On International Women’s Day, we reflect on the lives and legacies of Johnson & Wales University’s founders, Gertrude Irene Johnson and Mary Tiffany Wales. Here are five facts about this remarkable duo who set the course of the university more than a century ago.
1. Johnson and Wales first met in Pennsylvania. Although the university that would one day bear their name has its main campus in Providence, Rhode Island, the pair met as classmates at the Pennsylvania State Normal School in the late 1800s, where they were schooled in business practices and skills. The Civil War left many clerical positions previously held by men vacant, and, thus, women were educated to fill these roles.
2. Both were teachers. After graduation, Johnson earned her master’s degree and then taught in public schools before working for a bank in her hometown of Norristown, Pennsylvania. Wales also taught in Pennsylvania before moving to Massachusetts at the turn of the century. After they opened the small secretarial school (which today is known as JWU) in Providence, they continued to teach—Johnson focused on the “quiet” courses such as shorthand, bookkeeping, and English in one room, while Wales taught the “noisy” skills like learning the typewriter, calculator, and mimeograph machine in a separate room.
3. They started JWU with next to nothing. Johnson and Wales started their school at Johnson’s home in Providence. They had one typewriter and one student. They were also nearly 40 years old.
4. They persisted. Two World Wars, the Great Depression, and a natural disaster were all not enough to deter Johnson and Wales. The school’s doors remained open through it all, and enrollment continued to grow, despite adversity.
5. They had a mission. Wales is quoted as saying, “We should teach a thing not for its own sake, but as preparation for what lies beyond.” This practical approach to education made graduates then—and today—prepared for success in their careers. Johnson and Wales so believed in their education that there is record of them allowing some students who couldn’t afford tuition to pay after they had landed their jobs. They also established relationships with area businesses to place students upon graduation.
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