In April, 1925, Miss Edith Oliver, of Hartford, CT, twenty-two years old, the daughter of a wealthy man, lost her mother to pneumonia. A year later, almost to the day, Edith received the news that she was soon to die of pancreatic cancer. She was furious. She’d had plans. That they were vague did not assuage her rage. She’d assumed she would have the time to develop them.
Her father was thrown even deeper into grief, but he soon discovered his daughter’s sense of affront was strangely healing, a contagious energizer, reminding him that he’d not grown rich by being easily defeated. He asked Edith, “Exactly what is it that you wanted to do?”
She had to decide fast now that time was running out. She said the first thing that came to mind: “To start a school for young women.”
“A school? Will they live there?”
That sounded like a good idea, so she said, “Yes.”
“For sanctuary?” he wondered. “Or empowerment?”
“Empowerment? Yes, empowerment. Of course.”
“A school,” he murmured. “Hmm.”
“Yes, Father. A school.”
“Well, we better get a move on then. I’ll supply the money. You supply the inspiration.”
That very afternoon they started to work. In his brand new 1927 Oldsmobile- which she drove – they went south out of Hartford, scouting for a place to locate the school. They agreed it had to be expansive, a rich combination of meadow and forest, preferably bounded by the Connecticut River, and within striking distance of New York City for exposing the girls to theater, museums and concert halls.
They drove through Fieldington, a little village destined to become a shopping center for affluent people, that was fading at the time, as were the surrounding farms, and came upon two farms next to each other, both unusually large for that area and both bounded by the Connecticut River – and both for sale. It seemed that the God they had stopped believing in was trying to make amends for His cruelty. Edith’s father made the offers that very afternoon; the deal with both farmers was consummated within a week.
In the course of Edith’s father’s success, he’d made many connections and he called upon them now, bringing Edith with him to raise enough additional money to build the campus. It was her idea, not his, that they meet with these potential donors in their homes, rather than their offices, and if the man’s wife, after greeting them and causing tea to be served, started to leave the room, Edith would insist she stay. “This message is for you too,” she would say. “You need to stay and hear it.”
Edith discovered her gift, which she was sure belonged more to females than to males, for reading people’s expressions and their body language. She knew instinctively to temper her assertion to the readiness of the male person she was addressing to accept the scientific fact that women, properly educated, could be even more powerful than men. And, just as instinctively she knew to make the ask for a specific amount of money and then stop talking. She would spend the awkward silence gazing intently at the husband’s eyes and then at the wife’s while the pressure to fill the silence became unendurable. At last, more often than not, the husband said, “That was a little more than I had in mind.” Edith would aim her gaze at the wife, waiting for the reprimand: “We, my Dear. A little more than we had in mind.” When that happened there was usually a flushing of faces and another silence before Edith’s father suggested a sum that was only a little less than the one Edith had suggested, and then looked lovingly at his daughter, who cared so much for other people’s daughters she would spend her last days doing this. In six months, Edith and her father had collected enough in cash and pledges to persuade his bank to loan the rest, payable over thirty years. Maybe they could get a board of trustees formed and maybe even some of the buildings built while Edith was still alive.
A year later, Miss Oliver’s School for Girls was officially in existence, though still without students and their teachers. There was a 20-member board of trustees, 19 of whom were women, and a campus consisting of a dormitory, a classroom building, a small administrative building, each clothed in glistening white clapboard. It was during the digging of the foundation of the administrative building that human bones, pottery, and weapons were discovered, conclusive evidence that Miss Oliver’s School for Girls occupied ground on which a Pequot Indian village had once existed. Native Americans had lived right here! They’d sat under the shade of the ancient copper beech tree, a motherly presence that now shaded the administration building. Already the school had a history!
The next job was to find the right person to be the headmistress. She would hire the faculty and recruit the students. The board appointed a chair of the search committee. Edith was one of the members, but it was only an honorary position, as everyone assumed her cancer prevented her actually doing the work.
But Edith had already lived longer than her doctor had predicted. He was mystified, and not a little embarrassed. Edith’s father began to wonder: was the diagnosis wrong? He took her to a famous doctor in Boston, a Harvard man, of course. Elizabeth lay down on his examination table. The doctor prodded her tummy here and there with long thick fingers. He looked up at Edith’s father and wondered aloud why he had subjected her to the stupidity of a doctor from hick town like Hartford. “Your daughter has a condition which produces, via an excess of gas, consistent discomfort,” he said. He wrote a prescription, admonished her to remove beans from her diet, and stalked out of the examination room, shaking his head, leaving Edith and her father alone to process the news.
The next day, June 10, 1928, the board of trustees declared the search completed. Miss Edith Oliver, 24 years old, with a long life ahead of her, was appointed The Founding Headmistress of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. There was much celebration and joy – though some of trustees did have a worry: would she be so busy she’d never find the right man to get married to and have children?
They needed not worry. Edith did get married. That very day. To the school. For the next 35 years, she had no time for anything other than the building up of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. Over that first summer, she recruited fifteen girls to constitute the first freshwomen class and four teachers, each passionate about her subject and the empowerment of young women. Each had a vivid, even eccentric, personality. And each, of course, was female.
Edith established two rules right away. The first: There will be no locks on the girls’ bedrooms in the dorm, nor on the door to the dorm parent’s apartment. “This is a community,” she declared. “We trust each other.” The second – because Miss O’s is a sanctuary too – No male, except immediate family members will ever step foot into a dormitory. The consequence for taking advantage of the unlocked doors to steal another’s possessions, and for violating the rule against admitting males into the dorm was expulsion. Two rules were enough. Most rules really aren’t for governing children. They’re for keeping adults calm.
One day, thirty-five years later, Edith looked out through the big French doors of her office, past the ancient copper beech, and said to herself enough. She’d planted the roots – and they were deep – of a school founded by a woman, run by women, with a curriculum designed by women for the way women learn. Beloved of the alumnae who would never let it die, the school she had birthed and nurtured for thirty-five fulfilling years was a world apart, whose intense culture of academic and artistic richness was celebrated in idiosyncratic rituals sacred to its members.
The very next day, Edith, always in a hurry, informed the board she wanted to resign very soon. She gave them a week to get over the shock and then strongly suggested they choose the head of the history department, a woman named Marjorie Boyd, to be the next headmistress. All of Edith’s suggestions to the board were always strong, and the board was always obedient. After all, she was the founding head. Marjorie Boyd was appointed Headmistress, starting July 1, 1963.
In June, the board of trustees organized a convocation to honor Edith. It was described in full-page articles in The Hartford Courant and The New Haven Advocate, complete with photographs, and was mentioned also in The New York Times. In July, Edith departed for the Grand Tour she had postponed to found Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. In Rome, she met a sculptor. They fell in love. She was too old by that time to have children – which, some say, is why they never married. Some also say she was the model for his rather portly nude statues. They lived happily together in Rome and New York City until she died in 1987 – of pancreatic cancer.