Amherst Magazine

MONICA MITTELSTADT PROUNIS ’84

With the loss of Monica Mittelstadt Prounis on March 31, 1999, a brilliant star in the Amherst constellation was lost. Indeed, the light that radiated from this star has touched and warmed so many of us, particularly those that could see beyond the dazzling brightness.

Monica first arrived on the Amherst campus in the fall of 1980. Beyond striking good looks, she had a radiant smile and was incredibly outgoing and friendly. Conversation with Monica would reveal that there was no one more sincere when asking, “how are you?” or took greater interest in her friends.

I first started to get to know Monica during rush that spring. Through initiation activities and, subsequently, fraternity life, women’s lacrosse, shared adventures during our semesters’ abroad, and many communal meals in annex or garden, we ended up forming a deep, enduring friendship. Monica’s wit was an attribute that we all treasured. Monica could catch you off guard with some off-the-wall comment, or leave you roaring with laughter with an imitation of an opponent from the Boston Women’s Rugby Club or a confused New York taxi driver. She would know her audience, and just had fun having fun.

Monica had the rare ability to see the best in a person and have that person see the best in him or herself that endeared her to many. Just spending an hour together would make you feel rejuvenated. She was also willing to pitch in and help a friend wherever and whenever needed—from getting the Lord Jeffs band’s equipment to a gig in a pinch to lining up postgraduation job interviews for her friends.

Her love and appreciation of nature was also a gift she shared. One friend fondly recalled a special autumn night when, at Monica’s suggestion, they sat on the hill overlooking the social dorms and simply watched the harvest moon rise. Whether walking down to the gym to get ready for practice or starting up the hill for classes, she would find something beautiful in any day or season and express it poignantly and poetically. Monica also enjoyed sharing her Amherst experience with her family. Mr. and Mrs. Mittelstadt and her sister Simone came often for athletic events or a trip to Atkin’s Farms to pick apples with Monica and friends.

After graduation, Monica secured a paralegal position at a firm on Wall Street. She received a degree from FordhamUniversity in 1989 and joined Rogers & Wells, becoming a trust and estates lawyer. As good fortune would have it, her officemate while a summer associate at Rogers & Wells turned out to be her soulmate, Othon Prounis. They married in 1992 and became parents in 1998, with the birth of a beautiful daughter, Alexa.

In addition to active involvement in several civic organizations, Othon and Monica shared an extraordinary dedication to The Mets and an ability to enjoy a meal at Le Cirque as much as a hotdog at Shea Stadium. Their love was shared with a large circle of friends, including a core from Amherst.

A couple weeks after her daughter’s first birthday, and two months before our Reunion, we all lost our dear friend Monica to complications from acute lymphocytic leukemia. With Othon and her parents present, the Class of’84 honored Monica at our Reunion with a memorial walk through the athletic fields. The walk started and concluded near the Alumni Gym at a newly placed bench, bearing a plaque in Monica’s memory. She is deeply missed. We will continue to see her smile and hear her laughter anytime on campus.

— Ann Diver ’84

Monica lived a great life. She knew how to live and, even better, why we live. She traveled, she studied, she worked, she wrote, she laughed, she played, she entertained, she loved, and she did all these things with a drive and passion unmatched by anyone I have ever come across. Stories of her adventures seem worthy of a movie. Picture her at the top of a mountain in Colorado about to race through the powder daring Othon to keep up, or sitting on a beach in Easthampton sharing a picnic, or writing letters home from her favorite small park in Paris, or celebrating a family birthday on her parents’ patio in Rye surrounded by blooming trees and flowers. These are obviously pretty fabulous things and she delighted in them, but Monica also had a rare gift for finding joy in small things. For her, sitting on the living room floor and talking with friends was a major event. Having tea with her mother and sister in a New York hotel was a five-star dining experience.

Watching the Mets on television was better than Broadway. Coming home from Seattle after her bone marrow transplant and hearing the swearing of the New York cab drivers--opera! Monica was well-read, well-educated, well-informed, and had definite, unwavering opinions on just about everything, yet she had a true and deep devotion to the silly. A ridiculous situation would send her into a fit of giggles and blush her beet red. I have a set of pictures from a rainy day bike ride during her remission when Monica weaved precariously from one side of the road to the other, determined to hit every puddle possible. That was pretty fun to watch, but what we later realized when she hopped off her bike was that she now had two perfect stripes of mud splattered up both sides of her khakis. So now I have these pictures, with the bikes and the dune grass in the background and the smiling faces-all very J. Crewish-and there's Monica, front and center, laughing hysterically, fanny to the camera, proudly showing off her stripes.

