In 1945, Houghton House was a residence hall for women, World War II ended, and Gilda Bachner’s sweetheart of three years returned from service in the U.S. Army to propose to her in the rose garden on campus. This summer, Gilda Bachner Raiken ’48 and her husband Jerry Raiken returned to the Colleges for the first time in 63 years. They came with Ariella Korn ’12, the second of their granddaughters to follow in Gilda’s footsteps (her sister Stephanie is a ’92 graduate of William Smith). As Korn was preparing to move back to campus for her second year, she thought it would be a nice idea to bring her grandparents with her to see the school that meant so much to her grandmother and to revisit the spot where they began their future together.
“Do you remember what it looked like with the roses here?” Gilda asked Jerry. “The only thing I remember is you saying you had to think about it,” he laughed.
The two had been dating since they met at Crystal Beach, near Buffalo, N.Y., three years prior. Although Jerry knew he loved her, he didn’t propose to Gilda sooner because he expected to be drafted upon turning 18. “I had no right to declare my love when I knew I would probably be drafted and may never come back,” he says. He was drafted at 18 and became a flight crew radio operator in the Army Air Transport Command. Flying in C-46 and C-47 planes from as far west as Manila to as far east as Calcuta, he was just 400 miles or so short of flying around the world with the Army.
When he returned to New York, Raiken came to William Smith College to see Bechner for the first time in three years. He chose the romantic rose garden outside Houghton House, declared his love and asked her to marry him. She said she’d have to think about it.
“I admired her for saying that. It was a big deal and she deserves to think it over. I remember going home that night and thinking that was a sensible thing,” says Raiken. Of course, he was relieved when a week later she said she’d decided to marry him.
The couple returned to her parents’ house in Buffalo, a much more affluent family than Jerry’s, and he told her father he had proposed. He recalls his father-in-law asking, “Can you keep her in the lifestyle to which she is accustomed?” to which he replied, “No, sir, I can’t.” He was met with a laugh as Gilda’s father said he knew that but also knew he had potential. Gilda went on to complete two more years at the University of Buffalo and Jerry earned his degree from University of Buffalo and worked as a CPA until he retired.
The two raised three daughters and now have four granddaughters, including Stephanie and Ariella Korn. Walking through Houghton House and trying to picture the classrooms and offices as they used to be, Gilda recalled the women walked into town for swim lessons and down to the main campus for classes. “We got a lot of exercise!” she laughs. She also fondly recalls singing competitions between the houses. “We all sang a lot.”
She took English, psychology, history, French and biology among her first-year classes, and remembers her biology professor, Odell, and Dean Heath, whom she says tried to talk her out of leaving college to marry. One of her roommates left earlier to marry a soldier and another became a therapist. Both have since died, but Raiken kept in touch with them throughout the remainder of their lives. Soon after leaving William Smith, she wrote a poem about Houghton House and the year she spent. While she hasn’t seen the campus in six decades, she kept the poem all this time, as well as an article about a Christmas party held there, which notes that men need not worry if they don’t have tuxes.
“It was a good time,” she smiles, first to herself and then at the man who proposed here a lifetime ago.