Sullivan County Historical Society History Maker Award 2001
Emma Cooke Chase (1869 – 1944)
Educator & Child Advocate
An Oneonta, New York native, Emma C. Chase would become a household name in Sullivan County, New York a world away from her hometown.
A woman of vision, tremendous focus and tenacity, she became the first female Superintendent of Schools in New York State and the first Superintendent in the Third District in Sullivan County. Having graduated from high school in 1884 at the young age of fifteen, Miss Cooke was refused admittance to Albany Normal School (to become Albany State College), due to her age. Although profoundly disappointed, she applied for and was awarded a Third Grade Teaching Certificate (see notes) and began teaching school. She would continue to teach, subsequently renewing this 6-month certification several times and then receiving an annual Second Grade Certification, until gaining admittance to Albany Normal in 1888.
The teaching experience for this fifteen year old girl in 1884 to 1888 probably set the course for Sullivan County schools under the charge of Superintendent Emma Chase twenty-seven years later. At that time a schoolteacher, in addition to a salary of $2.50 per week, was provided room and board at the homes of her students. It was expected that the local teacher would live with the families of the children she taught. Emma was given a place at the table with each family and a bed, usually shared with several of her students. This was a far different lifestyle than that of a doctor’s daughter or a college professor’s granddaughter. It was this experience that taught the new teacher about the requirements, environmental limitations and dreams of children, her students, in rural New York State.
Miss Cooke, in 1888, gained admittance to Albany Normal. She graduated in 1890 in a class of seventy-three and was one of eleven speakers at the graduation ceremony. It should be noted that her name appeared on the 1890 cover of the Milton Bradley & Company educational supply catalog as an accomplished graduate of Albany State College.
Miss Cooke landed her first job after college in the Union School in Amsterdam, New York as Preceptress (Vice-Principal) in 1890. In 1893, she returned to the Oneonta area to marry Burdelle Chase, who according to the couple’s wedding announcement (The Star, Oneonta, N.Y. Thursday, August 24, 1893) “…Chase of Cooperstown Junction, operator and assistant agent for the D. & H. at that place and a young man of sterling worth.” . “…In Mrs. Chase the people of that place will find a lady of superior attainments, she being a graduate of the Albany normal college and for some time an honored teacher at the Academy street school.”
Mr. and Mrs. Cooke made their home in Cooperstown Junction for the next 13 years. Emma kept their home and raised their daughter Gladys Emma Chase, who was born on May 29, 1894. The Railroad closed the station at Cooperstown Junction in 1903, an event that caused the Chases to move to Walton, New York. During that period, the word got out that the State Education Department planned to institute the office of Superintendent in Sullivan County and establish the office into three districts with three positions. This was the news that would thrust Emma Chase back into the working world.
In order to be considered for the superintendent position, Mrs. Chase would need to meet two criteria. She had to become a resident of Sullivan County and complete an agricultural course in college. So in 1906, Mrs. Chase applied for and was hired as a teacher in the Livingston Manor schools. Sometime later, she also enrolled in Cornell University’s College of Agriculture.
It was at Cornell that Mrs. Chase learned that things had not changed very much for women in education. As unusual as it was for a woman to go to college in 1888, she was still considered out-of-place in college in the early 1900’s. Her professor at Cornell refused to acknowledge her presence in his classroom or put her name on the roster, evidently hoping she would simply go home. This was not to be. When Mrs. Chase applied to the State Education Department to be considered for the superintendent position in Sullivan County, the Cornell professor had to concede that Mrs. Chase was indeed a student. Mrs. Chase completed the “…twelve weeks’ winter-course of study and practice in General Agriculture…” and “…subsequently had one year of successful practice…” and was granted a Certificate of Proficiency in General Agriculture on June 5, 1912.
Mrs. Chase made a further indelible mark when she scored the top mark of 96.5 on the New York State superintendent examination. This grade was the second highest score ever achieved on that exam. Having met the requirements, Mrs. Chase threw her hat into the ring. The entire county closely watched the filling of the three superintendent positions. In the end, Mr. Frederick J. Lewis became superintendent for the First district, Mr. Charles Hicks for the Second District and Mrs. Emma Chase for the Third District.
Superintendent Chase supervised, monitored, inspected, visited and managed sixty schools in the Third District of Sullivan County. At this stage of her life, Mrs. Chase knew exactly what she wanted for her schools and how she wanted her schools to operate.
Mrs. Chase would spend the next twenty-five years of her life working to improve the education and lives of the students of Sullivan County. She petitioned the School Trustees at every turn for better conditions at each school. She fought to get rid of the “one dipper drinking bucket”, to get better furniture/desks, newer textbooks, etc. She immediately set up Teacher Conferences, pulling all her teachers from their one-room schools to two-day professional conferences. She brought educators from around the state to speak to her teachers. She set up workshops and provided new textbooks (many were samples from vendors) to her teachers who often were using textbooks she had used as a new teacher in the 1880’s. These conferences allowed her teachers to meet and share information and experiences, an opportunity they had rarely been afforded. She established inter-district student spelling bees that established intense scholastic competition between the schools in Sullivan County for years.
