Narrator: Robert Hawkins
Place of Interview: 69 Indian Mountain Road, Lakeville, CT
Summary of talk: Margaret Speer speaks of how her family came to Lakeville, her time in China at the time of Pearl Harbor. She speaks of her time as Headmistress at the Shipley School when they admitted the first black students.
Property of the Oral History Project
Salisbury Association at the Scoville Memorial Library
Salisbury, Ct 06068
This is Robert Hawkins interviewing Miss Margaret B. Speer at my house, in Lakeville, CT. With her today, is Mrs. Wolf, whom I have interviewed before, and also with her is her companion, Miss Tinker. I have indicated as best I can who is speaking
RH: I shall ask you first to give me your name. I’ll bet your middle name is Bailey, isn’t it?
Margaret: Bailey. B-a-i-l-e-y.
RH: That’s a good Scottish name.
Margaret: My mother’s maiden name. You want to know when and where I was born.
Margaret: Englewood, New Jersey in 1900′. November 20, so I am now 91 years old, not quite 92. You want to know how I came to Lakeville.
Margaret: Well, I came to Lakeville because my family were here. If you would like to know how my family got here, I can tell you about chocolate cake, infirmaries and what not. My brother, Bill, was a first former, or freshman or whatever it’s called, at Hotchkiss. He got chicken pox. My mother came up to comfort him, bearing a chocolate cake. At the Millerton station, there was only one taxi. There was a woman there who said she needed to go to Lakeville, and would they mind going together, and would my mother mind if she stopped at her house which she was very sad to say she had to sell and she would just go into the house to get some keys and then go on to the real estate office in Lakeville. So, mother, on her way, was in the taxi which drew up facing down toward the valley. While the woman was inside, mother admired the view all the way down to Kent Cobble. When the woman came out, Mother said, “Would you mind if I went to the real estate office with you?” When she went home that night, she told Father that she had taken an option on a house which she had not been inside of. He was flabbergasted, said he didn’t think even she would have done something like that. But, they bought the house very soon, and he was as happy there as mother was. I was far away then, but when I came back from China, my next trip up there was Rockledge and the family installed. So, that’s that story.
RH: Will you tell us a little bit about your work in China and then having to leave.
Margaret: I went out to China in 1925 to teach at Ganging University which was a Christian University in China. I think 4 or 5 different mission boards contributed personnel to it. I had some good friends who were there already. So, after a year in language school trying to learn a little bit of Chinese, I then started teaching English at Ganging University. There I stayed until I don’t think I can even say it at the same time. I was home on occasional furloughs. Otherwise, I was at Ganging at the time of Pearl Harbor which immediately meant the closing of the University because the Japanese really wanted us to continue the University. We simply said we couldn’t and wouldn’t. There was a period of just waiting.
First of all, we stayed in our own houses and did nothing, then after a while, the Japanese moved us into Peking. Then they moved us to what was called, the Civilian Assembly Center. Other people liked to call it the Concentration Camp; but it wasn’t. Then, finally, we were told that there was going to be an exchange of Japanese and Americans who wanted to exchange. So, ultimately, we came home on that beautiful, wonderful ship, the Gripsone, which brought us home, Gripsone.
RH: I was on that old Gripsone, not coming from China, but from Gothenburg in Sweden to New York on the old
Margaret: The new Gripsone was heavenly.
Rose: The best part of it was the orange juice.
Margaret: The best part of it was what?
Rose: The orange juice.
Margaret: Oh, yes, the orange juice, that was a wonderful part of it.
RH: Yes, because you hadn’t had any for…
Margaret: We hadn’t had orange juice for a long, long time. That was a beautiful, beautiful trip.
RH: Did you go then immediately to Shipley?
Margaret: Actually, we got to Hoboken which was our home port in about the first day in December in 194_.
RH: Where was your Father’s church?
Margaret: Oh, Father never had a church. He was considered a preacher and a minister, but he was not. He had gone to Princeton. He was going to go on to Princeton Theological Seminary, but those were the days of the student volunteer movement and he was asked to speak for that. Then he was asked, almost immediately, to become a Secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. He never had a theological degree, but he was later President of the Board of the Princeton Theological Seminary. His job, all of his life, was Secretary of the Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church. Early on, he made a long, long, trip around the world with Mother, visiting Mission stations all over. He got Typhoid fever in Persia and was there much longer than they had planned. When I read now in the newspapers about the Kurds, I remember that Mother rode side saddle and Father, having had Typhoid fever, was strapped to his horse and they rode through Kurdish territory. Then, they spent a long time going around the world, then they came back and ultimately settled down in Englewood, New Jersey where we were brought up.
Miss T: Tell them about the rug.
Margaret: Tell them about what?
Miss T: The rug.
