(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
Mary Ellen entered the first grade at Covedale Public School when she was six years old. It was a new world for the dairyman’s daughter who now had to walk two-and-a-half miles with her older brothers and sister. They made the trek back and forth each day regardless of weather. She tackled it as an adventure, but two-and-a-half miles in cold conditions was no picnic. Since the trip took about an hour (on good days), she had to get up early.
Her mother and grandmother both called her “Miss Prissy” for a reason. From an early age she had been very particular about how she looked, and what she wore. It was a trait she would carry all of her life. Cold weather soon produced a “management crisis” in the Townsend household.
Mary Ellen would rather suffer through the long walk in the cold than wear something warm that she didn’t like. Her mother, on the other hand, insisted she wear several petticoats to keep her warm even if she didn’t like it. The last straw came when her mom made her a flannel petticoat from an old blanket. Sparks flew between them when her mother insisted she wear it. Mary Ellen gave in and donned the flannel garment…at least for a while.
True to her independent nature, she found a way around the dilemma. Helen and the boys became more interested in their own friends and activities than in keeping tabs on Mary Ellen, so she found a loophole. She began stopping by a friend’s house near the school. There she would take off the offending garments, go on to school, then drop back and put them on again before walking home.
The plan worked well until her friend’s mother felt guilty and called Mary Ellen’s mother. When she got home from school that day she was met by her mom’s stern expression, hands on her hips.
“So, Miss Priss, you think you can take things into your own hands, do you?”
The experience was enough to drain the blood from Mary Ellen’s face. She knew she was in trouble for something, but wasn’t sure what. Looking at her mom with as much innocence as she could project she said, “No, Ma’am…I mean…why do you say that?”
“Mrs. Jenny tells me you’ve been pulling the wool over my eyes by stopping at her house to change clothes on your way to school. Is that true?”
Mary Ellen shifted her feet and looked her mother in the eye. “Yes,” she said in a small voice.”
“Well! The very idea! I go to a lot of trouble dressing you so you’ll be warm, and you do this! What do you have to say for yourself?”
Wishing she could crawl into the woodwork, Mary Ellen decided to stand her ground. “I don’t like those awful, scratchy petticoats,” she snapped with a confrontational attitude. “Nobody else has to wear stuff like that. Why should I?”
Her mother slapped her face. “Don’t you talk to me that way, young lady. You will wear what I put on you, period! You’ll do it because I say so. I don’t care what other girls wear. I’m not responsible for them, but I am responsible for you…and your health.”
Mary Ellen was both hurt and angry. She wanted to run…but she didn’t. “I’m sorry,” she muttered, studying the floor.
“Well, you’d better be. From now on you wear what I put on you and you don’t stop anywhere between here and school. Do you understand me?”
Thus ended the grand plot with the petticoats, and she was happy when her mother substituted cotton garments for flannel. She’d lost on that issue, but she still had her pride about her appearance. She was especially picky about her hair. There was a mirror above a medicine chest in the schoolroom and she would put a stool on it so she could climb up and see if her hair was alright. That also got her in trouble when the teacher returned to the room unexpectedly one day.
Such were the weighty issues life involved for Mary Ellen Townsend during her early school years. Things changed when she reached fifth grade. A shift in schools was made and she began riding a bus to the Cincinnati suburb of Price Hill to attend Carson School. The bus was better than walking two-and-a-half miles, but it was no luxury. What they called a “bus” was really a pick-up truck with a long bench on each side of the cargo bed. It had a roof and leatherette sides for protection from the weather, but it was bumpy and uncomfortable. Still, it was an adventure.
Carson School was larger than Covedale. It offered more modern teaching methods, as well as physical education. Everything was different, including more rules for students to follow. She ran headlong into that issue through her little brother who started school that first year at Carson.
During recess one day he was called to the principal’s office for walking on the grass in the school’s front yard. Incensed, Mary Ellen charged after the boy who had been sent to take Bud to the office. When they got there the secretary told her she wasn’t involved and couldn’t see the principal. Undeterred, she charged in to see him with Bud over his knee, arm raised with paddle in hand, about to administer a spanking.
“You can’t do that,” she shouted. “That’s my little brother!”
The principal stopped, looked at her sternly, scolded her for interfering, then called the secretary to take her out of the office before proceeding with the spanking.
Things changed again during Mary Ellen’s sixth grade year. Her family moved from the farm to a home on Purcell Avenue in Price Hill. This meant she attended Whittier School for the seventh and eighth grade. It was the practice then to have an eighth grade graduation ceremony, but Mary Ellen had to miss hers. While she did well in school most of the time, she had trouble with math and failed algebra. That sent her to summer school where she made up the grade, but she never did receive a diploma.
By the time she reached high school the dairyman’s daughter had been fully transplanted from the farm to the city she had daydreamed about just a few years earlier. Hughes High School was located in Clifton Heights where it’s Jacobean tower could be seen as far away as downtown. The building had been constructed in 1910 through a gift intended to provide free education to poor children.
The massive building resembled an English castle, complete with that very noticeable six-story tower that had turrets running up each side. The tower served as entryway to a four-story rectangular structure. To reach it from her home, Mary Ellen had to ride a streetcar, then make a transfer along the way. This required leaving home at 7:30 every morning. She had come a long way since the days at Covedale School.
Going to school actually became fun as she got to know other kids and share in their bubbling teenage exuberance. Something else also happened–she discovered a boy named Artie. She had always had boyfriends but she fell in love with him, even though he was a junior and she a mere freshman. They became what she called “a pair,” going everywhere and doing everything they could together for nearly five years. She and Artie had their picture taken up on the tower for the school’s yearbook when he was a senior. The picture was captioned, “The Higher Ups.”
Then change hit again. Artie went off to Ohio State University in Columbus, and Mary Ellen changed to the newly opened Western Hills High School in Price Hill. She and Artie carried on their romance through letters and his visits home, but there was one issue they couldn’t overcome. Artie was Jewish and she was Christian. His parents would not approve of them marrying and pressured him to get involved with college girls.
Ultimately Artie and Mary Ellen did break up, but before that happened she impulsively dropped out of high school in the middle of her senior year. She thought this would give her the freedom to be with him for college activities and dances. This had some consequences, the first being that she never did get a high school diploma. Another was that it left her hanging when she and Artie broke up.
The city life the dairyman’s daughter had dreamed about as a child suddenly fell apart. Her school days were over. What would come next?
(An excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)