by Silvia Pettem (published in the Daily Camera, March 26, 2006)
Mary Rippon was the first woman professor at the University of Colorado where she taught for 31 years. Many of her students went on to earn advanced degrees, but “Miss Rippon” (as she always was called) never had a degree of her own, not even a bachelor’s. That’s soon to change. At CU’s Commencement in Boulder in May, the Regents will award a posthumous honorary doctorate to their legendary pioneer educator.
Said Regent Cindy Carlisle, “This award is long overdue.” Rippon was born in Illinois in 1850. Her father died when she was a baby, her mother abandoned her, and she was passed around an extended family. When the young woman graduated from high school in 1868, she inherited money from the sale of her late father’s farm. She planned to go to the University of Illinois, but it didn’t admit women.
Instead, Rippon traveled to Europe where she ended up staying for five years. While there, she attended university classes in Germany, France, and Switzerland. And she kept in contact with her former high school chemistry teacher, Joseph Sewall.
When CU first opened in September 1877, Sewall was its first president, and he invited Rippon to join the faculty. At the time, there was only one other professor, and the entire University was housed in one building, now called Old Main.
Rippon, then 28 years old, arrived on the train in January 1878 and lived in Boulder the rest of her life. CU has always admitted women, and the new professor was well-liked and quickly became their role model. Beginning in 1891, she chaired the Department of Modern Languages (later the Department of German Language and Literature).
Before long, Rippon was known as an exceptional professor who was highly revered by both students and colleagues. And, perhaps for good reason, she kept a low profile.
When Rippon was 37, she had a romantic relationship with a 25-year-old student. She and the student, Will Housel, secretly married. Their daughter Miriam conveniently was born in Germany while Rippon took a year’s sabbatical. The couple (who never lived together as man and wife) left the baby in a European orphanage. Determined to keep her job, Rippon resumed teaching at CU as if nothing in her life had changed.
From then on, Rippon led two separate lives. In the Victorian era, married women didn’t work, as society deemed it as taking a job away from a man with a family to support. Ironically, Rippon financially supported her daughter, even after Housel remarried and was able to give her a home.
Rippon retired from CU in 1909, but she remained in Boulder until her death in 1935. Her private life was known to only two close friends, even during the years that her daughter (now deceased) also taught at CU. Miriam’s son Wilfred announced his relationship to the University community in the 1980s. And his son, Eric Rieder, is coming to Boulder to accept the long-sought degree for his great-grandmother.
“Rippon shattered the glass ceilings of the day,” said Carlisle. “Not only was she a scholar and a teacher, she was a revolutionary. She was a magnet for students who were ready to break the mold.”