Saginaw’s Alice Freeman Palmer became one of the nation’s greatest educators, “graduating” from teaching school in Saginaw to become president of Wellesley College.
Alice Freeman was born in Colesville, New York, in 1855. As if she had foreseen that her life would be short, she worked with a sense of urgency that began when she was a young girl. From her parents, she inherited a capacity for hard work and a tenacity of purpose. She was the oldest of four children.
For a woman who gained her fame as an educator, Mrs. Palmer had great difficulty getting her own education. She received her preparatory training at a small New York school, but when she announced she wanted to go to college, the family budget disapproved. Her father had been an unsuccessful farmer who later spent two years studying to become a doctor, as was customary in those days. Even after he obtained his degree, money was very tight. Alice informed her parents she would go to college if it took her until she was fifty. If her parents would help her, she promised, she would not marry until her brother had gone through college and her two sisters had the education they wanted. She kept her word.
She decided to enter the University of Michigan, then pioneering in the coeducation field. It was through the University of Michigan that she came to Saginaw. At the time, the brash roughness of the booming lumber days was apparent in schools throughout the city. The example of roistering lumberjacks who settled the most trifling differences in gouging and fist-swinging combat was carried over into the school yards. Many a harried teacher, unable to control the disorder, retreated far from East Saginaw and Saginaw City. Now in 1877, Saginaw High School was out of control and the teachers and even the principal seemed afraid of the gang that had taken over. They appealed to the University of Michigan for help—a last-ditch effort before the school was closed.
The story that comes down to us does not record what the Saginaw High School officials thought when their new assistant principal appeared—a frail wisp of a young woman of 22. This was Miss Alice Freeman, a petite new graduate of the University of Michigan. At the university, frock-coated deans and other faculty members had been delighted with her studious promise. They said she would go far.
Alice quickly assessed the situation and found that the ringleader of the fearsome gang was not a young man toughened by hard work but the pampered son of a wealthy and influential man. His son was comfortably convinced that anyone who tried to discipline him would face the wrath of his father and sure retribution. Alice looked him in the eye and suspended him and his gang of young thugs. True to form, the father came roaring in to demand that Alice be fired—immediately. The young ringleader smirked knowingly. But not for long. After a heart to heart talk with Alice Freeman, the father backed down. Within a week, things had quieted down. Soon, all disorder had stopped and classes were in session. Her final triumph over the young rebels came when the father ordered his now-penitent son to make a public apology so that he could return to school.
Next, Alice persuaded the rest of her family to move here and they became great assets to the young city. Dr. Freeman set up his medical practice in the front rooms of the house they found on Millard Street, and after her brother Fred graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School, he joined his father’s practice. They were highly regarded by their patients and the medical community. Alice’s mother, Elizabeth, was the leader of the group of women who founded a hostel for women wanting to get out of prostitution. The hostel soon became Women’s Hospital, later named St. Luke’s and now Covenant.
After two years in Saginaw, Alice left to become a professor at Wellesley College. She became its president when she was only 27—the first woman to become the president of a major college. Her presidency at Wellesley was thought by many to be its golden age. She insisted on rigid scholastic standards at Wellesley and thus brought the same high standards to 15 preparatory schools throughout the eastern half of the United States, established as feeders for Wellesley.
During her presidency, Wellesley grew. She herself did much of the tedious clerical work such expansion entailed. She standardized courses, gave the faculty a place at the council table, expanded the library and gymnasium and built a new dormitory. These were revolutionary moves for her time. In honor of her accomplishments, she received an honorary Ph.D from the University of Michigan in the early 1880s.
With her 1889 marriage to George Herbert Palmer, a distinguished scholar and professor at Harvard, she ended her active leadership at Wellesley, but she remained a trustee of Wellesley, a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education and an active worker in countless education groups. In 1892, she became dean of women at the University of Chicago, and she was much in demand as a speaker.
Childless herself, Alice loved children. One of her cherished duties later in life was visiting the slums of Boston where she was active in a vacation school for children of the very poor. She taught those children three rules for happiness:
Hers was a character which mixed sentiment and practicality. A flower given by a friend, a pebble picked up on a walk with her husband, a worn book, the fragment of a favorite gown—all these were saved until boxes and chests in her home were filled to overflowing. Yet her desk always was orderly.
She died in 1902 in Paris. She and her husband were on a European trip intended to restore her feeble health. She was 47.