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Alice King

Alice King: Reluctant Dean of Women and Professor of English for nearly a third of a century

[Miss King came to Coe in 1886 as a professor of History, Language and Literature and Lady Principal of the college women. In 1902 she was appointed assistant treasurer and in 1905 became the Dean of Women. King retired from Coe in 1909 and was requested by President Marquis in 1912 to write some of her memoirs from Coe. This is an excerpt from her work written May 1, 1912.]

This record should be dated in Liverpool, England, August 1886, for it was there and then I first head the name of Coe College. On going abroad some time previous to remain indefinitely, I had left my business correspondence in charge of a friend, and had learned nothing of what she had been doing, until in Liverpool I received a letter dated from Coe College and written by its President, Rev. Stephen Phelps. This letter was brief, gentlemanly, kind. It informed me that I had been elected Lady Principal of Coe College by its Board of Trustees, that the position would be held for me until Thanksgiving, and that my decision was desired as soon as possible, by cablegram. No words were added as to my duties excepting that I should have a few classes in the College, possibly in Latin and English. Curiously coincident with this letter came another totally different in character. It was a request from two millionaire fathers in America that I remain the London and await the coming of four young ladies whom I was to chaperone in making a tour of Europe. Arrangements had been made to have these young ladies presented at the Courts of England and of Russia and no expense was to be spared in making their travels delightful in every way. This letter put a new element into the difficulty of a speedy decision. The pros and cons were considered with all the wisdom I could summon without anyone to advise me, and the result was a cablegram to President Phelps that I should try to reach Cedar Rapids early in October. I have never known whether my decision was correct...

It was the last of September. The season had been very hot and very dry, and the days were oppressive in the extreme. Dust whitened the foliage and grass by the roadside, and came in the car windows in clouds. It was later in the afternoon when Cedar Rapids was reached. At the depot I was met by Mrs. President Phelps, her husband having been unexpectedly called out of town. That was before the present Union Station was build and the shabby depot buildings were far from attractive. We drove up First Avenue, and I noted the street cars drawn by mules. Just in front of the college stood a dummy engine, and attached to it a small dingy car somewhat resembling a caboose of a freight train, but at that time it was the only means of transportation between Cedar Rapids and Marion. There were no houses on the south side of First Ave. between 12 and 13th sts. but at the corner...was a small grocery store, and extending from it to 13th St. stretched a line of bill-boards, the most conspicuous poster that afternoon being gorgeous pictures of a coming circus, the elephants and camels and glittering band-wagon making a most brilliant pageant. Long afterward Mrs. Phelps told me how she tried to engage me in conversation as we approached the College so that I might not notice these un-scholastic surroundings - but I did see them...

After a short greetings to the students in the parlors after tea, it was easy to excuse myself, but it was not so easy to feel at home in the room assigned me, the one now used by the Dean of Women. The walls were covered with a very dark paper, part of which inclined to sag and drop off. The furniture was dark also, on the one small table in the center of the room burned a kerosene lamp, its dull flame scarcely sufficient to give any light, much less any cheer, and when the lamp was extinguished, how dark it was! Before sleep came I heard voices outside not far from my window, but felt no fear as I had rejoiced that I was in a Prohibition State where crime must be rare. But the voices came so near that I could hear what was going on; and it was policemen carrying off, in a patrol wagon, a man who had been found in a drunken sleep on the campus. Alas for my dream of Prohibition innocence!

When the morning came, came Pres. Phelps, genial, kindly, considerate as he always was, and under his guidance I went through the Main College building, all the building there then was to house the College activities. It was Saturday, so no classes were to be seen, but I noticed an unusual excitement in the hall. Later, I discovered that there was to be a reception in the evening, where I was to be the one received and welcomed. It seemed to me I could not appear in such a scene with the lonely, homesick heart that beat within me but Dr. Phelps promised to stand by me both in a literal and figurative sense; so the reception took place. I remember just two things about it, one, the word "welcome" in green over the doorway between the Hall parlors, the other, a hazy crowd of passers-by among whom only two faces are distinctly recalled - one that of a student and one that of a professor. I am sure that every one meant to be kind, and was kind, but I saw only unattractive surroundings, not the brighter future. Furniture in the Hall parlors was very scanty, and inclined to totter when used, and the solitary furnishing of the entrance hall was a strip of narrow, cheap carpeting, and a lamp handing (mean hanging?) somewhere along its dismal length...

Monday morning I began to look about me, to become acquainted with the girls, and with my possible duties, for my impulse still was to run away from what seemed an impossible situation. I even went so far as to tell Pres. Phelps I could not stay, and my trunks remained unpacked. But every hour brought a duty, a decision to be made, a plan to be arranged, a student to be assisted. I should not have taken any classes, but Prof. Gist was to be absent for a few days, and had asked me to take two of his. Before the week ended I found myself getting interested in the very problems that repelled me, trying to bring order out of disorder, to improve conditions, to make the unattractive take on a more pleasant look. I invited all the Hall students to an evening together in the parlors, and forgot the tottery furniture in the merriment of games and music. To put into a few lines what it took months to accomplish, the trunks were unpacked; the walls brightened with pictures; the empty bookcase held some friendly companions; a re-arrangement of chairs and tables gave the parlors a less barren appearance; window curtains gave a home-like touch; acquaintance with the students revealed many possibilities, and - and -my life at Coe College had fairly begun, and it has continued for a quarter of a century.

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