Mary T. Wales

Inducted: 2015
Born: 1874
Died: 1952

The story of Gertrude I. Johnson and Mary T. Wales and the founding of Johnson & Wales University is truly an American success story. Given the times in which they lived, and the difficulty women faced in any professional endeavor in the early twentieth century, their story is nothing short of remarkable. In 1914, Gertrude and Mary founded a business school in Providence with just one student and one typewriter. Today, the school that carries their names is a major university with campuses across the United States with an enrollment of over 17,000 students. Although Gertrude and Mary were not responsible for the school’s significant growth over the last half-century or more, their vision and perseverance have made the university what it is today.

Their story begins when the young ladies were both students at the Pennsylvania State Normal School in Millersville, Pennsylvania. Here, they commenced a friendship that would be rekindled in Providence. It became a friendship that lasted a lifetime. After graduating in 1893, Mary spent five years teaching in Pennsylvania before moving to Massachusetts, where she taught school for another twelve years before taking some time off and moving to Rhode Island in 1911. Gertrude graduated in 1895 and continued her education, receiving a master’s degree in 1897. After teaching for a while in public schools, Gertrude took a position in a bank, where she acquired a firm understanding of the business practices of the commercial world. This understanding would prove extremely useful to her. Five years later, she returned to the profession she was initially trained in and accepted a teaching position at Bryant and Stratton Business School in Providence. Soon, Mary was also teaching at the same institution.

The old college friendship between Gertrude and Mary was renewed. After only a few years at Bryant and Stratton and with the world on the brink of war, the two friends—nearing forty—threw caution to the wind and opened their own business school. The opening of Johnson & Wales coincided with World War I as men marched off to war, unlocking the door to women in the workplace. The business school aimed to get women out of the factories and into professional office work. Women still did not have the right to vote, but Johnson & Wales broke gender barriers, forging a definitive path for women. Over the next 30 years, they positioned J&W as a “career” school with its mission: “We should teach a thing not for its own sake, but as preparation for what lies beyond.”

The school opened in September 1914 in Gertrude’s home on Hope Street in Providence. Soon, the school attracted enough students to warrant a move to larger quarters on Olney Street. Here, it remained until the decision was made to relocate to downtown Providence at 36 Exchange Street sometime after the close of World War I. With an influx of returning GIs after the war, Johnson & Wales Business School prospered. Mary focused on teaching, while Gertrude applied the skills she acquired from her banking days to become the school’s administrator. The curriculum included the usual business studies of the day: typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping, as well as English and mathematics. The new technology of the day allowed students to use typewriters, bookkeeping, and mimeographing machines and adding machines called “comptometers.” In the early part of the twentieth century, office jobs, including secretarial positions, were dominated by males. But soon, such employment came to be socially acceptable for women. Capitalizing on the change, Johnson & Wales Business School had students of both genders attending classes.

Johnson and Wales were not just business partners — they were each other’s greatest advisors. One would not do anything without letting the other know and getting their opinion. They never fought or said anything negative about each other. They truly cared for and respected each other. They also lived together in Warwick, R.I.

Students of Gertrude I. Johnson described her as tough, stern, and not to be messed with. There was a period when Ms. Johnson’s students would refer to her as G.I. Johnson because of her initials and how tough she was. If a student disrupted her class and she thought they should leave, she would go up to them and tell them they were “discharged.” Despite these descriptions of Johnson, her students were very fond of her. They knew she cared deeply for them and felt that she was like a mother to them. In contrast, Mary T. Wales was described as petite, soft-spoken, and gentle. Although Wales was soft-spoken, she did not let others walk over her. Underneath that soft exterior was a tough woman who did not let others boss her around.

The school continued to prosper under their capable leadership, awarding diplomas to numerous students in the following decades. In the meantime, the school had developed an excellent reputation for turning out well-qualified graduates to work in the business community, along with an outstanding record for job placement. Early on, it became evident that these founding mothers truly cared about their students. Under their leadership, the institution survived two world wars, the Great Depression, and the devastating hurricane of 1938 that flooded their building on Exchange Street.

Following World War II, the school’s future looked even brighter as more women entered the workforce and needed the proper business training to succeed. But there was a dilemma: the two women were now advancing in age, and, worse, Mary was battling cancer. After carefully assessing the situation, both women decided it was time to find a buyer for the school they had loved and sacrificed so much for over thirty years. In June 1947, Gertrude and Mary sold the school to a former student’s husband, Edward Triangelo, and his business partner, Morris Gaebe. Vilma Gatta, the former student, and wife of Triangelo, was not only a graduate of the business school but also worked there, teaching classes while serving as a jack-of-all-trades. Over the previous several years, Vilma had developed a strong bond with both founders and not having children themselves, Gertrude and Mary took a liking to the young woman, whom they treated as a daughter. After the sale, Gertrude and Mary could retire to their Warwick home. But in 1952, Mary died from her illness. Soon after that, Gertrude moved back to Pennsylvania, dying there in 1961.

The story of Johnson & Wales continues. Last year, the school celebrated its centenary as an institution of higher learning. The small business school that Gertrude and Mary sold in 1947 has indeed prospered. The school blossomed under the competent leadership of Edward Triangelo and Morris Gaebe. Within five years of the two assuming ownership, the school doubled. In 1960, the school became an accredited junior college, and in 1963, Johnson & Wales, under state charter, became a nonprofit institution. There were additional significant milestones. In 1970, the school became a four-year college; in 1988, it became a university. Today, the school is nationally known for its hospitality programs and is internationally recognized for its School of Culinary Arts. Gertrude and Mary would be proud of how their small school has evolved and what it has accomplished over the past century. Their names will continue to live on at Johnson & Wales University.

Gertrude I. Johnson and Mary T. Wales were inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2015.

Suggested further reading:

  • Remarkable Women of Rhode Island, by Frank L. Grzyb and Russell J. DeSimone, History Press, 2014.
  • A Dream That Became A Reality, by Donald D’Amato and Rick Tarantino,
  • “Very Proper Ladies Start a Small School,” by Katherine Imbrie, Providence Journal. March 18, 1994.
  • Her Story: The Founding Mothers of Johnson & Wales University, a documentary by Marion Gagnon, a professor in the School of Arts & Sciences, Johnson & Wales University.
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