Mary Colman Wheeler was an educational innovator, a visionary, an artist, and an activist for human rights. She was also the founder of the Mary C. Wheeler School in Providence, R.I.
Born in Concord, Massachusetts, on May 15, 1846, to Abiel Heywood Wheeler and Harriet Lincoln, she was the youngest of five children. Concord was, at the time of Wheeler’s early life, a progressive community engaged with Transcendentalism, abolitionism, education reform, and women’s rights. Her father, Abiel, was involved in a local Underground Railroad effort, and their family provided refuge to escaped slaves on their way to Canada throughout the 1850s.
Intellectual figures in the community at that time included Amos Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Horace Mann, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others. Wheeler’s ethical and intellectual beliefs were influenced by contact with women such as Mary Moody Emerson and the sisters Elizabeth Peabody, Mary Peabody (Mrs. Horace Mann), and Sophia Peabody (Mrs. Nathaniel Hawthorne).
Wheeler was an enthusiastic artist and took drawing lessons with her friend May Alcott beginning in 1858. Notably, May was youngest sister of writer Louisa May Alcott and inspired the character of Amy March in her novel Little Women.
Mary Wheeler graduated from Concord High School in 1864 and Abbot Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1866. She started teaching mathematics and Latin at Concord High School and in 1868, moved to Providence, Rhode Island to teach mathematics at Miss Shaw’s, a finishing school. In the 1870s, she traveled to Germany, Italy, and France to study art while teaching intermittently in Providence. In 1877, Wheeler started a practice of taking groups of students to Giverny, France, during the summer to learn French and study painting and art history. She was the first American educator to offer a study abroad program. One year, she leased a property next to Claude Monet in Giverny and became friendly with the Monet family.
One of the first students to join her study abroad program was Louise Herreshoff, a member of the notable family of naval architects and boat builders in Bristol, Rhode Island. At the age of six, she began art classes at Wheeler’s studio and graduated in 1890. She became a successful painter, and her works now hang in major museums worldwide. Both her father, John B. Herreshoff, and her uncle, Nathanael G. Herreshoff, the famous Bristol boat designers and builders, are members of The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.
Mary Wheeler believed that girls deserve more than a “finishing school” approach to education. In 1990, she accepted ten female students as boarders and officially founded The Mary C. Wheeler School. Looking for the advantages of town and country living, she developed a school with two campuses — an urban campus in the heart of Providence to benefit from the proximity to Brown University and a “Farm Campus” in nearby Seekonk, Massachusetts, to serve as a “rural counterpoint.” At “The Farm,” the growing crop of day and boarding students could study botany, biology, and astronomy in a pastoral environment. At one point, she advertised her school in Vogue as the Mary C. Wheeler Town & Country School. A building in Providence was purchased to house girls enrolled in the preparatory program for her Cabot Street School. In 1910, the Hope Building was constructed to provide living and dining facilities required by a growing student body and faculty. In 1912, the original Fresh Air Building was completed.
Wheeler hired Mary Helena Dey in 1914 to reorder the school’s curriculum. As a result, the school became a pioneer in the educational theories of John Dewey. Through Dey’s contacts, such notables as Carl Sandburg came to campus to meet with students or, in Sandburg’s case, deliver the graduation address. Students could take courses based on their needs and interests rather than follow a prescribed curriculum for all students — something unusual for a girl’s school.
Miss Wheeler, who supported these curricular initiatives wholeheartedly, died on March 10, 1920, resulting from a fall on an icy street. She was 73. In her will, she established a Board of Trustees to oversee her school. Mary Helena Dey, who had studied under educational theorist John Dewey at the University of Chicago and had been Dean of Girls at the University of Chicago’s High School, was named headmistress. Born in Canada, Miss Dey brought a college-preparatory, progressive curriculum to the school and served it through its second quarter of a century, retiring in 1940. It was Miss Dey who approved the School’s Motto: “The Spirit Giveth Life,” in 1933, as well as created a longer school day and oversaw the construction of new campus buildings such as Wheeler Memorial Hall, a new Fresh Air Building and the purchase of surrounding buildings to serve as dormitories and classrooms.
In the mid-1920s, the Farm facilities were expanded for $4,400 to include a field hockey field and two tennis courts. The “swimming hole” was enlarged and deepened. Later, an arboretum featuring several hundred unusual plants and trees was established at the Farm.
Today, the Wheeler School enjoys an excellent academic reputation, placing its graduates in some of the best colleges and universities in the country. It all began when Mary Wheeler refused to accept the idea that women cannot handle the challenges associated with a higher education.
Mary C. Wheeler was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2012.
For additional reading:
The Leaders of Rhode Island’s Golden Age, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, The Heritage Press, Charleston, SC.