A Trailblazing Lebanon Educator
by John J. Zimkus, WCHS Historian and Education Director
Louisa Jurey Wright is known by many as the first and, as of this writing, the only female superintendent in the history of the Lebanon public schools. She is also known for having an elementary school in town named after her in 1960. (It has since been demolished.) For over 140 years, her name has appeared on the list of superintendents who have guided the tax supported schools of Lebanon, Ohio since the early 1850s.
During her lifetime Louisa Wright has been called "a woman of strong intellectual ability,” “a most excellent and highly educated lady,” and “a lady of superior culture and refinement and excellent Christian worth.” During the 1867-68 school year, however, when she was fulfilling the duties of the superintendent of schools in Lebanon, one thing she was never called was “superintendent.”
Louisa Jurey was born on July 18, 1842, in sparsely populated Tymochtee Township, Wyandot County, Ohio. It was in the same rustic farm house in which her mother, Anna Drake Jurey, was born in 1819, some 23 years earlier. It was also the same house in which her mother married a Virginia-born farmer named John Jurey.
Lou, as she was called by her family and friends, received her earliest education in a local country school. Like many successful students in the mid-1800s, once she reached the equivalent of an eighth grade education, she was hired to teach the younger children at her community school.
The young and attractive Lou Jurey was always said to be optimistic. “She could see the bright side in the development of the human race,” it was observed years later. This was, and still is, a desirable attribute for someone who aspires to be an educator. With that goal in mind, in 1861, she went off to receive a formal education in Lebanon, Ohio. The village was located about 130 miles southwest of her home.
The school she attended was the South-Western Normal School. It was founded only six years earlier in 1855 by Alfred Holbrook. In 1881, the school adopted the name by which it was best known, the National Normal University. By then it was the largest normal school, or teachers college, in Ohio.
Louisa graduated in 1863. The Eighth Annual Closing Exercises of the South-Western Normal School took place on Thursday, August 3, 1863. Although there were 304 pupils enrolled in the school that year, many of them in the preparatory department, only seven graduated — two men and five women. As part of that day’s program, each of the seven graduates delivered an oration before Alfred Holbrook conferred upon them their diplomas. Louisa’s topic was “The Utility of Mathematics.”
After graduation, she went off to teach in Paris, Illinois where her family had relocated. Paris is near the Indiana border, about 210 miles west of Lebanon, and about 12 miles north of the National Road, today’s US 40.
After one year of teaching in Illinois she returned to Ohio. Once here, she taught for two years at the one room school house in Genntown, about 2 1/2 miles northeast of the center of Lebanon on the Lebanon & Waynesville Pike.
In 1865, Louisa Jurey was hired to teach in the public schools of Lebanon Ohio. Besides her classroom duties, she was chosen to be the assistant to Lebanon School Superintendent Charles W. Kimball. She was paid $500 a year, which, adjusted for inflation, would be around $10,000 today.
It was at this time the Lebanon school board became concerned that the district had no “regular course” of study for the “advanced department,” those students in the higher grades, and the primary department. As The Western Star, Lebanon’s weekly newspaper, reported years later, “Miss Jurey was chosen by the board to prepare a course of study for every department. The system prepared by her was afterwards adopted, with some modifications.”
In the first decade of the 20th century, several letters from T. V. Blackman, from Pittsburg, Kansas, were published in The Western Star. He had worked at the newspaper almost 40 years earlier and was now a newspaperman in Kansas.
Blackman wrote about his fond recollections of growing up in Lebanon. In one he explained, "My parents named me Theodore and this they corrupted to the name of Thode. When my playmates and school fellows in the old days wanted to ‘start something,’ they called me ‘Toad.’”
In a letter published on May 7, 1908, he confessed that, while he was a student during the 1866-67 school year, he was one of a half dozen or so “young scoundrels [who] used to harass this good lady . . . Miss Lou Jurey.” In another letter published later that year, he exclaimed a “more mischievous gang never lived. I wonder if she has ever forgiven us for the many sorrows we caused her.”
As a student, T. V. Blackman may well have had a crush on his young Lebanon Union School teacher, Miss Lou Jurey. She was only eight years older than her admiring pupil. His fond feelings for her may have lingered for several decades after leaving her classroom, for he mentioned her in several of his letters to The Western Star.
