More than 50 years later, northeast Johnson County couple back at the picnic where it all began

Irene and Norton Starr met at the All-Ivy picnic in 1957. Last year, they returned to the event for the first time.
Irene and Norton Starr met at the All-Ivy picnic in 1957. Last year, they returned to the event for the first time.

On Sunday, a few dozen people milled about under the Franklin Park pavilion, filling up picnic plates with burgers and hot dogs and scanning the name tags of fellow attendees. The All-Ivy Club of Kansas City’s annual picnic is a chance for graduates of some of the nation’s most prestigious universities to catch up and share stories of their time back east.

It’s a Kansas City tradition that’s been going on for decades. And it brings back fond memories for one northeast Johnson County couple who was in attendance this past weekend.

Irene still has her copy of the invitation to the 1957 event.
Irene still has her copy of the invitation to the 1957 event.
Irene Stiefel graduated from Southwest High School in 1957 and spent her summer looking forward to heading off to Smith College in Northampton, Mass. She received an invitation to attend the All-Ivy picnic (the group included the Seven Sisters colleges back then), set to be held at Marshall Long farm south of Kansas City a few days before she was to depart for college.

At the picnic, Irene saw a friend talking to someone she’d never met. Irene approached them, and the friend introduced her to Norton Starr, a Pem Day grad who was himself preparing to head to Massachusetts, back to Harvard University, where he’d transferred two years earlier from the California Institute of Technology.

The two hit it off. Soon enough, the girlfriend who had driven Irene to the picnic came by to apologize that she had to leave early. Norton quickly volunteered to give Irene a ride home.

Over the course of the next few days, they spent a good deal of time together, discussing books and at one point getting into a disagreement about the political cartoonist Herbert Block. They had plans to see one another again soon in Massachusetts — plans that were thwarted by the Asian Flu Epidemic of 1957.

“Our whole campus was on quarantine,” Irene remembers. “No one could come in and no one could go out.”

They didn’t see each other again until early November. But they found the connection from their first few days together was still strong.

In 1959, they were married in Kansas City. Starr went on to get his Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT, and eventually took a job as a professor of mathematics and computer science at Amherst. Irene had a career working primarily in tech management. Norton retired in 2009 after 43 years with the college, and in 2013, he and Irene moved back to the Kansas City area, settling in Mission.

They hadn’t attended another All-Ivy picnic until they came to the event last year.

“We love it back here,” said Irene.

“The drivers are much better,” added Norton.