Gertrude I. Johnson, 1876-1961, and Mary Tiffany Wales, 1874-1952, founding mothers of Johnson & Wales University. Mary Tiffany Wales was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1874 and graduated from the Pennsylvania State Normal School at Millersville in 1893. Following graduation, Mary taught school, first in Pennsylvania and later in Massachusetts. In 1911 she moved to Providence, and shortly thereafter took a teaching position at the Rhode Island Commercial School, the forerunner of Bryant University.
Gertrude Irene Johnson was born at Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1876. Following her secondary schooling, she also entered the State Normal School at Millersville, Pennsylvania. It was here that Gertrude met Mary T. Wales, and a friendship developed.
Two years after her graduation in 1895, Gertrude received her master’s degree in education. For a short time thereafter she taught school before taking a position as an examiner with a local bank and trust company. In this position she honed many business skills that would become of considerable use later in her career.
In 1913, Gertrude left Pennsylvania and her banking career for a teaching position in Providence at the Rhode Island Commercial School. Here she renewed her friendship with Mary Wales–a friendship that would last a lifetime. The two women dreamed of opening a small business school in Providence similar to the one where they worked.
They wasted no time in implementing their dream. In 1914 they opened their own school of business. It was located first at Gertrude’s residence on Hope Street in Providence, and later, on Olney Street near Hope High School. Their venture had a tenuous beginning with only one student and one typewriter, but with a world war looming on the horizon it became obvious that the workplace would soon need many qualified women office workers to fill the void left by the men who joined the war effort. The school prospered and relocated to Exchange Place and later to the Gardner Building on Fountain Street in Providence. Over the next three decades it survived the stock market crash, the Hurricane of 1938, and two world wars. Not only did the school survive these cataclysms, but it prospered.
For thirty-three years both Mary and Gertrude worked tirelessly to educate students for the world of business. By 1947, with Mary in failing health, the two women decided to turn over their beloved school to other capable hands. They sold their institution to Edward Triangolo and Morris Gaebe (a 1980 Hall of Fame inductee). This duo would shepherd the school through the second half of the twentieth century. Gertrude and Mary retired to a new home in Warwick where Mary died in 1952. Soon thereafter, Gertrude moved back to her childhood hometown of Norristown, Pennsylvania and spent her last years in quiet retirement. She died there in 1961.
They were honored in a 30-minute documentary film HERstory: The Founding Mothers of Johnson & Wales University in 1994.
The biblical parable of the mustard seed that grows from the tiniest of seeds to the largest of plants in the garden has application to the work of Gertrude Johnson and Mary Wales. Their small business school grew into an internationally recognized career university with campuses in Colorado, Florida, Rhode Island and Virginia, with more than 15,000 undergraduates and untold alumni, is much like that mustard seed.
Today, more than a century after their school’s humble beginnings we recognize Gertrude I. Johnson and Mary T. Wales, not only as the founding mothers of a great institution of higher learning–Johnson and Wales University–but as worthy inductees into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.
–Russell J. DeSimone
Gertrude Johnson and Mary Wales (Johnson & Wales University Collection)