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In Memorial of Mrs. Nellie G. Ferris

1917

Mrs. Nellie G. Ferris was born in New Haven, N.Y., September 7, 1853. She was fortunate in her parentage. Her father, John C. Gillespie, of Scotch descent, was born in Richland, N.Y. He was reared on a farm under old-time conditions which encouraged industry, thrift, sobriety, integrity and loyalty. His book learning was acquired at a country school. He was a systematic reader, a careful observer and a practical thinker. His life occupation was farming. He was a courageous, industrious, progressive, ambitious, God-fearing, public-spirited man.

Her mother, Martha House-Gillespie, of English descent, was born in Trenton, N.J. Hers was a humble home in which she and her sisters and brothers learned the fine arts of work and self-denial. Her educational advantages were exceedingly meager. She was a fine type of old-fashioned American womanhood, prudent, retiring, deeply religious- a home-builder.

Nellie's girlhood surroundings were simple, substantial, wholesome and inspiring. Her childhood days were spent on a farm where with two older sisters, an older brother and a younger brother she shared in the life of a happy home. The father desired better educational advantages for his children than the country school could offer, consequently when Nellie was twelve or thirteen years of age, the family moved to a farm just outside the corporation of Fulton, N.Y. Nellie and her sister Alice attended Mrs. Caldwell's private school for girls and Falley Seminary, aggregating in it all three or four years. At the age of fifteen, she was awarded the Mathematical Prize. This indicates she was much more than an ordinary student. At the age of sixteen, she taught two terms in a district school. In February, 1870, she entered upon a course of training for her chosen vocation at the Oswego Normal and Training School in Oswego, N.Y.

She was a bright, industrious, ambitious student. On account of her inborn timidity, her instructors were slow in discovering her brilliance of intellect. It was her good fortune to be associated intimately with seven of the noblest girls in the school. Two of these, Mrs. Lena Hill-Severance of Buffalo, N.Y., and Miss Alice L. Olds of Ogdensburg, N.Y. remain to pay tribute to Mrs. Ferris' girlhood character and student traits.

I entered this school in the spring of 1871. At the time, as now, the girl students were overwhelmingly in the majority. Until the autumn of 1872 I gave very little attention to the school functions. I devoted my time unremittingly to my studies, spending my Saturday afternoons in the Gerrit Smith library. During my early boyhood life, I had kept aloof from girls, although I associated daily with my four sisters. I confess that while I was humiliatingly bashful, I cherished an unexpressed admiration for the girls in the Normal who were handsome and brilliant. Just when or where I first met Nellie I cannot recall. I do know that she was a member of the literary society, the Adelphi, which I helped to organize, and that at the close of an evening session, I was sometimes privileged to accompany her to "The Welland," a girls dormitory connected with the school. The regulations of "The Welland" were exceedingly rigid, consequently my calls were few and far between. So far as I can recall these days of long ago, Nellie Gillespie gave me no special consideration. In the spring of 1873 my efforts to see her more frequently were touched with enthusiasm. Her course of study was Advanced English, mine Classical, consequently we never recited in the same classes. I have reason to believe, however, that she learned through her girl associates who did recite in my classes, something of my scholarship and my aggressive characteristics. It was a joyous Saturday for me when I could secure her companionship for a few hours. Sometimes we went boat riding on Lake Ontario, sometimes we drove into the country. On the 22nd of May while we were apparently admiring a beautiful sunset from the lake shore, I expressed my love for her, my fondest hopes and ambition. She was frank, gentle and considerate, manifesting a degree of self-control that intensified my determination. She said that she would visit her home at Fulton, twelve miles from Oswego, on the following Saturday and counsel with her father and mother. These were the good old days when daughters appreciated the wholesome wisdom, generously offered by their parents. A short time after this event Nellie offered me the greatest opportunity of my life, the opportunity of meeting her father and mother in her own home. I must have made a favorable impression because our engagement followed shortly after this visit.

Nellie graduated in July 1873, and in the fall of the same year she accepted a position as teacher in the public schools of Franklin, Indiana, and taught there for one year. Four months of the following year, she taught at the High School of Fulton, N.Y. in order that she might be at home with her parents immediately previous to our marriage December 23, 1873.

Five days later, December 28, we both began teaching at the Spencer Academy in Spencer, New York. In the fall of 1875, we went to Freeport, Ill., where, with a former classmate, Mr. E.B. Sherman, I organized a Business College and Academy. Although this was entirely successful, a better field seemed to present itself at Rock River University, Dixon, Ill. We went to Dixon in the spring of 1876, taking charge of the Normal Department of the University.

It was in the dormitory of this University that our first son, Carleton Gillespie Ferris, was born, September 18, 1876. Mrs. Ferris taught almost continuously during this period. In the fall of 1877, the University was hopelessly handicapped financially. I organized the Dixon Business College and Academy and conducted it successfully for two years, Mrs. Ferris doing now and then a little teaching. In the fall of 1879 I accepted the superintendency of the Pittsfield Public Schools of Pittsfield, Illinois, holding this position for five years. While living at Pittsfield, Mrs. Ferris did not teach. It was here that our second son Clifford Wendell Ferris, was born, June 3, 18891. The little fellow, though vigorous at birth, was one of many infants unable to overcome the disease of cholera infantum. Little Clifford died September 20.

In the summer of 1884 we came to Big Rapids, Michigan, and in the following September organized what was then called Ferris Industrial School. In 1894, the name was changed to the Ferris Institute. From the very beginning of this school Mrs. Ferris taught regular classes and did her own housework. On April 16, 1889, our third son, Phelps Fitch Ferris, was born. Notwithstanding her additional home cares, Mrs. Ferris continued to teach until 1901, when on account of her shattered health she was compelled to discontinue all work in the school room.