Also in a 1908 published letter, Blackman recalled December 31, 1866, the day the county infirmary on S. East Street caught on fire. “I ran away from school to help haul the old side brake fire engine from the Washington Hall building to the scene,” he remembered. “We backed the engine down upon the pond by the ‘mad house’ and pumped water on the flames. The next morning I had to explain my absence to Miss Lou Jurey, my teacher.”
He also told how, at a school “assembling,” late in the school year, it was announced, “Miss Jurey was to marry Captain Lot Wright.” Blackman went on, “After dinner [school lunch] all of us were in our seats demurely studying our lessons. On the blackboard on the east side of the room, was the admonition, ‘Remember Lot’s Wife,’ and when Miss Jurey saw it she was somewhat startled, as might be surmised. An attempt was made to find who had written it, but nothing was ever proven.”
“Lot’s wife” is in reference to a passage in Genesis 19 of the Old Testament in the Bible. In it, Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back upon the destruction of the wicked city of Sodom after being warned by two angels not to do so. (The exact words, “Remember Lot’s wife” were spoken by Jesus in Luke 17:32 in the New Testament.)
Louisa Jurey, and her Lot, Captain Wright, were married in her mother’s home in Paris, Illinois on Wednesday evening, July 17, 1867.
Lot Wright was born on February 16, 1839, near the small town of New Garden, in Columbiana County, in eastern Ohio and was of Quaker heritage. He began his formal education in Alliance, Ohio. In 1860, he became a student in the South-Western Normal School. He helped pay his way through school by teaching two winters in neighboring counties, one year in Butler County, and the other in Clinton County. It was while attending school in Lebanon, that Lot Wright first met his future bride, the lovely and intelligent Lou Jurey.
In the summer of 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, 24-year-old Lot Wright enlisted as a private in Company I, 79th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry. In December 1863 he was promoted to sergeant. On June 22, 1864, he was severely wounded in the right leg in the Battle of Kolb’s Farm near Atlanta, Georgia.
Six days later, on June 28, while still recovering in an Army hospital, he was promoted to the rank of captain and given the command of newly organized Company D, 100th Regiment, US Colored Troops. Because of his injuries, however, he was not able to join his unit until August.
He commanded his men in the Battle of Nashville, where, on December 16, 1864, he was wounded again. According to an August 20, 1868 newspaper article, “a considerable portion of his right hand was shot off." He was mustered out of the army in August 1865. For the rest of his life, even though he would hold many important positions, he was often referred to as “Captain Wright.”
During the summer of 1867, the public schools of Lebanon were showing some growing pains. A small article in the September 5, 1867 issue of The Western Star stated,
“BABIES TO BE KEPT AT HOME.
The primary department of the union school is so crowded that the board is compelled to refuse admission to all children under six years of age.”
Another problem was that the longest serving Lebanon superintendent of schools up to that point, Charles W. Kimball, was in poor health. He had held that position for nine of the last 13 years, but could no longer continue. The school board turned to his assistant, the newly married Mrs. Louisa Wright, to take up his duties.
She would be paid the identical amount per year that was given to Superintendent Kimball - $800. In today's money that would be about $16,000. She would now be in charge of the recently painted five-year-old Union School, located on what is now Pleasant Square Park; the separate school for Lebanon’s African American students, which was constructed in 1861 where New Street meets North Lane today; and all the students who attended the schools.
The one major issue facing Louisa Wright as the superintendent of the Lebanon Public Schools was that, in the fall of 1867, there was no such position in the district as superintendent!
How this was possible was explained in another brief article in that same September 5, 1867 issue of The Western Star. “Although the office of superintendent has been abolished Mrs. Lou Wright, principal of the high school, has general supervision over all the departments.”
The official reason for not calling her “the superintendent” is not known. It may very well be that the prevailing thought among the men who made up the school board was that a woman, in the mid-19th century, should not hold such a position of authority. It might be seen as unseemly. The solution then, to them, could have been to let her act as the superintendent; pay her as if she was the superintendent; but not actually call her “the superintendent.” That way the fact that she was a “female” superintendent of schools would not draw attention.
Whatever she was called, principal or superintendent, during the 1867-68 school year, Louisa Wright did have an achievement during her tenure in that role that no one had achieved before her. In 1868, under her guidance, Lebanon High School had its first three graduates, all female, - Ida Hardy, Ada Wood, and Minnie Van Harlingen. Lebanon High School would not have another graduate until 1872, four years later.
