

We were trained to be the best of the best, but it wasn’t all work. We enjoyed exploring the city and strolling through Central Park. Our favorite spot was Malachy’s. The drinking age then was 18, and we all qualified! We spent many happy evenings in that little bar.

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The school year ended as the certification process began. This was a series of difficult exams covering everything we’d studied. Connie and I whizzed through and were among the first group to certify.

All of a sudden it was over. The homework struggles, the cramming sessions, my giggly friends in my room—I was going to miss it all. Although there were prestigious employers in New York City, I returned to Ithaca and took my first secretarial job at Cornell University. I’ve recently turned 70 but continue to work as the registrar at a boarding school.

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I’ve left the typewriter behind but still use shorthand. My students sometimes ask me if I’m writing in a foreign language. When I explain the shapes and swirls, their eyes light up, thinking they can learn this “secret code.” They have no idea it takes many hours of practice!

The days of being a polished secretary have long since faded away, but it was so much fun while it lasted.

Originally Published in Reminisce Extra