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The Girls from Ames

How 11 women have sustained a 40-year friendship – and how that bond nurtures them.

By Marilyn Gardner / April 18, 2009

Jeffrey Zaslow knew he had stumbled on a hot topic when he wrote a column about women’s friendships for The Wall Street Journal. Almost immediately, hundreds of e-mails began pouring in from women eager to share stories about their own longtime friends.

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One respondent, Jenny Litchman, described the extraordinary 40-year bond she has shared with 10 girls since they were children in Ames, Iowa. So intriguing was her three-paragraph message that Zaslow eventually took a year’s leave of absence to chronicle their story.

His book, The Girls From Ames, stands as a moving testament to the power and importance of female relationships. Now in their mid-40s, these women exemplify universal truths about friendship, portrayed in the context of a Midwestern coming-of-age story set in simpler times.

Bravely, the friends allowed Zaslow to join them for a four-day reunion in North Carolina. They shared old photos and scrapbooks. They gave him access to letters, diaries, and notes they passed in class. They also let him listen to their conversations. This treasure trove enabled him to follow the trajectory of their lives, individually and collectively, from childhood to adulthood.

Their connections began early. Karla and Jenny met as 4-year-olds at Barbara Jean’s Academy of Dance. Cathy, Sally, and Sheila attended kindergarten together. Most of the rest joined the group in junior high, swelling their ranks to 11.

As teenagers in Ames, a college town of 53,000, the girls took summer jobs detasseling corn and scooping ice cream at Boyd’s, an ice cream shop with a big plastic cow in front. They joined classmates in cornfields for keg parties. They made their first fumbling forays into the world of teenage romance. Although they sometimes tested parental authority, they remained true to the rural values of family and hard work that surrounded them.

After college, as they settled into jobs in eight states, they were periodically drawn together by major events – marriages, births, divorces, deaths. One girl, Sheila, died under mysterious circumstances in Chicago when she was 22. Several have buried parents and siblings. And when Karla’s teenage daughter became seriously ill, the friends provided unwavering support.

Today all but one have married. They are parents of 21 children. Three of the women are at-home mothers. Three are teachers.


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