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A History Lesson: Three Remarkable Rossman Women
By: Head of School Elizabeth Zurlinden
“A strong woman looks a challenge in the eye and gives it a wink.” —Gina Carey
The month of March is Women’s History Month, an opportunity to study and honor the accomplishments of courageous women. As Rossman students researched women leaders, such as Helen Keller, Katherine Johnson and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I enjoyed a personal assignment to dig a bit deeper to discover more about the strong-minded, well-educated women of Rossman School who founded and guided our institution for its first half-century.
A New Challenge
Our story begins with two dear friends, both master teachers in their forties, who were compelled to start a school. Next-door neighbors throughout their lives, Miss Mary Rossman and Miss Helen Schwaner were urged by friends to open a school after Smith Academy, Washington University’s elementary school for boys, closed in June 1917. Boldly, the two pursued the challenge. Establishing a private partnership with personal assets, Miss Rossman and Miss Schwaner purchased a three-story, red brick building at 5438 Delmar Boulevard, a private residence that offered a great location for area families.
To transform the home into a school, the two women borrowed money from Miss Schwaner’s aunt and purchased fifty-four wooden desks. In the fall of 1917, Rossman School opened its doors to forty-six boys and eight girls in third through sixth grades. Upon its founding, the Rossman School philosophy was “to provide a sound, elementary, academic training in an environment which encourages freedom of investigation and expression without infringement upon the rights of others.”
Each day began as it does today, with the recitation of the pledge of allegiance. The children were taught reading, writing and arithmetic by a small faculty, primarily teaching acquaintances of Miss Rossman and Miss Schwaner. Both women taught in the classroom and shared administrative duties. Miss Rossman taught arithmetic and tended to be the one who presided over student discipline. Don’t tell our students, but for several years Miss Rossman and Miss Schwaner concluded the school day at 11 o’clock so the children could focus on studies in the morning and then enjoy the opportunity for outdoor play in the afternoon.
In 1919, first and second grades were added and in Rossman’s first decade as a school, enrollment reached a high of 224 students. In a recent special exhibit, the Missouri History Museum featured a 1928 panoramic photograph of all Rossman School students on the front lawn of the Delmar school property. During those early years, the students remember watching the first World Series held in St. Louis when the Cardinals beat the Yankees, as well as participating in the parade to honor Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic.
Miss Rossman and Miss Schwaner had high standards for their students but also for their teachers. Miss Rossman asked that the teachers encourage the children to give their best and that the teachers give the children their best as well. A teacher beloved for her willingness to provide extra help after school for struggling students was Mrs. Pauline Marshall. One student remembers her tutoring him outside on the fire escape to help him catch up after an extended absence.
Miss Rossman and Miss Schwaner always gave their best as well. During the Great Depression enrollment dropped to a low of 56 students, and Miss Rossman and Miss Schwaner worked tirelessly to keep the school open, even covering payroll out of their own pockets. Strategically, they added additional grade levels to help the school sustain itself during difficult times. Kindergarten and seventh and eighth grades were added, although the latter two grades were dropped in the forties.
Passing the Baton
In the fifties, Rossman School experienced leadership changes; Miss Schwaner who was still responsible for all financial record-keeping died in 1956 at the age of 87. The next year, Miss Rossman resigned after leading the school for forty years. In 1957, Mrs. Marshall was appointed the school’s second headmistress. Early in her headship, Mrs. Marshall faced a challenge presented by new safety ordinances which required extensive and expensive renovations to the Delmar building. The school’s Board of Directors looked to purchase a new building and instead found an idyllic three-acre lot off Conway Road. The school’s first building campaign began and with a determined Mrs. Marshall at the helm, the money was raised to construct a new school to open in September 1962. The only items relocated to the Conway address were the old metal legged desks, with newly sanded and varnished tops. The brand new single-story building definitely revealed the influence of Mrs. Marshall, everything was painted her favorite color - blue.
Like Miss Rossman, Mrs. Marshall taught sixth grade while leading the school and particularly loved teaching grammar. She is remembered for drilling students on parts of speech and diagramming sentences. Parents remember her frugality as she always had notices sent home to parents printed on the backs of previously used paper. As we strive to become a more sustainable institution today, we honor her early example of recycling. In the final years of her tenure, Mrs. Marshall spearheaded the construction of our current gymnasium which is named for her. When Mrs. Marshall resigned in 1973, Rossman School had thrived and survived for fifty-six years due to the enduring leadership of three deeply dedicated women.
A Lasting Legacy
Our school community owes a debt of gratitude to these three strong women who were visionary leaders wholly committed to serving children by providing them the finest education within a nurturing environment. As Rossman’s eighth head of school, I have much to learn from these pioneer educators whom I deeply respect for their generous dedication and bold action within the context of our school’s 100-year history. They set a standard for excellence that we continue to aspire to today. Additionally, I am grateful for the longstanding leadership and commitment to Rossman by my two predecessors and friends, Mrs. Kathy Betz and Mrs. Pat Shipley, both gifted women leaders who thoughtfully led our school with wisdom and grace.
So today, when you see the latest Nike ad celebrating women’s determination, drive and accomplishments, think also of the crazy dreams held in the hearts of Miss Rossman, Miss Schwaner and Mrs. Marshall that led us to the place we stand today and be inspired. I am.
Historical research from by A Portrait of Rossman School 1917-1992 by Shirley Swanson.
Rossman School, nestled on a 20-acre campus in Creve Coeur, is an independent private preparatory school for students in Junior Kindergarten (four years old) through Grade 6. The school’s mission is to provide a strong, well-balanced education in a nurturing school community committed to excellence. Dedicated to developing personal, nurturing relationships with each child, Rossman’s experienced educators provide a solid foundation in academics, athletics and arts while emphasizing strong character development and leadership skills. Request a free Rossman School brochure here.