Mary Colman Wheeler (1846-1920) the founder of Providence’s Wheeler School, was born on the family farm in Concord, Massachusetts, May 15, 1846. The Wheeler family, direct descendants of one of the first families of Massachusetts, was friends and neighbors of the Transcendentalists and literary leaders of their times; the Alcotts, Thoreaus, Hawthornes, Peabodys and Emersons. Miss Wheeler is buried along with these Concord notables on Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
An appreciation for the value of the arts and education came naturally to Mary Wheeler. She began her teaching career in the Concord public school as an instructor of mathematics and Latin. In 1868, she moved to Providence to teach at Miss Shaw’s, a finishing school for young ladies. During the 1870s, Miss Wheeler traveled to Europe to study art, returning in 1882 to Providence where she began teaching painting to young women.
Her own work was influenced by the Impressionists. Starting in 1887, she traveled with groups of young women to Giverny, France, to paint and study art history and French. Her summer trips led her to lease the property next door to Claude Monet, and soon Miss Wheeler and her students were friends and dinner companions with the Monet family and many of the Impressionists who also came to Giverny.
With her background in art and academics, Mary Wheeler believed that girls deserved more than a “finishing school” approach to education. As her studio program grew from a class of 10 girls, she added a college preparatory curriculum and founded The Wheeler School in 1889. In 1911, Brown University recognized her leadership with an honorary masters degree.
Mary died on March 10, 1920 at the age of seventy-three from complications arising from a fall on an icy street. By the terms of her will the Mary C. Wheeler School was left to a board of trustees, to be maintained as the same kind of school that its founder had created and developed.
For her time, Mary Wheeler was considered an educational innovator, a visionary, an artist, and an activist for women’s rights. Her spirit continues today at The Wheeler School, which celebrates her legacy of individual creativity and opportunity in education.
– (Dr.) Roberta Brown Feather