In a June 24, 1915 article in The Western Star entitled “Lebanon's School Past and Present,” the comment is made, “The fact that [Louisa Wright] was offered a reappointment by the Board for the second year [as principal/“superintendent”] speaks for her success, but ill health required her to decline.” This statement may not be totally accurate.
After going one year without technically having a superintendent, the Lebanon Board of Education decided it was time to have one once again. The Western Star on July 23, 1868 reported,
“SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS
The school board last week elected to the position of superintendent of the Lebanon Union School, for the ensuing year, W. H. Pabodie, for seven years Principal of one of these Cincinnati Public schools and more recently superintendent of the public schools of Peru, Ind. Mr. Pabodie is a graduate of Brown University. He was highly recommended to the board as a scholar and teacher and has had much experience in the management of graded schools. We commend the action of the board and securing for this position a classical scholar, as the superintendent will have charge of the High School, and all the branches necessary to fit a pupil for college can be pursued in that department.”
William H. Pabodie was paid almost twice as much as Louisa Wright, $1,500 a year. He served as the Lebanon superintendent of schools until the summer of 1870.
At almost the exact time in 1868 that Lebanon High School had its first graduates under Louisa Wright, Captain Lot Wright finished his education, and received a BA degree from the South-Western Normal School.
Also in 1868, Lot Wright, a Republican, began his long political career when he was elected Warren County treasurer. He was reelected in 1870. In 1876, the voters of Warren County selected him to be their county clerk of courts, and then reelected him twice. In 1883, he was appointed United States Marshal for the Southern District of Ohio and served over two years in that capacity. Finally, in 1894, and in 1896, he was elected probate judge of Warren County.
In the meantime in 1868, Louisa Jurey Wright, who left teaching after only five years in the classroom, turned her attentions to raising a family and supporting her husband. In a brief biography of “Judge Lot Wright” in the book History of the Republican Party in Ohio, published in 1898, it was said of Louisa Wright, “She has been to her husband a most able companion and helpmeet [a helpful partner] on life's journey, both in times of prosperity and adversity.”
Lot and Lou had two sons, Willard Jurey Wright, born in 1875; and Raymond Garfield Wright, born in 1880. Raymond was named after Lot’s friend, and soon to be US President, James A. Garfield. Both boys attended Princeton University and became lawyers. Willard eventually was elected a Warren County common pleas court judge.
Willard’s son, Louisa's grandson, was the famed mid-20th century industrial designer Russel Wright. His American Modern dinnerware was in production for two decades in the mid-20th century and grossed over $200 million in sales, earning it the title of the best-selling mass-produced dinnerware ever manufactured.
For most of her adult life Louisa Wright was a devout and active member of the First Presbyterian Church in Lebanon. Beginning in the late 1880s, she was also was a member of the W. C. T. U., the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
In 1882, after living on the east side of Cherry Street between Main and Mulberry in Lebanon for years, Lot and Louisa Wright bought a newly constructed house on the northwest corner of Orchard and East Street – 214 E. Orchard Ave. It was in this house, in the Floraville neighborhood on a hill south of downtown Lebanon, that Lot and Louisa raised their two boys.
It was also here where Lot Wright died a 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 22,1900.
The cause of his death was peritonitis brought on by a ruptured appendix. He had been confined to his home for only a few days. Judge Wright had retired from the probate court bench only two weeks prior to his death.
The Western Star reported, “The funeral services were held on Sunday afternoon [February 25] in the Presbyterian Church with which the deceased had been so prominently identified.” Captain Lot Wright died six days after his 61st birthday.
That was not the only tragedy to take place at the Wright home at 214 E. Orchard Avenue.
On Wednesday, February 2, 1902, Louisa Wright and her son Willard where enjoying their noonday meal, when neighbors came rushing into their house. Unbeknownst to the Wrights, “fierce flames” were breaking through the roof of their home.
The Western Star called it "the most disastrous fire which is visiting Lebanon for several years.” The origin of the blaze was in the attic and thought to be from the flue or pipes from the heater. It took over an hour to finally extinguish the blaze.
According to the newspaper, controlling the fire was hampered by the fact "The fire companies [had] been allowed to disband during the past year and were not in good shape to fight an ugly fire, although the volunteers worked heroically.” The "richly furnished” Wright home was gutted and practically a total loss. The estimated damage amounted to $2336, approximately $79,000 in today’s money.
