Early Students Bravely Faced Pandemic of 1918

Annie Towles Dunaway 1919 shared memories of the pandemic with daughter Ann Dunaway Criswell ’55, the author of this essay.

By Ann Dunaway Criswell ’55

During this unsettling time of COVID-19, I am reminded of a conversation decades ago with my mother, Annie Towles Dunaway 1919.

The 1918 influenza pandemic did not spare students or faculty at Fredericksburg State Normal and Industrial School for Women, as Mary Washington was called at the time. Classes were canceled, and students remained in their dorms. Those who were not sick helped those who were ill.

There was one death, that of Professor of History Virginia Goolrick, one of my mother’s favorite faculty members. Professor Goolrick lived in an apartment in Virginia Hall, my mother’s dorm.

The normal school, founded in 1908 and opened in the academic year of 1911-’12, was still new when Annie Towles journeyed by steamboat from Merry Point in Lancaster County to begin her college life. She was in the vanguard of young women attending college with sights on careers as teachers at a time when public education was being expanded.

My mother enjoyed her normal school years and spoke of her courses, including child psychology, school music, nature study, and physical education. To this day I have a ring my mother made in her studio art class, taught by Olive May Hinman. The lovely ring is fashioned of sterling silver set with malachite, appropriate for a class whose colors were green and white.

I recently turned again to my mother’s yearbook, a slim green volume with the intertwined letters FSNS on the cover and, on each page, the class motto “Hitch your wagon to a star and play fair.”

Oval pictures of 55 young women of the Class of 1919 show beautiful faces and dresses trimmed with ruffles, tucks, and lace edging. There was not a hint of the difficult experience of interrupted courses, the loss of a revered professor, or the fact that about 50% of the students had been ill from the so-called Spanish flu.

After graduating, Annie Towles took a teaching position in the Northern Virginia town of Clifton Station, where she had room and board in a private home. After a year or two, she accepted a position in Lancaster County in the high school from which she had graduated. She could save more of her meager salary by living with her parents.

She drove a horse and buggy to school, and the teenage boys took the horse to graze in a nearby pasture each day. In winter the boys arrived early to start the fire to heat the classroom. At least one of those years Miss Annie, as she was known, taught seventh-graders all their subjects.

In those days, at least in that rural area of the Northern Neck of Virginia, married women were not permitted to teach. When my mother accepted a proposal from a handsome young man whom she had known all her life, her teaching career came to an end. Annie Towles Dunaway and Vernon Dunaway were within a month of their 70th anniversary when he passed away. She, herself, lived a month beyond her 100th birthday.

While my mother’s teaching career was relatively short, she inspired me to attend her alma mater, where I graduated in 1955 with a teaching certificate and a degree from what had by then become Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia. I went on to graduate school, teaching one high school class while working on my master’s degree at the University of Kentucky.

I also married a handsome young man, an Air Force veteran of the Korean War who was beginning his engineering degree. My teaching career of 43 years took me wherever my husband’s career in the aerospace industry took him.

Together my mother’s and my college and teaching careers spanned decades that saw vast changes in society and culture, including opportunities for women’s education and careers. Mary Washington had a pivotal role in both our lives.

It has taken two pandemics a century apart to bring these reminiscences and realizations to the forefront of my memories.

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