By Randy Fiedler
Twenty years ago today, an event took place at Baylor that had occurred only once before in the university’s long history, and hasn’t happened again since. On May 17, 1997, a set of identical quadruplets — Alison, Brooke, Claire and Darcy Hansen of San Antonio — walked the stage in the Ferrell Center during commencement and received their diplomas. Three of the quads — Alison, Claire and Darcy — graduated with BA degrees in journalism from the College of Arts & Sciences. Brooke was the outlier of the group, picking up a BBA degree from Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business.
Almost 60 years earlier — on May 31, 1937 — another set of quadruplets, the Keys of Oklahoma, had received their BA degrees from Baylor President Pat Neff on the stage in Waco Hall. The story of how these two talented and accomplished sets of sisters came to Baylor and left the university for successful lives in the world is a tale that blends large doses of close family bonds, hard work and talent with a little bit of show business and luck.
Trailblazers: The Keys Quadruplets
In this day of modern medicine, multiple births — even the birth of quadruplets — won’t necessarily become front-page news. According to the latest available government statistics, a total of 228 quadruplet births were recorded in the United States in 2015, most of those achieved with the assistance of fertility drugs. But a century ago it was a much different reality, with the birth of quadruplets a rare event that became even rarer when a group of quads beat the odds by surviving past childhood.
So, when Flake and Alma Keys from the small Oklahoma town of Hollis became parents on June 4, 1915, they were dumbfounded when the single child they expected turned out to be four girls, weighing a total of 16 pounds. Word spread quickly, inspiring more than 3,000 people to travel to Hollis during the first three months of the quads’ lives just to see them. Former President Teddy Roosevelt even sent his congratulations by telegraph.
When people visited the Keys Quads, they learned that the four girls were not all “identical,” but could be considered two pairs of twins. Roberta and Mona were identical twins, while Mary and Leota were fraternal. Together they joined a household that already included four older brothers and sisters.
The Keys were one of many working class Oklahoma families struggling to survive when their roster of children doubled in an instant. Flake Keys made a modest living selling hardware and furniture in Hollis. Before long, he and Alma began getting offers from circuses, vaudeville houses and even Hollywood to show off the quadruplets for money, which certainly would have helped the family financial picture. But the couple were Baptists whose values prompted them to reject most offers to display their new babies in what they considered unsuitable venues. They did, however, agree to let the girls appear at a few events, including annual displays at the Oklahoma State Fair where visitors paid 25 cents to see them.
As the Keys Quads grew up they discovered a shared talent for music, learning to sing as a quartet and play piano and saxophone. And as they made public appearances over the years, the girls became experienced public speakers. Occasionally the young women’s celebrity allowed them some heady perks, as when they met Hollywood stars including Gary Cooper and Marie Dressler during a trip to Los Angeles.
“So many unusual, interesting things have happened to us because we’re quadruplets that we don’t mind the occasional unpleasantness and inconvenience at all. We have a lot of fun,” they told reporters at the time.
As the Keys Quads prepared to graduate from high school in 1933 during the depths of the Depression, their lives took a new course when Baylor President Pat Neff decided to step in. Neff had taken over the reins of the university following the death of President Samuel Palmer Brooks in 1931, and the new chief executive was open to ideas that might help Baylor make it through the hard times. Neff, who served two terms as Texas governor during the Keys’ childhood, was aware of the talented Baptist quartet to the north, and he understood the kind of national publicity Baylor could gain by having the Keys Quads enroll. So he offered Roberta, Mona, Mary and Leota full four-year scholarships, which they readily accepted.
“It was the Depression, and my father was already going under financially,” Roberta Keys Torn remembered in later years. “We would never have been able to go to college if President Neff hadn’t been long on publicity.”
The Keys arrived in Waco on Sept. 15, 1933, becoming the first quadruplets to ever enroll at Baylor. During their stay on campus, the quads lived in a special suite in Women’s Memorial Dormitory that was memorialized with a plaque after they moved out.
Evidence of the Keys Quads’ national celebrity came soon after their arrival at Baylor. About two weeks after they enrolled, a letter from a female admirer in Kansas arrived at the Baylor post office. Even though the address on the envelope consisted only of pictures of four door keys and the words “Baylor University, Waco, Texas,” the letter made it to campus and the post office had no trouble figuring out who the recipients were.
