Donor StoriesO Pioneer!
When her TC education ended abruptly in 1942, Mildred Larsen continued it on her own— in a one-room schoolhouse in an impoverished prairie town
Mildred Casserino was 21 years old in August 1942 when she stepped out of a car on an empty road in eastern Colorado, just miles from the Nebraska and Wyoming borders, and waited to meet her future.
“It was like that scene in ‘North by Northwest,’ when Cary Grant gets dropped off in the middle of South Dakota,” recalls Casserino, 90, who now goes by her married name, Larsen. “There wasn’t a car or a person in sight.” It was, perhaps, more like a scene from Grapes of Wrath. Dust storms had ravaged the high plains region and the tiny town of Crook, Colorado, with a population of fewer than 200 people, stood beyond the reach of a federal electrification effort. There were no phones, electric lights or running water. The one utility pole was for telegraph transmission.
“It was hard to believe that this was the U.S.,” Larsen says. What impelled a young girl from Brooklyn to come to such a place? Teachers College—or, more precisely, New College, the undergraduate school that TC had created in 1932 to help regenerate a society ravaged by the Great Depression. The school sent its students to an opening summer boot camp in Appalachia and also required them to spend a year teaching overseas and another year teaching in an industrial setting in order to understand the tribulations of the working poor. Drawn by that mission, Larsen, the only daughter of Italian immigrants who had toiled in factory jobs to send her to col- lege, had enrolled at New College in 1939. But with the advent of World War II, New College could no longer send students abroad, and in 1941, TC closed the school, leaving Mildred Larsen with insufficient field experience to win a teaching job in New York City.
Undaunted, she decided to seek out the field experiences that New College would have given her.
“I desperately wanted to know what it was like to start out as a young worker, struggling to find a job,” she says.
She worked briefly at TC, typing up reports in the psychology department until she had saved $100, and then headed west by train and bus. By the time she reached Denver, her cash was running short, so she decided to stop and look for work. She registered with an agency “but they were suspicious of me because of my last name and because I had darker skin than the people out there—they thought I was Mexican.”
On the Friday before Labor Day weekend, a school in Crook accepted her. She caught a ride back east across the state and started work the following Monday. The school was a one-room shack with no books or paper (Larsen would make the trip to the county seat, Sterling, once a month, to buy both with her own money). There were just seven students, spanning first grade through eighth – the children of migrant workers from Russia, the Ukraine and other countries, several of whom spoke no English and all of whom worked for three hours in the mornings before coming to school. Larsen herself walked several miles to work each day, during the winter in temperatures that dropped to 30 below zero and snow so deep it took all her strength to push her door open in the morning. Upon arriving, she lit a coal stove and cooked breakfast for the students from government rations that, having been picked clean by other schools further east, generally consisted of dried beans.
“I loved it,” she says. “I loved the students, and the people in the town were lovely and generous. The one-room school was very satisfying, because it was like an extended family. The older kids took care of the younger ones.”
She stayed a year before moving back to New York City, now armed with the requisite experience to get a teaching job. Not long afterward, she moved to Paris and spent a year teaching French to children of embassy employees at an American school. (She had majored in the subject at New College and even tutored a fellow student, the Columbia quarterback Sid Luckman, who went on to star with the Chicago Bears in the National Football League.) She moved back to New York again, went to a New College reunion and met Victor Larsen, who had been a senior when she was a freshman. They got married, moved out to Long Island, and she earned a master’s degree at TC and taught in the public schools while he taught at Adelphi University. They never had children, but Mildred worked with so many over the years that she never felt deprived on that score.
Today Larsen lives in Washington State, near the Puget Sound. Victor passed away 24 years ago, but she still stays in touch with a few fellow New College graduates, including Richard Alexander, whose father was the school’s founding dean. Perhaps surprisingly for someone who has led such an adventurous life, she says she doesn’t think she could handle teaching in today’s public schools.
“The problems are so enormous,” she says. “There isn’t enough money to give the children and teachers what they need.”
That, she says, is why she has chosen to include Teachers College in her will.
“I’m so glad to see what’s going on at TC,” she says. “I believe in what you’re doing. TC has always been ahead of its time.”
From one pioneer to another.
The legacy of a lifetime of research
It began with a typewriter.
In a 1929-31 study Ben D. Wood, a Teachers College alumnus and pioneer in the field of learning technologies and testing, showed that using typewriters encouraged more and higher quality writing and better cooperation in the classroom.
Years later the connection led to IBM where the study formed the basis of IBM's Writing to Read program, developed by one of Wood's associates. Wood, Professor of Collegiate Educational Research at Columbia University, was also a key figure in the proliferation of standardized tests and consulted on the development of the first commercial test scoring machine, the IBM 805.
Wood's lifework was research; he wanted others to be able to do the same. Thanks to savvy, early investment in IBM, Wood established endowment funds at TC. In 1972 he set up the Elbenwood Fund for Educational Research, followed by the Institute for Learning Technologies Fund in 1986. In 1989, three years after her husband's death at 91, Grace Turner Wood established the Ben and Grace Wood Fellowship Fund, through which 26 doctoral students have received three years of full tuition and a stipend.
Wood was awarded the Teachers College Medal for Distinguished Service in 1969. Columbia University Professor Emeritus George C. Thompson, who became friends with his colleague after retirement, says that Wood, a native Texan, had a mind that was rarely at rest: "He was a self-made man, and a very kind person."
Substantial gifts such as the endowed funds– made possible by the generosity and foresight of Ben Wood–make an enormous impact at the College. His scholarships have enhanced TC's ability to attract the best students and to keep them–and have given dozens of students the gift of graduating debt-free.