Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón
Recent group photo
The NTSU Divas reunite once a year. This was around 2013 in New Braunfels. Back row: Janis Thomas, Daphne White, Phyllis E. Thorne-Gillon, Karen Chambers-Lewis Front row: Deb Chatman, Michelle Duhart, Vivian Seward

The friendship was born at freshman orientation.

Six women came to North Texas State University in 1980 and found a connection at that event.

At a sorority rush party, six of the new friends met two other women -- and the squad of eight women calling themselves the "NTSU Divas" was formed.

Their friendship has endured for 40 years -- through the university's name change, numerous boyfriends, job changes, weddings, divorces and their parents' funerals.

"I believe it was a really good start, and over the years we have become more family than friends," says Deb Chatman ('84), who works as a senior capital acquisition specialist for UT Medical - Galveston in Galveston. "There is a saying, 'Friends are the family you get to choose.'"

When Michelle Duhart ('84) came to North Texas, she had grown up in a military family and lived in places around the United States and Germany that did not have significant African-American populations.

"It was the first time I was immersed in the African American experience," says Duhart, who serves as managing director for The Moss Group, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice consulting firm. "And to have come to North Texas and found this circle of other women of color … I thought there was a lot of power in finding other women who looked like me."

Life on campus
College group photo
The women in 1982. From left to right: Vivian Seward, Karen Chambers-Lewis, Daphne White, Janis Thomas (on her toes) and Tre' (Green) Newby, who passed away in 2008.

The connection among the women happened almost instantaneously. They first worked on class schedules together during orientation. They were all nice and friendly, says Daphne White, who attended North Texas for two years and now works as an accounting coordinator for Aimbridge Hospitality in Irving.

"We were a group of young ladies who were excited and ready to embrace the college experience," she says.

They reintroduced themselves when they came back to their residence halls and quickly began hanging out at Maple, West and the newly built Kerr Hall.

"I thought I was a big shot," Duhart says. "It was a high rise. My girlfriends would come to Kerr Hall and hang out in the lobby."

They also went to parties and danced at the Rock Bottom Lounge. In October, they watched scary movies at the Union. They ate at the Texas Pick-Up, near West Hall, and Denton County Independent Hamburger downtown. They strolled the Fry Street area and checked out the latest offerings at Voertman's bookstore.

Vivian Seward and Janis Thomas knew each other from elementary school in Dallas, and their families quickly adopted the women as their own children.

"One of many, many great memories were loading up in my 1973 red Mustang with the girls headed to Dallas to my parents' house to eat my father's fall-off-the-bone delicious ribs," says Seward, who works in quality compliance for B. Braun Medical Device Inc. "Such a treat to eat some good home food, especially since we were pretty burnt out on eating the late night Domino's pizza. My parents welcomed each one of the girls and anyone who wanted to come, eat and hang out. Jan's mother was the baker and we could always count on extras to take back to school."

Almost all of them joined the Alpha Angels, the little sister organization to the Alpha Phi Alpha Inc. fraternity, which made them "sisters" as well. Their group also included Tre' (Green) Newby, who passed away in 2008.

"We bonded together during that first year because of our strong sense of family background experiences, which was woven in the college community," says Constance Whalon Burton ('84), an adjunct GED professor at Dallas College. "We were able to continue our individual experiences from our respective families to our home-away-from-home families."

Staying in touch
Friends in Green Annual Diva Trip
At their 2013 reunion. Back row to front: Janis Thomas, Deb Chatman, Vivian Seward, Michelle Duhart, Daphne White, Phyllis E. Thorne-Gillon, Karen Chambers-Lewis

After graduation, they separated to different jobs and cities. In the 1980s, the internet wasn't yet in popular use, but they stayed in touch.

"It is the power of the letter," Duhart says. "It was the power of picking up the phone and calling."

They met up through the years for weddings, funerals, graduations, childbirths, birthdays, holidays. They organized trips once a year to destinations such as Napa Valley; northern Virginia; various Texas cities, including Denton for UNT's Homecoming; and Phyllis E. Thorne-Gillon's ('84) lake house in New Braunfels.

"I can recall how excited and childish we all were about those trips," says Thomas, who who attended North Texas from 1980 to 1984 and recently retired as a senior director of diversity and inclusion and director of operations from MetLife. "Who can forget the laughter and screams when we all met up for the first time in months?"

Enduring years
Recent group photo
The squad in about 2016. From left to right, Karen Chambers-Lewis, Michelle Duhart, Connie Whalon Burton (standing), Vivian Seward, Daphne White (sitting)

They had hoped to meet up this year to celebrate their 40th anniversary, but the coronavirus pandemic squashed those dreams. But their friendship will survive that, too. They've outlasted any disagreements, which have been few.

"Our bond has lasted so long because we accept each other's differences," says Karen Chambers-Lewis ('84), who now lives in Garland and works as a data analyst for Micronet Communications. "Some of the differences we laugh at. We love to laugh together."

Thorne-Gillon ('84), who is regional sales director for UCB, biopharmaceutical company in Houston, says their friendship affirms the phrase, "You have to be a friend to have a friend."

"They taught me how to be a friend and have made efforts to maintain contact over all these years," she says. "We have watched each other get married and/or divorced, have or not have children, care for sick parents as well as see those very parents pass on. We have celebrated grandchildren. We have remained bonded because we root for each other and want the best for each other and offer no judgment. How rare is that in today's world?"

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