Oldest Living TC Alum Tells All
Published in TC Today - Volume 30, No. 2
Alumna Maybelle Stansfield is 110 and counting.
Most TC alumni remember their first day at Teachers College. The excitement of learning from some of the top names in education, the confusion of finding your way through labyrinthine hallways, the admonition from the Students' Executive Council that "students are to wear hats when they go to Columbia, or to the parks."
OK, the last item may only apply to Maybelle Stansfield Montgomery, likely Teachers College's oldest living graduate. Maybelle is 110, and received a master's degree from TC in 1921.
To put that in perspective: When Maybelle was born in 1895 in a farmhouse in Brandom, Southern Texas, Grover Cleveland was president. She was in college when America entered World War I. By the end of World War II, she had already retired. You never tell someone they "don't look a day over 110." But whatever 110 should look like, Maybelle far outshines it. She has a wheelchair to help her move about, but she thinks quickly and has a self-deprecating sense of humor. She still lives in the same home she built with her husband in 1927-- downstairs is a dental office once run by her 72 -year-old son, Bill. When a reporter recently visited, her Teachers College diploma and pictures from her time in New York City were laid out on a coffee table. Bill was there to prompt her on details.
The first rule for anyone hoping to equal Maybelle's longevity: Be a Stansfield. Maybelle's parents, both teachers when not working on the farm, lived to be 92 and 94; and her sister Anne, another Teachers College alumna, lived to be 104. Maybelle's "baby sister," Mattie, who lives in Austin, is 100.
The Stansfield family farm, south of San Antonio, "had all kinds of animals" and Maybelle rode the five-mile trip to the one- room schoolhouse on her pet donkey. Many of her friends were working fulltime on their parents' farms by eighth grade, but Maybelle was sent on to high school, in San Antonio. From there, she went to the University of Texas at Austin, where she sharpened her love of English literature and drama.
She had known she wanted to be a teacher for as long as she could remember. But getting to New York City and Teachers College would take more than a love of Shakespeare--it would take money. That's where Uncle Bill came in.
William Grey was a lawyer and oilman who firmly believed that Maybelle and her sister Anne should further their education. The summer after their college graduation, he took the girls to stay with him at the Waldorf-Astoria.
"It was quite a scene to us," Maybelle says of New York City." Especially those big buses where you rode up on the top." The elevated trains presented a new challenge, too: "You had to get yourself in there before the doors slammed shut!"
LEADING LIGHTS, BIG CITY
In 1920, Maybelle enrolled in Teachers College's master's program of English Education. That was another big change. At Austin, she and her fellow students were under the strict supervision of college matrons, but as a graduate student she was treated as an adult. "We were on our own and had more freedom," she says. "It was a great life. We took advantage of all of it."
She lived in Whittier Hall, which was then all female. Male students either lived on their own or boarded at Columbia's general residence halls, but "we invited the boys in on the weekends to have dinner," she says.
Maybelle liked most of her classes, particularly those she took from famed author and teacher Brander Matthews. Not only were his lectures interesting, she says, "he encouraged you to take part. He gave us a chance to express our own ideas. Of course, that always caused lively discussions."
It was a time of great change in the world of education. Although Maybelle didn't study with him, John Dewey walked the halls and his shadow loomed large. Democracy and Education, his seminal work, had been published just four years earlier. Some of the progressive tenets then being taught seemed "ultra- liberal" to someone coming from rural Texas. In fact, when Maybelle's mother came to visit and sat in on a few of her classes, Maybelle says, "there were professors we knew we couldn't let her hear, because she would stand up and challenge them right there!"
Maybelle also liked to visit houses where famous 18th century writers had lived. On one such outing, she met Alice Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth's Longfellow's daughter. And she always brought her Kodak Brownie camera. The pictures she took endeared her to her students. "If I was teaching awthorne, I had pictures of his home, which they found very interesting. The only problem I had was getting the pictures back!"
Maybelle and Anne's commencement speaker was two-time Nobel laureate Marie Curie, who was touring the United States to raise funds for research on radium. " Her voice was very weak," Maybelle says, "but Anne and I were right up front and we could hear everything."
With degrees in hand, both Maybelle and her sister immediately got jobs teaching high school back in San Antonio. Maybelle excelled in the classroom. However, some of the other teachers resented the newly-worldly Stansfield sisters. "We intimidated them, I think," Maybelle says. But her students loved her, says her son, Bill, who has heard many of them shower Maybelle with praise over the years. Some of them kept up correspondence with her throughout their lives. After seven years of teaching, Maybelle moved on to new dreams. She had gotten married and, just south of San Antonio, Maybelle and her husband built a drugstore with a soda fountain and a home right above it. She was happy and busy.
The store became a major social center. During World War II, she says, "the soldiers all came here to meet their buddies and get the news." In 1945, she and her husband decided to retire. She spent a lot of time traveling, but she always came back to the store. 78 years later, she's still living there.
How can the rest of us hope to achieve such a long life?
"You have to be level-headed," Maybelle says. "I lived a sane life, a happy life. I think happiness has a lot to do with it."
And the trick to that?
"You have to keep an open mind. Always keep learning."