Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Young Man of Nebraska: Alexander J. Stoddard

Nebraska State Normal School at Peru, circa 1900
 
In Peru, Nebraska, the local news channel used a drone to show where the Missouri River had broken through the levee.  The disastrous flood has destroyed fields, roads, and homes during the past month.

I thought immediately of Alexander J. Stoddard, son of a Scottish farmer who immigrated to the U.S. in 1848 at the age of two.  The family settled in southeastern Nebraska, preceding the homesteaders.  The father married twice and fathered nine children. 

Several of his children grew up to become teachers, including young Alexander.  But it looks like Alexander was the only one who left Nebraska.  He went on to pursue a brilliant career in public education that carried him east and west across 35 years.  

The drama of the Plains – the floods, the droughts, the farming life – that’s what he set out to leave behind.


Alexander J. Stoddard
Nebraska State Normal School at Peru
191o yearbook  

He started on that path at the Nebraska State Normal School at Peru, a teacher training school.  Normal schools proliferated in the U.S. after the Civil War.  By 1909, when 20-year old Alexander arrived at the hilltop campus, the demand for teachers had been rising steeply since the turn of the century.  Anywhere that you could point to in the country was in need of educators. 

At Peru, Alexander became president of his class.  (He also learned to play tennis on the lawn courts.)  After two years, he headed off to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln where he received a B.A.  In 1917, while skirmishing with the Nebraska draft examiners, he married his childhood sweetheart, Sadie Gillan.  They would have two children.


Southeastern Nebraska
Stoddard was born and grew up in Auburn; attended
normal school in Peru; taught school in Beatrice while
in school at Peru; and received his B.A. from the University
of Nebraska at Lincoln. The dotted blue line at the right
marks the Missouri River.

As Alexander continued his education, the family headed east where he earned a Master’s degree in educational administration at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Then he soared; advancing from superintendent of schools in the suburban village of Bronxville, N. Y., to Schenectady, Providence, Denver, Philadelphia, and, finally, Los Angeles.  He also led several prestigious national educational organizations. 

Alexander spent 65 of his 76 years in the twentieth century.  The sweep of his life calls for an exclamation, or at least a smile:  the same man who traveled by horseback from Peru State College to the city of Beatrice, Nebraska, where he taught school to help put himself through school, also fiercely advocated educational television when it came on the scene during the 1950s.

He was a modern man. 

Alexander J. Stoddard, 1946

Nevertheless, nineteenth-century realities influenced his life.  The floods that have devastated Peru and other towns in southeast Nebraska echo the vagaries of the weather that would have tormented his father.  Not to mention the Panic of 1893.

Inevitably, Alexander and many of his peers left the Plains. They did not want to live the farmer’s life, and the lure of the city was hard to fend off. Perhaps there are numbers in a book somewhere, but I will guess that hundreds of them became very fine teachers.    

In this spring of 2019, Peru State College still overlooks the Missouri River, its campus scattered with oak trees and old brick buildings.  A four-year college with an online extension program, it nods to its earlier incarnation with a School of Education.  

Now it’s back in business as the flood waters recede, although irreparable damage has been inflicted on the homes, farms, and roads of southeastern Nebraska.


*Left-click on images for greater detail.

1 comment:

  1. It nice to think figures who merit "at least a smile" will remember forever (even if just a little) via the internet.

    ReplyDelete