What You Should Know About Mary Roark

“You know, I know, speak up loud, We know, they know, all the crowd,

Thank her, thank her, this is meant, For our woman President.”[1]

Photo courtesy of EKU Special Collections and Archives in Richmond, KY.

In 1909, Eastern Kentucky State Normal School, the institution that would eventually become Eastern Kentucky University, had a woman at the helm as acting President. Many of you who have attended Eastern Kentucky University will already know part of this story: Mary C. Roark was the wife of Dr. Ruric Nevel Roark, the first President of Eastern Kentucky State Normal School. His impressive leadership at the University was unexpectedly cut short when he died of what is believed to have been brain cancer. Shortly after his death, Mary Roark was elected to serve as acting President of the school and was paid for her work with the remainder of her husband’s annual salary. Simultaneously, Roark served as the school’s Dean of Women, a position she continued to hold even after her tenure as President came to a close in 1910.[2] Mary Roark was known for having been an effective and respected administrator, but the story usually stops there.

There is a lot more to know about Mary Roark as an individual and about the context of the time and place in which she lived that makes her tenure as the active president of Eastern Kentucky State Normal School more intriguing and perhaps more meaningful. Roark became president at a time when women in the United States were not allowed to vote, and in a state where even women’s limited rights to vote in school elections had been revoked. In 1838, Kentucky had granted school suffrage to widows with children; in 1902, this right was rescinded, making Kentucky the only state to repeal a right of suffrage granted to women once it had been gained.[3] Shortly before Mary Roark became acting President, she was a leader in the fight to reinstate the right to school suffrage, along with other, perhaps more well known, Kentucky suffragettes such as Madeline Breckenridge and Laura Clay.[4]

Both before and after her service as acting President of Eastern Kentucky State Normal School, Roark was active in women’s suffrage activities, serving for several years as the corresponding secretary for the Kentucky chapter of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, chairing the education committee of the Kentucky Federation of Women’s clubs, and writing pamphlets and editorials on women’s right to vote.[5] Central to Roark’s reform work was the idea that improving education in Kentucky was essential. In remarks to the Southern Education Association, Roark said “…the one most important thing accomplished in Kentucky by the Federation of Women’s Clubs during the past year has been the awakening of a public sentiment for better schools, by means of the spoken and written word, and the enlisting of a large number of workers willing to contribute their help to aid in this service to the state.”[6]

Eventually, Roark attended the University of Wisconsin to pursue a graduate degree, where she conducted research on opportunities for women in higher education. In her Master’s thesis, A Study of The Graduate Work Conducted by Women in the Universities, Roark reported on the small but growing number of women attaining advanced degrees; Roark could count herself among them. In concluding her thesis, Roark noted that although the presence of women in higher education “has not resulted in any marked contribution to the solution of the many practical, economic, and social problems effecting humanity. The time has been too short for any test of the practical results of the work done, but we may reasonably expect more effective scholarship of the women of tomorrow.”[7]

With that conclusion, Roark had anticipated the Power of EKU Women.  As Eastern Kentucky University students, alumni, faculty, and staff, Mary Roark is a part of our heritage. Her accomplishments, vision, and character should be a point of pride. So, too, should the fact that Eastern Kentucky State Normal School trusted Mary Roark to lead at a time when other portions of society would not afford her the most basic rights to participate in her community. Roark did not hesitate to speak her mind or to make her mark on issues that mattered to her. It is in this spirit that Eastern Further hopes to support future generations of female leaders. Like Roark, we know that we can “reasonably expect more…of the women of tomorrow.” As they say, for Eastern, the best is yet to come.

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Categories: The University


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One Comment on “What You Should Know About Mary Roark”

  1. December 24, 2012 at 11:04 PM #

    I wish Mary Roark had a painting in Keen Johnson like all the other previous presidents.

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