Two simply framed photographs of a young mother and her daughter grace the hallway of a comfortable east Wichita home. In one, mother and daughter stand for all time in front of Fairmount Hall, the building that made Fairmount College, Wichita State University's predecessor, a reality. In the other, the camera has caught the two in front of the Carnegie/Morrison Library, the fledgling college's fourth building.
The young mother, Anna Elizabeth Walsh, has long since passed away, as has her husband, J. Martyn Walsh, who took those pictures. Fairmount Hall and the Carnegie/Morrison Library also are gone, having perished in separate fires, and the once unkempt campus landscape has evolved beyond recognition.
However, the dark eyes of the little girl shine as brightly now as they did 84 years ago. These are the eyes of Kathleen Walsh '28/39, and she, like the photographs, is a timeless original.
Walsh came to Fairmount College in 1924 as one of the fall semester's 460 enrolled students. Allegiance to her alma mater was forged in an immediate trial by fire when she fervently joined the campaign to persuade the citizens of Wichita to accept Fairmount as its municipal university. The proposition was crucial to the school's survival; if the college were to remain an institution for area residents, rather than an elite institution for the select few, financial underwriting from the city was imperative.
It was a hard sell, Walsh remembers. "We students rolled up our sleeves, spent time at City Hall going over registration lists, and went door to door urging people to vote 'yes.' I worked an area near Friends University, and more than once I got the door slammed in my face!"
Put to a vote in 1925, the proposition failed. "So we just did it all over again the net year," Walsh says, smiling. "It passed, and in the spring of 1928 I proudly graduated from the Municipal University of Wichita."
She marvels now at the successful fight waged by Fairmount and its students which established the ninth municipal university in the nation and the first one west of the Mississippi. The new institution comprised only four buildings: Fairmount Hall, Henrion Gymnasium, Fiske Hall and the Carnegie Library.
Walsh recalls, "Commencement was held in Henrion, and afterwards, we went over and broke ground for what was to become McKinley Hall, which was the real beginning of campus growth. The grounds were still pastures and fields, really, and there were no trees to speak of. Just look at it now!"
Walsh, whose parents were both educators, had decided late in her college career to become a teacher. "I guess it was in my blood to teach, but I resented people assuming that I would do so since my parents were teachers," she says with a chuckle. "I held off as long as I could, but in the end, that was my destiny."
Having earned the bachelor's degree in general studies with a major in English and a minor in history, she began what was to become her lifelong career as an English teacher, first at the Sterling, Kan., high school and then at Liberty Junior High School in Hutchinson, Kan. In 1938 she returned to Wichita to teach at Allison Junior High School and in 1939 earned a master's degree in liberal studies from WU. Among her many professional accomplishments is serving as chair of the board of directors of the Kansas State Teachers' Association. She is the first of only two women thus far to hold that position. After retiring from teaching at Allison in 1972, she was inducted into the Kansas Teachers Hall of Fame in 1978.
The English language has been Walsh's passion, which she translated into a mission to teach the correct use of the written language not only to the younsters who passed through her classroom but also to adults interested in writing better. She and her father thus collaboratively authored The Plain English Handbook, because, she rembers, "We wanted to write a down-to-earth, easy-to-use, practical handbook, one that stressed the fundamentals, such as, 'Do you put an apostrophe here or not?'"
They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. People did want to know where those apostrophes went, and thousands upon thousands of The Plain English Handbook were sold. It was used in every state and several foreign countries, and it was printed in Braille. At one time, it was the best-selling English handbook on the market.
Elizabeth H. King, WSU's vice president for university advancement, remarks, "It speaks well for Wichita State to have an alumna who coauthored a book that received such widespread acclaim."
J. Michael Lamb, director of development for the WSU Endowment Association, comments, "Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the handbook is that Miss Walsh and her father wrote it with the purest of motives. They didn't do it for any financial gain; they were simply being good stewards of the English language."
Meeting needs, whether in the classroom or in the community, has long been a defining characteristic of Walsh's life. After her retirement, she spent Saturdays over the next 26 years working in Wesley Medical Center's gift shop. She worked in Music Theatre of Wichita's box office in its early days and helped with its mailings. She has been a volunteer for Project Beauty and the Wichita Symphony Showhouse project, and for the last few years she has knitted dozens and dozens of brightly colored children's caps for her church's charitable endeavors. According to long-time friend Carol Hill '58/65, "Kathleen takes her volunteer work more seriously than some people take their professions."
Five years ago, Walsh did her best to meet the needs of some Wichita State students. Although years earlier she had made provisions for her alma mater in her will, she decided students shouldn't have to wait until her death to begin receiving the assistance they need now. She established three scholarships that provide significant financial support: the J. Martyn Walsh Endowed Scholarship fund to benefit juniors and seniors majoring in English education, the four-year Anna Elizabeth Walsh Endowed Scholarship fund for freshman intending to major in the humanities, and the four-year Anna Kathleen Walsh Endowed Scholarship fund to assist students majoring in English. So far, six students have been able to meet and thank her for her generosity.
In 1996 she was named one of WSU's Distinguished Alumni in conjunction with the Centennial. This past May, she received the Fairmount Founders Award, an honor reserved for those who manifest the values and ideals of the founders of Fairmount College.
This last honor is especially appropriate because, Hill explains, "Kathleen was one of those students, long ago, who worked so hard to ensure that Fairmount would prevail."
And the nascent promise in the eyes of the little girl in the photograph has come full circle.