May Belle was born into the well-established Chellis Family of Meriden, NH, on October 24, 1862. As many of her family had before her, and after her, she attended KUA for several years. After graduating as salutatorian of her class in 1879, she taught school for three years, but, always desiring more education, May Belle, along with two cousins, entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1882. She was admitted into the Junior Middle Class and needed only two years to graduate although this would not lead to a degree. May Belle decided not to return the following year. One biographer speculated that at a female seminary she may have missed the “…lack of masculine competition she had found at Kimball Union” or that “…the requirement of an hour of daily domestic work irked her.”
During this time, Middlebury College had been debating whether to fully admit women and if they did, whether they would be admitted as degree candidates; a few women had already attended classes under difficult circumstances. In 1883 it was announced that women would be admitted on the same terms as men. The decision was partly due to pressure from alumni and partly because of economic reasons and a declining student body. That summer two young men, graduates from both Kimball Union and Middlebury, came to Meriden looking for candidates for their college. They were told to get in touch with Mrs. Chellis as they knew her daughter May Belle continued to be interested in furthering her education. They did and after passing the admissions exams, May Belle became one of the first three women admitted to Middlebury as degree students. She resolved the question of whether women could compete equally intellectually with men by “…unwittingly capturing the prize at the end of her first year for the best work in Greek…” During her first two years she ranked second in her class and was able to take some third year courses. In her third year, she took the remaining courses plus her fourth year courses and was able to graduate after only three years and in that way, she became the first woman graduate of the College.
The faculty who gathered to plan the commencement ceremonies, was in a quandary of how to handle the fact that May Belle, one of seven in the class, was legitimately the valedictorian but a woman. They resolved it by concluding, “In view of the fact that the vote of the Trustees admitting women to the College did not appear to authorize the Faculty in assigning Commencement honors to a lady, it was decided to assign the Valedictory address at the coming Commencement to Billings of the Senior Class and the Salutatory to Bailey.” One college alumnae, class of 1918, wrote in the Middlebury College Alumni Magazine, “And if she ever felt any resentment concerning other honors she might have deserved, she never let on.” One honor she did receive was that, along with Billings, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and she gave an address, The Growth of Criticism, at graduation.
After leaving Middlebury, May Belle became assistant principal, 1886-1890, at Black River Academy in Ludlow, Vermont, where one of her pupils was Calvin Coolidge. In his autobiography, President Coolidge wrote of the principal and of May Belle, “I owe much to the inspiration and scholarly direction which they gave to my undergraduate days. They both lived to see me President…” He added, “It was under their teaching that I first learned of the glory and grandeur of the ancient civilization that grew up around the Mediterranean and in Mesopotamia…They gave me a vision of the world when it was young and showed me how it grew…I discovered that our ideas of democracy came from the agora of Greece, and our ideas of liberty came from the forum of Rome. Something of the sequence of history was revealed to me, so that I began to understand the significance of our own times and our own country.”
May Belle taught for a year in St. Peter, Minnesota, and then accepted the position as Preceptress at Gates College in Neligh, Nebraska, 1891-1897. This young college was closed by the late 1890s when May Belle married Joseph Doremus in 1898. Together they raised five children in Neligh. May Belle died on November 30, 1937.
Chellis House, Women’s Resource Center, Middlebury College, named for May Belle Chellis, their first woman graduate, class of 1886.
Next Time: The Rev. Samuel Willey, class of 1840, co-founder of the College of California, now known as U.C. Berkeley