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Influence of Mary Frances England continues at Culver Girls Academy

Tom Coyne
 

Ragsdale remembers CGA's first dean 

 

Sept. 19, 2022

Dorothea Noyes Ragsdale ’74, a foreign language instructor at Culver, said one of the things she loves most about the school is the feeling of freedom within a safe environment.

“Freedom to take intelligent risks. Freedom to fail and try again. Freedom to become acquainted with new ideas, new people, and cultures. Freedom to learn valuable life lessons in humility and possibility. And the freedom to develop my boundaries and to continue to develop my emerging sense of self.”

Ragsdale was the keynote speaker Sunday at Dean England Day, an annual event held in Memorial Chapel to teach new Culver Girls Academy students the pivotal role Mary Frances England played in creating a school for girls out of the Culver Military Academy in 1971.

England’s father taught at Culver, but she could not attend because girls weren’t allowed to attend Culver when she was a student. She initially was known as director of the Culver Academy for Girls, but was named dean when she pushed for the school to be put on equal footing with the military school.

Ragsdale was a member of that charter class of 100 CAG girls 51 years ago. She told the girls that England was greatly respected by students and by her peers.

Ragsdale told the girls that when thinking about what to say in her speech, she decided to do it in the form of a thank you letter to England, “whose spirit I hope is with us at this time,” for doing her part in “imagining and for being the first being the first director of this beloved school which has so profoundly shaped so many lives.”

She described England as a role model who displayed “strength, courage, commitment, wisdom and perseverance and deep loyalty to your goals and aspirations for the school.”

“I clearly remember you as a very present, stern figure, but a wonderful educator, fair, strict, but also gracious, elegant and kind,” she said.

Ragsdale said she thought of all the various roles England had to undertake when creating the school.

 

Dorothea Noyes Ragsdale '74, a foreign language instructor, gives the Dean England Day speech at Memorial Chapel

 

“I realize that you were innovative, thoughtful, intentional and most of all courageous, attributes that you displayed in your daily behaviors and may not have realized were modeling for all of us to see,” she said.

In preparing for the speech, Ragsdale went to the school archives and looked through reports, memos and hand-written notes and photos about plans to create the school. She read concerns about whether parents would send their daughters to a school with 600 boys and 100 girls, about whether boys and girls should be taught in the same classrooms, would there be different academic standards for boys and girls, and how would they handle public displays of affection.

“How would CMA traditions be affected? What will be the traditions of CAG be? And who gets to decide,” she said. “You intuitively nurtured that sense of being part of something greater than oneself. You made that myriad  decisions that helped to shape both schools.”

Ragsdale said one of the lessons she learned at Culver was how to speak up for herself. She said girls growing up in Mexico were expected to be obedient and accepting, to live up to the expectations of others, and to never question anything.

She remembers she was protesting to a humanities teacher Bill Roth ’63, about what she thought was an unjustly low grade.

“It took every bit of courage I could muster to ask my teacher what to think and what to do because I needed to improve that grade. He looked at me and said, ‘Miss Noyes, this is not for me to tell you. You need to understand that you own your own process of living and learning.’ Well, nobody had ever said that to me. That was a pivotal moment.”

She said he told her that she had to give herself permission to make decisions to further her own growth and become the person she was becoming.

“The realization that I had a voice in my own future decisions was indeed shocking to a 15-year-old Hispanic girl. I tell my own students now: When something is not clear, ask. If you need more information, take responsibility. That is what learning is, and you must do it for the rest of your life. Because you will always be learning,” Ragsdale said.

She said that simple philosophy has had a profound and long-lasting effect on how she approaches her life and teaching. She told students it is up to them how they prioritize the events and people in their lives.

“In life there will always be moments of happiness, anxiety, seriousness, crisis, and joy. You get to decide what to do with all this when it shows up,” she said. “My Culver experience has given me the strength, the critical thinking skills and active and open mind-set to weather all sorts of storms and to be grateful for all of it – the good and the maybe not so good.”

 

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