Helen Peabody, Class of 1844, first President of Western College, Oxford, Ohio

Helen Peabody was born on May 6, 1826, on a farm in Newport, NH, the youngest of 14 children.  As a young girl, she was deeply interested in academics and, encouraged and aided by her brothers, she secured a place at Kimball Union where two brothers and two sisters had been students. She studied here before attending Mount Holyoke Seminary [called Mount Holyoke College since 1893], “…the pioneer institution for the higher education of women in this country.” She graduated with high honors in 1848, and as a favorite student of Mary Lyon, president of the college, she stayed on as a teacher for several years.
Western Female Seminary was established in 1853, becoming a seminary and college in 1894, as a daughter school of Mount Holyoke Seminary. The founders felt that the eastern college “…should be duplicated in the West.” In fact, Western became known as the Mount Holyoke of the West. Western stated its primary purpose “…the education of the hearts, the hands and the brains of the young women of the West…” as Ohio was at that time.

In September 1855, the college opened with a faculty consisting of Mount Holyoke women and with Helen as president.  Here she remained as president for 37 years although other offers came her way. When the Durants were planning Wellesley College, they tried to secure Helen as the head of the new institution, but she couldn’t be persuaded to leave Western, a place she had come to love.  Instead, Helen sent her own faculty member, Ada L. Howard, from Temple, NH, and a Mount Holyoke graduate, to be the president of the new institution.

Helen retired in 1888, and traveled around the country and the Orient before finally settling in Pasadena, CA, where she died in 1905. In a tribute from Lelia McKee Welsh, the president who succeeded her at Western, she said, “Miss Peabody found a chaotic condition of affairs within the new college, and indifference, misunderstanding, and even hostility in the world without. It was hers to evolve order from chaos, to complete the unfinished building, to collect equipment, to attract students, to raise money, to form an entirely new clientele, to make an atmosphere…to make one dollar do the work of two…with the aid of wise and generous trustees, a strong faculty, and loyal alumnae and friends, Miss Peabody safely conducted the young institution, bringing it out into a larger place each time, and finally handing it over to her successor free from debt, and with a moderate endowment.” Her greatest asset may have been what Welsh described as Helen’s “…big, warm heart…expressed…in the warm hand-clasp and the loving words of welcome which met [each student] at the very threshold of her college life, and which went with her, not only through her college career, but throughout life…” In letters to her girls after retirement, she signed them, “Yours in old-time and all-time love.”

Western remained an independent women’s college until 1970 when “a committee of cooperation” was formed with Miami University, Oxford, OH, sharing various facilities. Before the 1973-74 school year, both presidents signed an agreement for an affiliation between the two colleges and in 1974 Western became part of Miami and became the Western College Program. Finally, in 2007 Western integrated into the College of Arts and Sciences and is now known as the Western Program at Miami University.

Next time: Charles A. Eastman, class of 1883, a Dakota Sioux called Hakadah.