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Putting the mom in "alma mater"

There they are, on a dream trip to China, smiling for the camera in windswept Tiananmen Square, on the Great Wall, in front of a red-roofed pagoda: Winnie Yee ’74 and her “Mom,” better known around campus as dining-services cook Mary Ellen May.

Their friendship started in fall 1971 when Yee, a freshman business major walking downtown, asked to play with the calico cat sunning herself in the window of the optical shop then owned by May and her husband. Friendly, outgoing, and a very long way from home, Yee was quickly folded into the May family, babysitting the couple’s three little girls and joining family outings and holiday dinners. “Through my Skidmore years and even after I graduated, Mom showered me with love, kindness, and generosity,” says Yee, now a Christian-ministry worker in Hong Kong. Inviting May to China, all expenses paid, was her way “to express my heartfelt thanks.”

Although they had stayed in touch with notes and phone calls, their trip last fall was “the first time we’d been together, just the two of us,” in many years, says Yee. They saw the mausoleum of Mao Tse Tung, misty landscapes of cherry trees and willows, a dowager empress’s white marble boat moored in a small lagoon, an urban McDonald’s with red lanterns over its golden arches. In fact, they did “so much walking that I came back in fantastic shape,” laughs May, adding, “I would go back in a flash.” —BAM