Although the house at 214 E. Orchard Ave. was rebuilt, Louisa Wright is not believed to have lived there again. She instead made her home in a small house at 114 S. Cherry St. about two blocks away, near the Lebanon train station. She sold her Orchard Avenue house later in 1902.
On March 14, 1903, Louisa Wright’s oldest son, Willard, married Harryet Crigler of Springfield, Ohio. In April 1904 their son Russel was born, followed two years later, in 1906, by their daughter Lizabeth Louisa, who was called “Libby Lou.” Willard built a large beautiful three-story Colonial Revival house at 238 Broadway in 1905. It was about two blocks west of the old Wright family home on Orchard Avenue on the Floraville Hill. There is no evidence to show that Louisa Wright moved into her son’s mansion.
The local paper reported on Thursday, September 26, 1907, "Raymond Wright and mother left Monday for Seattle, Washington, where they will spend the winter in probably take up their future home.” Raymond, now a practicing attorney, would permanently settled in Seattle, over 2,300 miles away, and live there for over 60 years.
About 6 months later, on March 5, 1908, The Western Star stated, "Mrs. Louisa J. Wright writes from Seattle, Washington, and renewing her subscription, ‘We do enjoy the paper, it is improving all the time.’” Louisa was ever the optimist.
On February 11, 1909, the paper published one of the last letters sent from T. V. Blackman. He tells how he recently received a letter from Burwell Fox, one of the other “young scoundrels” who used to harass their teacher - Miss Jurey.
Blackman states that Fox sent him current “Kodak” (photograph) of Mrs Lot Wright. The former “Toad” Blackman observed, "Like the rest, Mrs. Wright has had time whiten her hair, and add age to the once vigorous body; but the same sweet face is there, which we all loved, although we rascals who attended her school often caused it to wear a worried look.”
On March 25, 1909, after spending a year and a half in Seattle, it was reported, “Mrs. Louisa J. Wright is expected home from Seattle, Washington next week.”
The 1910 US Census records 67-year-old Louisa Wright living alone, and being the owner of one half of a duplex at 114 S. Cherry Street.
A special gathering took place on Saturday, February 15, 1913, in Lebanon, Ohio. The group met in the “auditorium" of the five-year-old Lebanon National Bank building at 2 North Broadway. The occasion was the celebration of what would have been the 97th birthday of Alfred Holbrook, the beloved educator and founder of the National Normal University, the former South-Western Normal School.
One of the speakers after the celebratory dinner was Mrs. Louisa Jurey Wright. Not only was 1913 the 97th anniversary of Professor Holbrook's birth (he had died in 1909), it was also the 50th anniversary of Louisa Jurey Wright graduating from the South-Western Normal School.
The Western Star, in recording the event, said, “Mrs. Wright is a favorite with Normalites [students and graduates of the National Normal University], old and young, and can refer to the days gone by in a way that always adds merriment to the occasion.”
Later than year, on October 5, 1913, at the first reunion of pupils and teachers of the Genntown School, Louisa Wright was one of several teachers who gave short speeches.
Louisa Jurey Wright died on Monday, February 23, 1920, at the age of 77. She was living as a boarder at 217 W. Silver Street, between Water and Corwin streets. She died exactly 20 years and one day after the death of her beloved husband, Captain Lot Wright.
Her funeral was held at the residence of her son, Judge Willard Wright, at 238 S. Broadway, at 2 o'clock on the afternoon of Wednesday, February 25, 1920.
In the March 4, 1920 issue of The Western Star, the editor-in-chief, John Marshall Mulford, wrote an editorial entitled “Mrs. Louisa Wright.” It said in part:
“Mrs. Wright and her husband were friends of the writer since his early boyhood, and many kind acts and helpful suggestions come to mind as we think of them. In their passing, two sincere friends are lost - rather, their familiar forms have passed from view, for friendship never dies, is never lost. . . .”
Being a “Normalite" and a teacher, our earliest recollections, of Mrs. Wright is as an educator, and an ardent supporter of Dr. Holbrook's school of which she and her husband were graduates. . .
As a teacher, and later as a patron of education, her voice always favored thoroughness in those branches of study she considered the formation of education, . . .
“ . . . with her passing comes a recollection of her optimism, her faith, . . . and we but mourn her absence, realizing another good woman has entered Heaven.”
Various staff and volunteer writers.