Margaret: I have a wonderful rug in my apartment now in Waverly Heights. A Persian rug which is very, very wide and very, very long which was woven in Hamadan where they spent time when my father had Typhoid fever. That come home with them somehow or other, I’m not really sure how, but it did get home. It is now down in my apartment, but it was, in my childhood, down in the hall of our house in Englewood where I grew up. It was the source of a childhood game that we all played called “Bear”. Father was the “bear” and we would rush across from one room to the other, and he had to keep one foot on the rug in order to be safe, but would then catch us if he could. That rug is still there in my apartment, people do come in to see it.
RH: Probably a magnificent rug too, as Hamadan are particularly beautiful.
Miss T: And in extremely good shape.
RH: If we could hear a little bit about life at Shipley.
Margaret: Well, a little bit about life at Shipley. Oh, you don’t want to hear about the life of a Headmistress, you know enough about schools and boarding schools.
RH: I know a lot about boarding schools, but I think the impressive thing about the Speer family is that so many of you were Headmasters and Headmistresses.
Margaret: Yes, isn’t that funny.
Rose: I don’t think that’s funny.
RH: I don’t think it’s funny, I think it’s impressive.
Rose: So do I and I don’t marvel at it, I respect the way it is.
RH: Was it in the genes, or did it just happen?
Margaret: I don’t know why, I don’t see why it was.
Rose: Bill was almost in the same category.
Margaret: Yes, he was for a while, in his case it didn’t work very well. Well, there were other aspects of that; that I won’t go into now.
RH: He was at Loomis, right?
Rose: And then he went to MIT? Not the head of it, but the head of counseling, wasn’t he?
Margaret: He was the….what was his title? I think it was called the Department of Student Affairs. He was very successful in that. He said one day a student came in and said “Mr. Speers, is this the Department of Student Affairs”? and Bill said, “Yes”. He said, “Well, I’ve never had an affair, could you arrange one for me”? That child, a young boy ought to be watched Miss Tinker. He was full of possibilities.
RH: Wasn’t your sister-in-law the head of Dobbs at one time?
Margaret: Yes, she was.
Rose: And Simsbury.
RH: Oh, Ethel Walker. Are you an Ethel Walker girl?
Rose: Well, briefly. I stayed there one semester and lost 20 pounds, and they didn’t make me go back.
RH: You must have been very unhappy.
Rose: I was miserable, fiercely homesick.
Miss T: You were President of the National Association of Principals of schools for Girls and were you President of the Headmistress Association of the East?
Margaret: Yes, both of them. I can’t think why.
RH: Well, I can think why. Now, you are living here part of the year and part of the year in Pennsylvania. You live in the same area in Pennsylvania?
Rose: Yes, we live in the same place.
RH: Good! And you can see each other occasionally?
Rose: Mamie is far to occupied with friends, so I join in from time to time.
RH: Miss Tinker, you live there too?
Miss Tinker: Well, I have stayed there with Mamie Speers, but I don’t live there, I have an apartment in Wayne, which is about 8 miles away.
RH: Now, were you connected with Shipley?
Margaret: Yes, she was our Director of Admissions for many years. She was Director of Admissions when we became, well, to put it bluntly, when we got black students. She was the person who managed that in a very skillful and tactful way.
Rose: How many black students did you accept that first year?
Miss T: Oh, I don’t remember. Our first one was Betty, wasn’t it? Betty Warwick? She was the grand – niece of a sculptress who studied with Rodin, and the daughter of a surgeon. The next one was the daughter of a doctor. We were in touch with a man who was the first black professor at Haverford College, a Quaker, who said when I called him, I said,” The school would like to have black students.” And he said, “Let us manage this; we can say things that you can’t say.” He and his wife, who were socially, very right…
Rose: Were they black?
Miss T: Yes, they were able to get the word to the kinds of people that would fit, socially. I remember, one of the first ones that year, was the little girl whose mother I came down to the lower school with in their car because they got there late, and you said afterwards, “Well, you came down in a Mercedes, didn’t you?” I hadn’t known it was a Mercedes, I just thought it was a neat, kind of conservative car. She had planned to send her daughter to Switzerland. She was in a Quaker school and that ended in 6th grade. This Professor had said to the mother, “Why do you send her so far away”? She said, “Where would she go here”? He said, “Well, she might go to Shipley”. That was the way things came about. But, it was Mamie, she was the one that stood for what these people wanted to be sure of, not I.
Margaret: Well, our Director of Admissions before Charlotte was a Southerner, and she never have never, never been able to manage things properly.
Rose: How did you get rid of her?
Margaret: Oh, she retired. I didn’t push her out.
RH: Two of my dearest friends, and now he’s dead, Russell and Mildred Lyons, take credit for getting you to Shipley. Do they deserve that credit?
Margaret: Mildred Lyons was very, very kind to me in the settling me at Shipley. Very.
RH: She is a very kind person. I see her quite often. I should be in touch with her more than I am. She’s up in North Egremont most of the time now because their house in New York requires a lot of steps. She is not steady on her feet and up here she can do things one.
Rose: The next time you see her, tell you have a friend that understands.
RH: I certainly shall. I think you have earned your lunch. I am going to turn off this machine.
End of interview.