The Keys proved to be excellent students, and during their four-year stay on campus they helped boost Baylor in many ways. The girls would travel around the state with Pat Neff and appear before a number of groups, singing and playing their saxophones. In May 1936, Neff and the Keys Quads embarked upon a 5,000-mile trip across the country to drum up interest in the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas that year. During the tour the quads appeared on Fred Allen’s Town Hall national radio program in New York City and met Vice President John Garner in Washington, D.C.
But the tour’s media highlight was a meeting between the Keys Quads and Canada’s Dionne Quintuplets, the female siblings whose birth two years before had led to unprecedented worldwide interest. The Keys gave the Dionne girls Texas bluebonnet caps, and Pat Neff offered the quintuplets the same Baylor scholarship deal he’d given the Keys Quads, but the popular quints would eventually make other plans.
The Keys Quads graduated from Baylor on May 31, 1937, and became the first known quadruplets in history to finish college. They continued performing together around the country until 1940, when Mona became the first of the quads to marry. Her three sisters eventually married as well, and all four women and their families maintained close ties with Baylor and appeared at a number of campus functions over the years.
Leota, the last Keys Quad to be born, became the first of the group to die in the early 1970s. The oldest quad, Roberta Keys Torn, lived the longest of the four and died at age 96 on Aug. 19, 2011.
Lightning Strikes Twice: The Hansen Quadruplets
The story of how Baylor University welcomed not one, but two sets of quadruplets during its existence began with a man watching late-night television. The man was Dr. Herbert H. Reynolds, president of Baylor from 1981 to 1995. The show was The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which one evening had among its guests the Hansen Quadruplets of Lee High School in San Antonio. As Reynolds watched Carson enjoying his interview with the charming, bright, well-spoken young women, the president soon became convinced that he should follow in Pat Neff’s footsteps and find a way to bring a set of quadruplets to Baylor.
The Hansen sisters are different from the Keys Quadruplets in that all four Hansens are considered identical. Their parents, Al and Sheila Hansen, did not take fertility drugs and were not expecting quadruplets, although early signs made them suspect they might become the parents of twins or even triplets.
The Hansen Quads were born within 17 minutes of each other on Oct. 24, 1974, weighing a total of 17-1/2 pounds. At the hospital, staff members put tags on the quads identifying them by birth order as “A, B, C and D,” and their parents gave them names beginning with the same consecutive letters –– Alison, Brooke, Claire and Darcy. The girls grew up in a family of eight, which includes their parents and two older sisters, Wendy and Holly.
The Hansen Quads excelled in school during their time in San Antonio, maintaining “A” averages. While the Keys Quads became noted for their musical gifts, the Hansens soon displayed a proficiency for foreign languages, becoming fluent in Spanish and German by the time they graduated from high school. They were media celebrities in their hometown of San Antonio, making an annual appearance in the Battle of Flowers Parade. They also filmed some commercials and visited a few national TV shows such as The Tonight Show, Regis and Kathy Lee and the Maury Povich Show (which videotaped them at age 16 going on their very first “quad blind date” with members of a local football team).
As high school graduation approached, a number of other Texas universities recruited the four honor students, but Reynolds resolutely pursued them and convinced the Hansens to enroll at Baylor. They came to the university on full academic scholarships based on their superior scholastic merit.
And what an arrival the Hansens had! When they showed up at Collins Hall on Aug. 23, 1993, during Welcome Week, local news crews were joined by a television crew from CNN as they interviewed the four women and shot video of them carrying in their belongings and getting situated in their new rooms. The Hansen Quads broke tradition with the Keys Quads by deciding not to room all together, wanting a bit more independence and the experience of living with non-siblings.
As the Keys did before them, the Hansens represented Baylor University at a number of functions each year, and were often seen at important campus events such as the Homecoming Parade, the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sesquicentennial Walkway and the Heritage Harvest Festival. All four Hansens also worked as student writers in Baylor’s public relations office, which is where I worked when I first met them.
