Monday, March 27, 2017

Gertrude Mendenhall: A Woman of Substance

By all accounts, Gertrude Mendenhall (1861 – 1926) was a shy, retiring soul who dedicated her career to teaching mathematics to young women. Yet on further inspection, “Gertie,” as she was known to her friends, proves to be a progressive and highly social woman, in possession of a keen mind and a dry and intelligent wit.
Gertrude Mendenhall, ca. 1892

Mendenhall was a member of a well-respected Quaker family that had lived in Guilford county for five generations. She grew up with her three sisters on the grounds of New Garden Boarding School (now Guilford College), where her father, Dr. Nereus Mendenhall, was a teacher and principal. After graduation, she pursued higher education at Wellesley College, earning a Bachelor of Science degree. Following in her father’s footsteps, she chose to enter the field of education. Mendenhall taught mathematics at Guilford College and at Peace College, where she met Charles Duncan McIver, future president of the State Normal and Industrial School (now UNCG). When State Normal opened its doors in 1892, Mendenhall became a charter member of the faculty and was appointed the head of the Math Department.

Mendenhall (seated) picnicking with faculty members, 1898 

Mendenhall thrived in the academic environment of State Normal. She taught algebra, geometry, and trigonometry to the more advanced students, and helped remedial students with simple arithmetic. The young women in her charge appreciated her patience and determination in teaching a subject that was not one of the most popular in the school’s curriculum. Evalina Wiggins (Class of 1898) perhaps described it best when she explained that her experience in Mendenhall’s math class was “four years of happy misery, for I loved her and didn’t love math.”

Mendenhall (right) and other faculty members in front of Green Cottage
Her “Green Cottage,” located on Spring Garden Street, was a hub of both students and faculty seeking good company and a bite to eat. The cottage was always full of students enjoying her famous tea parties and picnics and faculty paying social visits or attending receptions. In the early days of campus life, the small ratio of student to faculty created close relationships and frequent social interactions. Her students simply adored her. She was known not only as a wise counselor and dear friend, but also for her distinctive appearance. She had a very erect posture and her standard attire, which was a “veritable part of our everyday Miss Mendenhall,” included a crisp white shirt, a white or brown tie, and a brown skirt.

After a tenure of over thirty years at the college, Mendenhall quietly passed away on the morning of April 15, 1926. College president Julius Foust cancelled all classes and a small funeral service was held in her home.  The day afterward, she was laid to rest at the Deep River Friends Meeting House Cemetery.

Mendenhall (left) and Dr. Anna Gove on the porch of Green Cottage

At her funeral service, Rev. R. Murphy Williams, who had been a long-time friend, gave a tribute that captures her very nature, describing her as “gentle yet strong, modest yet courageous, in everything that was for the upbuilding of our state. She has influenced thousands of young women and given them vision of service which they are transmitting into other lives in the school rooms and in the homes, all over our southland.” J.  Y. Joyner, who had known Mendenhall since the first days of the college, later wrote that she was “one of the choicest spirits, strongest minds, most lovable characters, [and] sweetest influences in that first little faculty…”

Mendenhall was convinced that every young woman could master some level of mathematics, and typical of a woman who “practiced what she preached,” she left money in her will to establish a merit and needs based scholarship which would provide students with the means to pursue a degree in higher math and the applied sciences. Typical of her modest nature, she named the scholarship for her aunt, Judith J. Mendenhall. This scholarship is still active and provides financial assistance to students who are pursuing a degree in math.

Ragsdale-Mendenhall Residence Hall

Although immediately after her death, former students asked that a “prominent building” be named for her to “express our love for and gratitude to Miss Mendenhall,” it was not until 1950 that a campus dormitory was named for her. Known as the Ragsdale-Mendenhall Residence Hall, the naming honor is shared with Virginia Ragsdale, Department of Mathematics faculty from 1911 to 1928, and the third faculty member to hold a PhD degree.

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