Susan Mills: The science teacher who founded the first women’s college in California

American history offers many examples of extraordinary educators. This blog spotlights just a few of them. Today’s focus is on Susan Tolman Mills, a secondary school teacher who established the first women’s college in California.

Susan Tolman was born in Enosburg, Vermont, on November 18, 1825. One of eight children, she was the daughter of homesteaders who operated a thriving business. Her father owned a tannery and her mother was a homemaker. Susan’s mother was especially insistent that her six daughters become educated, and after the family relocated to Ware, Massachusettes, all the daughters attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Following her graduation, Susan taught classes in science and theology there for three years.

In 1848, the young educator married Cyrus Taggart Mills, a Presbyterian missionary. The adventurous newlyweds traveled to Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. Cyrus became the principal of a seminary for boys, while Susan taught domestic skills to girls in the local schools.

In 1860, the couple moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where they took charge of the Punahou School. There Susan taught geography, geology, chemistry, and botany. She introduced physical education to the female students. She also dedicated her energy to improving the food choices and other amenities provided by the school.

In 1864, Susan and Cyrus relocated to California, with ambitions of establishing a school of their own. Their goal was to provide equal education and opportunities for women. The year after their arrival in the state they purchased a girls’ seminary in Benicia, just east of Vallejo in Solano County. They named their institution Mills Seminary. The couple spent several years improving their school by expanding the number of course offerings and recruiting qualified teachers. In 1871, they sold this property and moved their school to Oakland, on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay. This new facility, with four-story buildings, dining halls, and a high central observatory named Mills Hall, was long considered the most beautiful education building in California. Eventually the girls’ school established by the Mills was transformed into Mills College, the first women’s college in the state. The college still serves young women as a liberal arts college to this day. After Susan’s beloved husband passed away, Susan continued to serve as the principal of Mills College, expertly performing her administrative duties.

In 1901, Susan was awarded an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Mount Holyoke, recognizing her extraordinary contributions to education. At the time, the trustees of Punahou commented that Susan, “met and overcame obstacles with equanimity; she accomplished great work with poor facilities; she drew her inspiration from the dull routine of a busy life.”

Susan Mills retired in 1909 at the age of 84. She passed away three years later, on December 12, 1912, in her home, the Vermont cape house she and her husband had built on the Mills campus. This talented and industrious educator was interred at Sunnyside Cemetery, located on the college grounds.

Elementary School Teacher Grant Speed: Also an Acclaimed Western Sculptor

u._grant_speed_headshot_large[1]Often times talented educators earn recognition in fields other than education, and such is the case with (Ulysses) Grant Speed, an elementrary school teacher who also happens to be an acclaimed artist of western sculptures.

Grant was born January 6, 1930, in San Angelo, Texas. He spent his youth riding and roping, and as a teenager worked as a cowboy on his uncle’s ranch. He eventually became adept at breaking horses, and also became a rodeo contestant, competing in the bareback and bull-riding events, until a leg injury brought this activity to a halt.

In 1948, while the Korean War was in full swing, eighteen-year-old Grant enlisted in the US Air Force, serving for two years and working as an airplane mechanic. Once he was discharged, he completed a three-year mission for the Mormon church. He also married and started a family.

In 1959, Grant earned his bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. His major was animal science, but he also completed art courses and began sculpting. “Having come from conservative West Texas, I really wanted to be the world’s best cowboy,” Grant once revealed. “Yet every time I got a chance to be around any kind of western art, I couldn’t stop reading about it, looking at it, and studying it.”

Once Grant graduated from college, he accepted his first position as a teacher at an elementary school in Salt Lake City. His career as an educator spanned eight years, until he he decided to leave the profession to devote himself full-time to his art. During that period of his life, “I didn’t hardly get any sleep because I taught school all day and worked on art all night,” Grant once confessed. “I’m not talking about ’till just 12 o/clock; I’m talking about until two or three in the morning. And then I got up at 6:30 and went to teach school.”

The former educator has exhibited at the Phoenix Art Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, and the Whitney Gallery of Art in Cody, Wyoming. His bronze equestrian sculpture Night Ridin’ is displayed in the permanent art collection in the historic district of St. George, Utah, while his scupture of the legendary Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight can be found in the Square House Museum in Panhandle, Texas. The Springville Museum of Art has Grant’s equestrian sculpture Ropin’ Out the Best Ones. He also created a large-scale statue of Texas rock ‘n’ roll legend Buddy Holly for Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas, and a life-size horse-and-rider piece for Texas Tech University depicting the school’s mascot, the Red Raider.

Grant’s sculptures have earned him high praise. Among his awards is the Gold Medal for Sculpture from Cowboy Artists of America and the Prix de West Award from the National Academy of Western Art, which is affiliated with the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Grant Speed passed away on October 1, 2011, at the age of 81. He is interred at Lindon City Cemetery in Lindon, Utah.

Loren Spears: Native American Teacher and Cultural Educator

2437_71373757792_8359_a[1]Many talented and dedicated educators work diligently to foster an appreciation for the cultures of under-represented ethnic groups. One such educator is Loren Spears, a teacher, essayist, artist, and tribal council woman of the Narragansett Tribe in Rhode Island.

As a youngster, Loren attended Chariho Regional High School in her home town of Charleston, a rural village in southern Rhode Island. After her high school graduation, she earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education and teaching at the University of Rhode Island, graduating in 1988. She earned her master’s degree in education at the University of New England in 2002.

Loren’s teaching career spanned two decades and included twelve years as a first grade and fourth grade teacher in the Newport Public School system working with at-risk children. Throughout her professional career, Loren has always been a strong advocate for integrating more Native American history and experiential learning into school curriculum. Loren says she remembers, “being in a history class during my elementary days and actually reading that I supposedly didn’t exist, that my family didn’t exist, that my people didn’t exist.” She has spent much of her adult life correcting that misimpression.

In addition to her professional accomplishments as a teacher, Loren works as the executive director and curator of the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. The museum was the site of a private, state-certified school, the Nuweetooun School, which this talented educator directed from 2003 to 2010. Nuweetooun, which translates as “Our Home” in the Narragansett language, was founded by Loren with the help of the Narragansett community and generous donations, including monies from a local charity, the Narragansett Tribe, and the Rhode Island Foundation. Though Loren is Narragansett, the school is not connected to any specific tribe. As the school’s director, Loren made sure that the Nuweetooun School provided Native American children from kindergarten through the eighth grade an experiential, collaborative curriculum based on Native American traditions and culture, as well as standard academic subjects including mathematics, language arts, social studies, science, and health.

In June, 2005, Loren received the Feinstein Salute to Teachers, Teacher of the Month. In 2006, she earned the Native Heritage Gathering Award, and in 2010, Loren was chosen as one of eleven Extraordinary Women honorees for Rhode Island in the area of education. Today, this chalkboard champion lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and uses her vast energy to focus on educating the public on indigenous issues, arts, culture, and history through cultural arts programming, lectures, art classes, inter-generational programming, grant writing, exhibit development and design, curriculum development, school design, Native American education, and educational consulting.