Lawyers, Teachers, Actors
Phoebe Couzins, the first woman to graduate from Washington University 140 years ago, earned her law degree and was licensed to practice in four states. However, she chose to work as an activist for women's rights. She earned a living touring and speaking on the lecture circuit. In 1884, when her father became the U.S. Marshal for Eastern Missouri, he deputized her; after his death in 1887 President Grant made her the interim U.S. Marshal for two months. She was the first woman in the nation to hold such a position.
LILLIE ROSE ERNST
Lillie Rose Ernst was one of the first twelve women to graduate from Washington University. Born the youngest of six siblings in a middle class St. Louis family, she excelled in her high school classes. In 1892, Ernst graduated magna cum laude from Washington University. She began her life-long teaching career at Central High School the next year.
In 1907, Ernst was promoted to Principal at Cote Brillante Elementary School. In 1920, she was made Assistant Superintendent of Instruction, becoming the first woman of that rank in the St. Louis Public Schools. Internal politics led to her demotion, but after many women's groups protested, she was reinstated. In 1934 Ernst became the first woman to serve as principal of a local public high school. Fighting unsuccessfully to establish a teachers' pension, she took a leave of absence rather than retire without benefits at age seventy. Her long career was only possible because she never married. Until 1947, female public school teachers were required to leave their position if they married.
Active in civic work, she held memberships in the Wednesday Club, League of Women Voters, Audubon Society, and National Education Association. She became a mentor to The Potters, an informal group of young female artists in University City. As one of the earliest women graduates, she helped found the W.U. Women's Alumnae Association. The University presented her an honorary M.A. degree in 1907 in appreciation of her support.
Without any existing diary or personal correspondence, we know few details of Ernst's personal life. It is clear that she was devoted to her female friendships. She was especially close to author Leonora Halsted who left a $20,000 estate to Ernst in "appreciation of her devoted care...and my abiding love." Ernst in turn honored their relationship with a bequest creating the Leonora B. Halsted Scholarship for students in need at Washington University.
Mary Wickes was born 'Mary Isabella Wickenhauser' in St. Louis in 1910. She entered Washington University at age sixteen, and was very involved on campus, participating in Frosh Commission, Ternion, Quad Club, Thyrsus, debate, and athletics. Reminiscing about her campus days, Wickes recalled, "I was into everything on campus.... Mother used to say she'd get out my coat with the lodge buttons on it. I had all these pins down the lapel, everything I belonged to." She graduated in 1930 with a B.A. in Political Science.
Her career started just after graduation, when Director F. Cowles Strickland (in St. Louis for a local production) offered her a job in New York summer stock, and then a part at the Berkshire Playhouse. These experiences launched her long career as an actress on stage, in film, and on television. It also gave her the stage name "Mary Wickes."
Wickes worked in hundreds of comedic and character roles during her long career. Some of her best known parts were in White Christmas, Sister Act, Oklahoma!, The Father Dowling Mysteries, and guest appearances on I Love Lucy.
She received the Washington University Distinguished Alumni Citation in 1955, and was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Arts Degree in 1969.
In honor of her parents, her bequest established the Isabella and Frank Wickenhauser Memorial Library Fund for Film and Theater Arts to support Washington University's film studies and theater arts curriculum. In addition, she gave her personal papers and professional memorabilia to the Department of Special Collections.