One of the highlights of the Hansen Quads’ first semester at Baylor came on Oct. 22, 1993, when the Hansens were able to meet two members of the Keys Quadruplets and swap stories about their campus experiences 60 years apart.
While the Hansens were together often during their Baylor years, it was also a time when they learned to be apart as they prepared for their varied careers. Soon after they received their Baylor degrees in May 1997, the quads scattered across Europe — alone — to begin the newest chapters of their lives. Alison left for Madrid, Spain, to study on a Fulbright grant, while Brooke headed to Salzburg, Austria, to study German. Claire used a Fulbright grant to study in Vienna and Darcy began a series of journalism internships across the continent.
It would have probably required a satellite GPS system and a sophisticated computer data program to try and keep track of the worldwide movements of the Hansen Quads in the 20 years since their Baylor graduation. As they have settled down in one city or another, at least one of them has always been based outside the United States, usually in Europe or the Far East, and they are as comfortable with international travel and shifting languages, currencies and climates as anyone their age could be.
Because they find themselves so frequently spread across the globe, the Hansens make it a priority to keep in contact with each other. They call, text, email, schedule family visits and take “quad vacations” together when possible. And while they have learned to enjoy being known as individuals in their daily lives (and not always being tagged as one of a group of four identical sisters), they occasionally make public appearances together. Over the years they have appeared in a few television commercials, run together in the Flora London Marathon and submitted to makeovers together before a television audience on the Rachael Ray Show.
And Where Are They Now?
It should come as no surprise that the Hansen Quads are still straddling the Atlantic Ocean when it comes to their places of residence 20 years after Baylor. And they’ve stayed busy by getting married, having children and building their careers.
Alison is living in the Dallas area, where she graduated in December 2015 from SMU with an MA degree in dispute resolution and conflict management. She works at PepsiCo as director of the PepsiCo University team. When not at work she enjoys spending time with husband Mike Strong and her son Spencer Strong, who is almost three-and-a-half years old.
Brooke, the lone Baylor business major among her sisters, is one of two Hansen Quads now living overseas. After stays in Amsterdam and other cities in the Netherlands (including the completion of a master’s degree at Maastricht University) she has been in Munich, Germany, for the past three years — first working for Accenture Interactive, and at present working at a specialist marketing agency. She’s married to a Dutchman, Roeland Nieuwenhuis, and has a two-year-old son, Gustav, “who is being raised with three different cultures.”
Claire has spent a lot of time overseas, living in Singapore for five years and earning a master’s degree in international publishing and marketing from the University of Vienna in Austria in 2000. She now calls England home, living in the Greenwich district of London, “right on the Thames River, next to the Cutty Sark ship.” She is the global head of marketing for the technology conglomerate Cisco, managing the British Telecom (BT) account which does more than $1 billion of business for the company each year. While living in England, Claire has completed an accelerated law degree (a BA in jurisprudence) from Oxford University. After receiving some additional training she plans to enter a London law firm as an apprentice, and after two years of in-house training there she will be a qualified lawyer under the British system. Oh yes, and I should mention that Claire now has dual citizenship, adding British citizenship to her American credentials in 2006.
Darcy lived for 11 years in New York City, where she met husband Justin Bachman, an aviation/aerospace reporter for Bloomberg. They have two children — Nils, age 4, and Nora, age 2. She and her family moved to the Dallas area in late 2015, and she’s now doing freelance technology communications work after taking four years off to raise her children. “My last corporate job was at IBM,” she said. Darcy enjoys living close to fellow quad Alison and one of their older sisters, Holly, who lives in Denton.
Darcy said she can’t believe it’s been two decades since she and her sisters graduated from Baylor.
“I remember when some Baylor officials came to our house in San Antonio on a recruiting trip while we were in high school. They told us in an eloquent speech that where you choose to go to university will inform every aspect of the rest of your life, and attending Baylor certainly has for the better,” Darcy said. “Also, Baylor and the Waco area have really grown in the past couple decades. For one thing, when we went there, there were really only six or so places to dine out, but now there is a lot of choice. Also, Claire joked that she never imagined Waco would become a tourist destination like it is now. I guess I will have to go back with my little bears and be a tourist for a weekend!”
Photos courtesy of the Hansen family, The Texas Collection at Baylor University and Baylor University Photography