Monica was our fearless leader, great to have in charge, always with a complete and comprehensive game plan. After graduation, five of us packed into a rented Renault and attempted to tackle Europe and we'd be there still today, hunched over a worn copy of "Let's Go Europe!" trying to say, "Wo ist der Bahnhof)" if not for her. Being the only one who spoke both French and German, she moved this clueless foursome around the continent, telling us what we needed to see and what should be skipped. High on the forbidden list was the infamous Hoffbrau House beer hall in Munich because "only American tourists go there!" I didn't dare say, "But that's what we are!" In her mind, we were not there to be tourists-we were there to see a different world, to absorb as much of it as possible, to try to live it a little. It took us awhile to figure this all out, but after a few long walks punctuated by "I think I have a blister," "I'm thirsty," "Where ARE we?" "When's lunch?" we got the hang of it as Monica would call from the front of the line, "Isn't this architecture marvelous?"

Monica reached out to people. She spoke to people. All kinds and all types. Approach her on a path at Amherst, good friend or complete stranger,  upperclassman, lower classman, or professor, and you would not get "hey," "hi," "chief,." or worse-and this was me-someone looking at her watch, her shoelaces, her backpack so as to avoid any kind of conversation. No. You would get, "Good morning! Isn't the sky just the most fabulous color today?" Well, for heaven's sake, she was right, it certainly was.

She made people feel great, from her Manhattan doorman to the doctors who cared for her during her long illness, by simply looking at them and smiling and speaking to them. It seems so simple, but how many of us do that? She is your parents’ favorite of all your friends, no matter if they only met her once, fifteen years ago for five minutes in a crowded room. They know her and they loved her. She is the one you wanted all your other friends to meet and, frankly, to be more like.

There is a parable in The Book of Luke about a man who, after sowing his fields, finds he has an enormous harvest and he wonders, “What shall I do, since I have no room to store these crops?” He decides, “Well, this is great. I’ll just tear down my old barn and build a bigger one to save all this great stuff.” And he feels very clever, and says to himself, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” But God speaks to him, crying, “Fool! Tonight your soul is required of you, then whose will those things be which you have provided?... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Monica did not make this mistake. She didn’t save the crop. She shared all her great stuff: the beauty she saw, the laughter she could not contain, the adventures she led, the affection she felt. These were her treasures—that is where her heart was—and she gave them to us, the friends that she cherished and the family that she adored.

—Sarah Stevenson Baird ’84

Monica and I discovered sophomore year at Amherst that we were kindred spirits. We roomed together for two years and were pretty much inseparable. Looking through my college photo albums reminds me of how immensely we enjoyed each other’s company, what pleasure we took in our zillions of conversations, whether about the flavors of ice cream that night in Valentine or a paper for Professor

Levin’s diplo course or what we wanted to be when we grew up. I knew even then, I think, that I was lucky, that her friendship would be one of the great gifts of my life. That friendship changed, naturally. Our lives after college took us to different places in every sense of the word. But we always worked hard at staying part of each other’s lives. This became even more of a priority for our group of Amherst friends after Monica got sick. Now, since her death, our circle feels fractured and incomplete. We missed her so much at 15th Reunion; how impossible still to believe that she won’t be with us at our 20th either, or for our treasured “galpal” weekends, or ever again in any way but in our stories and photographs, and in our affection for her family. I am still having conversations with her in my head, composing letters to her, filing things away to share with her. I want to call her on the phone and tell her about the book I just read, get her opinion on the day’s newspaper headlines, talk to her about motherhood, a joy she got to experience for far too brief a time.

Just a few weeks before she died, Monica sent Ann, Kathleen, Sarah, and me a letter with an article she’d clipped from a travel magazine about Montana dude ranches. “How about this for our 40th birthday trip?” she suggested. This at a time when she had to know, deep in her heart, that she might not make it, a time when lifting a pen took an enormous effort and each minute of the day—her last days with her beloved family—carried weight and value beyond measure. I was and am still dumbfounded by her optimism, her grace, her generosity, her courage. And if she was trying to say something else—“I want to be there; keep me with you”—we can answer her here. Of course, M. Of course.

—Diane Schwemm ’84

 

 

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