‘The Life Of Mary Willard’

The life of a unique figure in Jamestown’s history was on display Thursday night.

The Robert H. Jackson Center held a gathering for its original exhibit, “Say, I Taught Thee: The Life of Mary R. Willard.”

Willard was born in Jamestown in 1856 to Lucius Willard and Rachel Doty Jones. She attended the Jamestown Union School and Collegiate Institute as an English Academy Course student and graduated in 1875.

Willard taught in public schools from 1875 to 1916 – elementary students until 1885 and then high school students until her retirement – focused on history, literature and English.

According to Jennifer Champ, consultant for archives and exhibits at the Jackson Center, the idea for the exhibit started after she read a piece of Jackson’s writing.

“I was fascinated when I read (Jackson’s ‘Tribute to Mary Willard’),” Champ said. “I wanted to find out more about her.”

At that time, Champ spoke with Pam Brown, records management coordinator for the Jamestown Public Schools Records Center and Archives, to see if the two could be partners in creating an exhibit about Willard.

The exhibit mainly focuses on Willard’s impact as a Jamestown High School English teacher.

“She was a presence in the community, as seen through her activities,” Brown said. “She was one of the people who promoted and fundraised for the 100-acre lot.”

As an environmentalist, Willard lobbied for the lot to be used as a school park. She also wrote for the Jamestown High School newspaper.

“The biggest thing she did was create the Avon Club,” Brown said. “There was not a lot (of similar opportunities) at that time for women.”

The Avon Club was an organization of high school girls devoted to the study of Shakespeare, organized in 1885.

At one point, the club included more than 300 members – one of the largest student-led clubs in the country. It remained in existence until Willard’s retirement in 1916.

Included in the exhibit is a copy of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” that Willard gave to Jackson, which the inscription on the front cover clearly states, and the 1909-1910 academic register that Willard used to record the students in her classes and the lessons she taught. Jackson is listed as student 16 in her English fourth-year class.

The Willard exhibit also features a display of photographs and handwritten letters from Pine Valley High School students.

Teacher Lynn Kutschke, her teaching assistant Diane Riggs and teacher Penny Benson encouraged their students to write about a person who inspires them after spending the year learning about the life and impact of Jackson, including his relationship with Willard.

“Inspiration to good reading, or to writing and to living on a higher plane of culture, came from this earnest and modest woman,” Jackson wrote of Willard. “It is in large degree due to her leadership and teaching that a standard of public speaking, journalism and writing prevails in this city about that usual to one of our size.”

Champ and Brown both agreed that Willard was one of Jackson’s greatest mentors and a motherly figure in his life.

“When Jackson gave his closing statements at Nuremberg, he quoted Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III,’ no doubt thinking about Willard – sitting in front of her fireplace, talking about literature,” Champ said.

Willard died in 1931, while in California. She is buried in Lake View Cemetery.

In addition to the Jamestown Public Schools archival materials, the exhibit features items on loan from the Fenton History Center.

The exhibit was made possible by the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation.