Gertrude Johnson and Mary Wales: Two Trailblazers in Rhode Island Education

Frank L. Grzyb and Russell J. DeSimone

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. Back 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, it was nevertheless their vision and perseverance that has made the university what it is today.

Our 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 with 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—an understanding that would prove extremely useful to her. Five years later, she decided to return to the profession for which she was originally trained 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—both nearing forty years of age—threw caution to the wind and opened their own business school. 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 in 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. New technology of the day provided students the opportunity to use typewriters, bookkeeping and mimeographing machines and adding machines then 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 & Wales Business School moved to 36 Exchange Street after World War I. (Russell J. DeSimone Collection)

The school continued to prosper under their capable leadership, awarding diplomas to numerous students in the decades to follow. 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 future of the school looked even brighter as more women were entering 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 that it was time to find a buyer for the school that 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 of the 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 were free to retire to their Warwick home. But in 1952, Mary died from her illness. Soon thereafter, 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 truly prospered. Under the highly capable leadership of Edward Triangelo and Morris Gaebe, the school blossomed. Within five years of the two assuming ownership, the school doubled in size. In 1960, the school became an accredited junior college, and in 1963, Johnson & Wales, under state charter, became a nonprofit institution. There were additional major milestones. In 1970, the school became a four-year college, and 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.

(Banner image: Gertrude Johnson and Mary Wales (Johnson & Wales University Collection)

Suggested Further Reading:
This article is based on an excerpt in a book by Frank L. Grzyb and Russell DeSimone titled Remarkable Women of Rhode Island (History Press, 2014). Of the sources they relied on for this article, the best account in book form is Johnson & Wales: A Dream That Became a University, by Donald A. D’Amato and Rick Tarantino. Also of note is the short article “‘Very Proper Ladies’ Start a Small School,” by Katherine Imbrie, published in the Providence Journal on March 18, 1994. Recently, Good Night Irene Productions, an independent film company, produced a documentary entitled HERstory: The Founding Mothers of Johnson & Wales University. This documentary is part of a trilogy of films under the title A University Comes of Age. The filmmaker is Marion Gagnon, who is also a full-time professor in the School of Arts & Science at Johnson & Wales University.

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