WILMINGTON — Credited with selecting the school’s motto and green and white colors, along with being a master teacher and introducing the first literary societies and religious organizations on campus, Ellen C. Wright is remembered as among the Wilmington College pioneers who most profoundly influenced the institution’s first 50 years.
Wright, a Quaker, was one of the original students at the College, a member of the inaugural graduating class and a beloved faculty member for 46 years.
After spending a year in a preparatory program at Earlham College, she was among those students enrolled for the institution’s first day of classes in April 1871. She lived on third floor College Hall just down the hall from President Lewis Estes and his family. Wright and three classmates — two of whom were also women — comprised WC’s first graduating class in 1875.
Upon receiving her bachelor’s degree, Wright, ultimately a professor of Latin, began her service on the College faculty as a tutor in Greek and Latin. For many years, she was active in the Preparatory Department, which offered a course of study designed to prepare students for a rigorous college curriculum. Wright also taught English courses and became well known for her classes in rhetoric and composition.
Students and faculty alike affectionately knew her as “Teacher Ellen.”
One of her students between 1908 and 1912 was Faith Austin Terrell, a member of the Class of ‘12 who went on to serve WC as dean of women, instructor of history and education, Alumni Office volunteer and, for 30 years, secretary of the College’s Board of Trustees.
In 1970, on the occasion of Wilmington’s College’s 100th anniversary, she prepared a tribute to Teacher Ellen, whom she remembered from firsthand experience for her “splendid teaching, simplicity, sensitive conscience, beauty and calmness of spirit” — all of which had a profound influence on five decades of WC students.
In his History of Wilmington College, published in 1961, Oscar Boyd, the longtime faculty member who, himself, was a member of the Class of 1911, recalled Wright’s talks at the weekly chapel service as a “source of inspiration and delight.”
Terrell also remembered “the originality, the uniqueness and the appeal of Teacher Ellen’s talks.”
During her tenure, Wright was a key figure in fostering religious life on campus through prayer meetings, Christian Endeavor and the YMCA/YWCA. Also, she was an original member of such WC literary groups as the Douglas Society and its successors, the Athenaeum, Dorian and Browning societies. In times of particular financial hardship at the College, she even was known for allowing her salary to be deferred until more favorable times.
In her recollections, Terrell mentioned that Wright took a year’s sabbatical from her teaching duties, during the 1888-89 academic year, to study for an advanced degree at the newly established Bryn Mawr College in eastern Pennsylvania.
Terrell’s interest in this apparent footnote to Wright’s career was that Teacher Ellen’s substitute that year was a member of Earlham College’s Class of 1888, Elma C. Watson, who, at WC, became acquainted with Dr. George M. Austin. They married a year later and became Faith Austin Terrell’s parents.
While at Bryn Mawr, according to Terrell’s account, Wright “recognized the exactness” with which words were pronounced in the East, which often was in stark contrast to what Terrell described as the “careless speech habits” of many persons in southern Ohio.
“In an attempt to encourage consciousness of the beauty of good speech, she taught her classes, the chapel groups, frequently and impressively, the sentence: ‘Every student in this institution should do his whole duty, especially on Tuesdays.’” Terrell said.
Apparently, this sentence contained many of the elements that signaled either sufficient or deficient pronunciation and enunciation.
“No better teacher of grammatical forms ever lived,” Terrell added. “She drew teachers from all parts of southern Ohio who came to gain inspiration and academic excellence from her classes.”
She also recalled that a wall in Wright’s classroom in College Hall had been painted, ceiling to floor, with a Greek mythology mural depicting Andromache bidding her beloved husband, Hector, farewell as he sat in his chariot on the walls of Troy.
“It was appropriate for her classroom,” Terrell noted, also recalling Wright directed her class in the translation from Latin and subsequent dramatic interpretation in costume of Roman playwright Plautuss’ Captive. It is a humorous play written in 200 B.C. depicting “a man, who was a parasite and lived happily off the full pantries of his neighbors.”
Wright’s 46 years as a full-time faculty member concluded in 1921 — “Forty-six years of ever fresh, ever impressive teaching at its best,” Terrell said.
Teacher Ellen’s longevity as a full-time faculty member was equaled in duration by Robert J. Haskins, professor of music, some 90 years later, and eclipsed by Dr. William Kincaid, professor of mathematics, who taught for 50 years before retiring in 2019.
As Terrell concluded her remarks at the 1970 centennial celebration, she marveled at how Teacher Ellen’s devotion to her students transcended the classroom.
In 1908, the senior class presented as a class gift to the College in the form of a literary publication/yearbook known as the Alpha, which, in its dedication to Teacher Ellen, featured a description of Wright’s foundational impact on their alma mater: “If the College is a book, she is the binding. If a tapestry, she is the warp. If a painting, she is the background.”
The Alpha dedication described her as “the first, the last, the best.”
Indeed, she was a member of the first class at WC and, while in the ensuing 34 years since the College’s inception, with all the students, faculty and staff that had passed through its doors, she alone remained, ala the last. Finally, the rationale for declaring her as the best seemed obvious in 1908 as, “No student of Wilmington College, past or present, need to be told why,” the Alpha stated.
The publication lauded her leading characteristics as firmness, sweetness and conscientiousness.
“No student in her classes every felt like trifling with her rules, and yet none ever heard her voice raised in provocation, nor saw a flush of anger on her cheek,” the Alpha dedication continued. “Perhaps, after all, the best lessons of life are those not set down in the textbooks. Miss Wright has taught two generations of students ‘to love’ in both Latin and English, and better than that, in the universal language of the heart.”