Ginnie Toone ’53: On the Road to Sweet Briar

Ginnie Toone and Repps Hudson
Virginia “Ginnie” Hudson Toone and her brother Repps Hudson at Sweet Briar College during Reunion 2018

We love it when guest writers submit stories to the magazine. Here, Repps Hudson, brother of Ginnie Toone ’53, tells us his sister’s story. You can reach him at reppshudson@msn.com.


She couldn’t meet Rice University’s language requirements for entering freshmen. So Virginia “Ginnie” Hudson Toone ’53 turned to Sweet Briar, from which her mother, Ida Virginia von Sandmeyer, had graduated in 1917. Valedictorian of her Carrollton, Mo., high school class, Ginnie had no problem being admitted to her mother’s alma mater.

She became a physics major — the only one in her class and a bold step for a woman in the 1950s — and spent 20 years as an engineer for Sigma Instruments Inc. in South Braintree, Mass., one of the high-tech companies of the day. After graduating, Ginnie got higher-paying job offers from Bell Labs and General Electric. Sigma “had a more appealing flavor,” she says. It was, she recalls, “far ahead of its time with women as heads of many departments, profit-sharing, year-end bonuses and so on.”

She’s said she was fortunate to have worked at Sigma, where she was a project supervisor like men who’d graduated from MIT, Harvard and other elite schools. Early on, Ginnie was working on “electrical contact problems such as their ability to conduct current at very low voltages and their ability to carry large surge currents without welding.” She graduated to “designing magnetic amplifiers …, highly reliable low-level [direct current] amplifiers used to monitor nuclear reactors” at N-Reactor at the Hanford, Wash., nuclear complex on the Columbia River.

Ginnie Toone
Several years after graduating from Sweet Briar, Ginnie stands by nuclear reactor safety equipment she worked on before it was shipped to the now-decommissioned Hanford Nuclear Works in Hanford, Wash.

Later, she helped develop photocells. At one time, she was one of the country’s experts on that infant technology. “The tricky part of the photocell was getting reliable production to useful sensitivity,” she says. Years later, she set up a photocell manufacturing line in Rio de Janeiro. She was the only student in some physics classes. She says she didn’t realize how many unasked questions from other students she had missed because she was in a tutorial.

In the 65 years since she graduated, Ginnie has returned to campus several times. She’s long been a passionate supporter of all things Sweet Briar. When the College was about to vanish in 2015, she was devastated. Since her mother had died when she was 3, Ginnie had long nourished an emotional tie to the College. Long after she graduated, she found her mother’s textbooks. Writing inside noted her mother had lived in room 212 of Grammer Hall, the same room Ginnie lived in one year. It seemed like her mother’s spirit was watching over her.

Ginnie’s my big sister — half-sister; we share our father — 14 years older, my third parent, the one person who has raised my sights, challenged me to get off the family farm and into the world. I’ve done that, as a newspaper journalist who made a living reporting and writing and traveling to countries far from home — and teaching — for nearly 50 years.

As the Sweet Briar Reunion (May 31-June 2) approached, Ginnie asked me to drive with her from my home in St. Louis to the campus for a three-day visit. Eight of her classmates had signed up to be there.

I said yes, even though the distance was nearly 1,200 miles each way, almost all by interstate, through the green rolling grasslands of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky, then the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia. We were carrying precious cargo: 12 red commemorative plates her mother had left her showing Sweet Briar House and her mother’s blue Sweet Briar signet ring, which Ginnie had worn for years.

65th Reunion 2018
Ginnie (right) and her classmates celebrating their 65th Reunion at Sweet Briar

She and I had done road trips before. In 1961, when I was 15, I flew to Boston so we could drive in her 1959 baby-blue Triumph TR-3 from Boston to our farm about 75 miles northeast of Kansas City. I remember little, except that I was proud to be sitting down low in her British sports car as we headed west on U.S. 40 in that pre-interstate era. I could touch the pavement while sitting in my seat beside Ginnie, who drove the whole way. That was the summer Ernest Hemingway killed himself. I remember seeing The Indianapolis Star by the door of a Howard Johnson with my hero’s picture under a headline declaring his self-destructive act. So, our recent road trip to Sweet Briar was an honor for me. There we were, on the road again, learning more about each other than either of us had known.

Many of the things I’ve achieved, I credit to Ginnie’s insistence that I make the most of my life and talents. We are coming to the end of our life’s journey and are reflecting more on what we have done, why we did those things and what they have meant for ourselves and our families. As we moved around the campus from one event to another — usually by van — I asked Ginnie: Did you live in this building? Did you take a class here? Was this building here when you were a student? The kid brother again bugging his big sister again.

We enjoyed the meals and what we learned, particularly President Meredith Woo’s plans for reviving Sweet Briar and preparing it for its unique role in educating women for the 21st century, as it had when Ginnie was a student. As I look back over Reunion weekend, two things stand out. First is the way Ginnie and her classmates fell into close, comfortable conversations about their lives today and years past. For instance, her senior roommate in Gray Hall, Harriett Hodges Andrews, of Statesville, N.C., told me, “Seeing Ginnie again is the reason I came to this reunion.” Harriet remembered “Doubtful Diplomacy,” the senior play Ginnie wrote with Mary Littlejohn Belser of Auburn, Ala., and the performance, which my parents didn’t make because of a snow storm in eastern Tennessee. Many of these accomplished women had been in touch with each other in the weeks before Reunion.

Yochum and Toone
Engineering professor Hank Yochum with Ginnie during a Reunion engineering session for alumnae

Then there was the hour we spent with two professors in the engineering department, Dr. Hank Yochum and Dr. Bethany Brinkman. I could see my engineer sister was following the discussion closely. What she wanted to inspect, though, was the machine shop where students make parts and tools with their own hands. She heard there was no machinist on duty. The young women students were learning to fashion things themselves from metal. “I was so impressed that students were taught how to use the machinery safely,” she says. “Working on a milling machine or metalworking lathe is so enabling to carry out one’s designs.”


This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 Alumnae Magazine.