Superintendent Chase not only worked within her own district, but she became a mentor to the local Catholic schools and the Jewish immigrant families. She worked with her friend, Mother Polycarpi, at St. Joseph’s to help the school meet the NYS Education Department’s rules and regulations. She worked very hard with “Grandma Grossinger” (Grossinger’s Hotel in Liberty, NY) to help address the many issues faced by the families of the Jewish immigrants moving into Sullivan County. According to her grandson, Robert Durland, she was especially proud of her relationships with Mother Polycarpi and Mrs. Grossinger. Both personal friendships led to improved conditions for students.
Mrs. Chase went back to her early teaching days and her understanding of the families from which her students came. She understood that often children of immigrant parents only heard the language from their native lands at home, thus slowing their progress in learning to read and write English. Mrs. Chase, having established adult education for parents in reading and civics back in Amsterdam, New York, set up adult education courses for immigrant parents in Sullivan County. Understanding the nutritional requirements for children and a good learning environment and the limitations of the many families, Mrs. Chase fought for and successfully established the hot lunch program for her students. She understood the need for transportation for students. Still in the horse and buggy days, in some schools, children from a distance would have to board with other families, often miss school or simply not attend high school for lack of transportation. Superintendent Chase won, in a very bitter public debate, support for the use of school buses to transport her students. She wanted her teachers to understand the lifestyle and challenges the students from farm families had. Therefore, she brought in farm experts from Cornell University to speak with the teachers. The news of this struck a chord with the farmers and their wives to such an extent that it was agreed to continue to bring additional Cornell experts in, not for the teachers, but for the farmers and their wives. And so, Cornell Cooperative Extension came to Sullivan County. Again during World War I and the shortage brought on by that war, Cornell Home Economics Department was tapped by Superintendent Chase to bring educational seminars to Sullivan County for the women trying to put good meals on the table for their children.
There are countless stories from teachers and students of Mrs. Chase’s semi-annual visits to each of her sixty schools. The memories were recounted decades later. The teacher and student would prepare for days before her visits. Although the one-room schoolhouses were generally limited in supplies and furniture, all that they had was made ready. Mrs. Chase would listen to each student read and answer questions. She listened and reviewed the teachers’ work and appraised their performance. She set very high standards for her teachers and students and expected them to attain those standards.
Not everyone loved nor agreed with Superintendent Chase. Her strong stands on issues surrounding her students and teachers were, at times, revolutionary in the early 1900’s. Many of her ideas are commonplace today and might be judged as pale by today’s standards. But make no mistake, Emma Chase stood firm for what she believed in and demanded the best from all with whom she came in contact.
Bob Durland’s favorite story about “Emma C.” was told by Ralph Coddington, the then Highway Supervisor in Monticello. The road crew was working in Rock Hill in early spring when Mrs. Chase drove up on her way to Fallsburg. Mr. Coddington strongly advised her not to take that road because of the damage and danger caused by the severe winter weather. Mrs. Chase informed Mr. Coddington that if he had done his job properly the roads would be passable, so please stand aside and she would be on her way. At the end of the day as the crew drove up the village hill in Monticello, down Pleasant Street came Mrs. Chase, honking her horn and waving. Dangers on the road were certainly not going to prevent her from doing her job.
Mrs. Chase was defeated for her last bid for the Superintendent’s job in 1935. She formally retired in 1936. Some say her defeat was a direct result of the stands she took on certain issues and the toes she stepped on to win her strongly held beliefs. In any case, her legacy as an educator and child advocate stands as firmly today as it did in 1936.
She continued to further her agenda even after her retirement. As a charter member of the Sullivan County Historical Society, the county’s history is alive and available for today’s students. She helped found the Women’s Club which was a community minded association. One of Mrs. Chase’s projects within that organization was the Milk Fund for underprivileged children. She organized campaigns through the Club to make parents and children aware of services of the Sullivan County Health Association in its drives against diphtheria, smallpox and tuberculosis. The Club implemented her idea to volunteer to transport children for hospitalization and doctors’ treatments.
Emma chase was a member of the Methodist Church in Monticello, the Eastern Star and a founding director of the Wanaksink Lake Corporation.
She died on January 14, 1944. Her daughter and son-in-law Gladys and Wesley Durland and her three grandchildren, Marjorie, Alberta and Robert Durland survived her.
In 1963, the new grade school in Wurtsboro was named in her honor. Her love of literature, education and respect for the minds of children could not have been remembered in a better fashion.
Respectfully compiled by:
Virginia Durland Smith (Great-Grandaughter)
The majority of information for this writing was gleaned from Tales Told Out of School The Life Story of Superintendent Emma C. Chase, which was researched and written by Marie “Mazzie” R. Schultz of Cochecton, sometime between 1963 and 1968. The family of Emma Chase is indebted to Ms. Schultz beyond measure. A complete copy of this manuscript is available in the Sullivan County Historical Society’s Archives.
Note: “A Third Grade Certificate was granted the applicant upon the successful completion of written tests in Arithmetic, Composition, Geography, Grammar, Orthography (Spelling), Penmanship, Physiology, Hygiene and Reading. Questions on the test were solely determined by the examining Commissioner and an applicant must have a seventy-five percent average to qualify. The certificate, issued for six months only, was good in only one school and could not be renewed by the same Commissioner.” Tales Told Out of School The Life Story of Superintendent Emma C. Chase, compiled by Marie R. Schultz.