In 1878, in the first year of the newly founded University of Colorado in Boulder, a most important event took place. Mary Rippon arrived to teach English grammar, French and German languages and give instruction in mathematics. She was one of the first women to gain a place on the faculty of a university and was ultimately promoted to chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literature.
Her journey to a 30 year career at the university took place in a time where the University of Illinois, (Mary was born in Illinois) did not take women, so Mary went to Europe to pursue college education with five years of study abroad in Switzerland and Germany.
Mary returned to the United States, and while teaching in Detroit, she was warned by a minister who had just returned from Boulder that the University of Colorado consisted of a single building located “way out on the prairie and this one building would soon fall down and kill all within it.” The appearance in the Atlantic Monthly of Helen Hunt Jackson’s article on the Colorado wild flowers and repeated invitation from a former university teacher, Dr. Joseph Sewall, who was the freshly appointed president of the new University of Colorado, sent Mary and invitation to join the faculty.
Rippon traveled by train from Detroit to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and then down to Boulder. She recalled her arrival as follows:
I was almost alone in the Pullman when the train stopped. Dr. Sewall was there to meet me. The daylight had faded but a new moon cast enough light to show up the wonderful line of the snow clad mountains. The air was that of a perfect January evening, clear, dry and bracing. One of the first questions Dr. Sewall asked me was “How does it look to you?” With eyes turned to the silhouette at the west, and thoughts of the Alps, my one word was “glorious.” The genial Doctor relaxed at once as he remarked, “Well, my spirits have risen a hundred percent. My wife had told me you would not stay two days in this lonely place.”
The Campus consisted of Old Main, a lonely, three-story building on a hill overlooking the town. 55 college prep students made up the student body. Mary taught mathematics and English grammar in her first year.
Until 1901, Mary also served as acting dean of women. Working with women students was a priority for her. She formed women’s leagues (which later evolved into the YWCA) to promote social graces. Despite her meager salary, she managed to share it with needy women students and always was ready to counsel those with personal problems. She sent newspapers, booklets, and study guides to women isolated on remote ranches and in mining camps to give them an opportunity to learn. On campus, Mary organized fund drives for the university library and planted trees and shrubs throughout the grounds.
Yet something may have been missing from Mary’s active life — at 37 she was still unmarried. A student 12 years younger than her whom she tutored, Will Housel became her lover. In April of 1888, she became pregnant. Mary and Will kept this secret, as universities did not favor married women, and Victorian society did not hold with women having babies. Ultimately, Miriam, their daughter was placed in a orphanage. The couple remained together, until Will moved to Ann Arbor Michigan to take up farming. Will married and had four children.
Mary may have been the first American woman to teach men at a state university and may have been the first woman professor at any state university. Upon her death in 1935, the Regents of the university approved plans for an outdoor theater to be built in Mary Rippon’s honor. That theater is still in use today.
From the book: Women of Consequence, by Jeanne Varnell