IN THE SCHOOL ROOM

She was associated with me in teaching approximately twenty years, the larger part of this time in the Ferris Institute. Although handicapped as a mother and housekeeper, the quality of her teaching was extraordinary. Her love for young people was profound. She was eager to assist, direct, encourage and instruct the most backward and discouraged pupils. Her scholarship was broad and thorough. She was religiously painstaking in her daily preparation. She never failed to recognize and emphasize the salient points in a recitation. She was a born logician. She talked little and never preached. She stimulated self-activity in a most fascinating way. Her gracious manners won the abiding love of all who came under her instruction. Her students exerted themselves simply because they could not summon courage to disappoint her. Hundreds of America's noblest men and women who knew her as a teacher, testify to her inspiring influence. Her presence in the classroom was a benediction. Her ideals were exemplified daily in her personal contact with the school. Whatever there is in the Ferris Institute that resembles the work of the teacher of teachers, had its origin I the seventeen years of loving service rendered by Mrs. Ferris.

Forty-two years in one home is, by the calendar, a long time. Measured in heart beats, it is all too short. Mrs. Ferris came out of an unpretentious home, out of a home where loyalty, self-sacrifice, purity and love reigned supreme. In her own home she faced courageously the ordinary hardships allotted to woman. For a quarter of a century her home taxed her physical and mental energies to the utmost. As I recall those years of extreme frugality, those years of incessant toil in the school and the home, I marvel at her endurance and self-denial.

I was born with a melancholy disposition. Mrs. Ferris furnished the sunshine for her husband and her two boys. The home was her kingdom. In the home she was a beacon light. No sacrifice was too great for her to make. Her natural refinement was graciously expressed morning, noon and night. She loved beautify surroundings, beautiful flowers, beautiful books, beautiful trees and beautiful human characters.

As a mother, she manifested firmness mingled with tenderness. She listened patiently to the trials and tribulations of her children and her husband. Her sense of humor made the child life of her boys joyous and delightful. Her love and sympathy for children extended far beyond her own hearthstone.

She rarely spoke of religion. Apparently she was never perplexed with the problems of life. Her faith in the Father of us all made her silent, divinely trustful and active in good works. She was my tower of strength, my comfort in hours of stress and seaming defeat.

In 1903, I feared that she was stricken with a fatal malady. When the morning came for her to start for the Battle Creek Sanitarium, my duties at the Institute hindered me from accompanying her to in to the train. On my return to my home at noon, I found the rooms empty. The clock ticked in the silence with the sound of a trip hammer.

I turned to my desk and there I found a vase of fresh flowers and a loving note bidding me to be tenderly watchful over Phelps, assuring me that she would triumph over her ailment. This is only one of a hundred incidents that I could relate.

Six years ago, her physical condition became critical. It was my blessed privilege to care for her in countless ways. During these years I came to really know her. I confess that for thirty-five years I had been so close to her that I was unable to appreciate her really divine qualities. For me these were precious years, transforming years, regenerating years. For her children, for her close friends, these were the holy years. Again and again she declared these were the happiest years of all of her life. She realized fully what it meant to love and be loved.

YOUNG FOLKS IN THE HOME

Up to 1911, more than a quarter of a century, Mrs. Ferris kept open house for the students of our school. Occasionally she gave a reception. Her most charming work was done with the individual who came for assistance in his studies, or who came for a book. Mrs. Ferris, after asking a few searching questions was usually invited to select a volume. When the book was returned it was freely discussed. Many of these visitors caught a new vision of life in her radiant presence. She was always suggestive, never dogmatic.

During the boyhood of Phelps, Mrs. Ferris read aloud for an hour every Sunday night during the winter months. At one time sixteen boys were in regular attendance eagerly listening to "Wild Animals I have Known," "My Kalulu," "Cudjo's Cave," "Captain January," "Modern Vikings," etc. Under no circumstances would she read beyond eight o'clock. Mrs. Ferris handled these boys with consummate skill. Her activities were organized about the home- her anteroom to heaven.

POLITICAL HELPER

Mrs. Ferris realized, as none of my friends realized, that I had no political ambition. She felt that, insomuch as my relations to a minority party precluded the possibility of political success, why enter the arena? Furthermore, as already stated, she was keenly sensitive to unkind criticism. When I was finally persuaded to become a candidate for Governor, she was my most enthusiastic helper. Naturally, she was elated over my final success.

I am constitutionally a radical, a "natural-born" fighter, prone to favor extreme measures, in order to secure reforms. Under her tuition I grew in patience and wisdom. My daily letter to her when I was at the Capitol made her familiar with the important problems of state. I always shielded her so far as possible from the thousand and one petty annoyances that came to me in my public life. For the best service I rendered Michigan, Mrs. Ferris deserves a large part of the merited commendation. Her sense of justice, her purity of motive, her Christian democracy illumed my pathway. In solving the problems that confront me, I shall ever ask, "What would Mrs. Ferris suggest or advise, if she were at my side?" Her ideals were the ideals described in the Sermon on the Mount.

LOVE OF NATURE

Here and there in her home could always be found a handful of fresh flowers. I now daily look with gratitude and delight upon the magnificent ferns that her years of watchful care have made triumphantly beautiful. The spring time was little less than heaven to her. She had the enthusiasm of a child for getting out of doors into the sunshine where she could laugh with the flowers, the trees and the birds. During her last days she frequently remarked, "I had hoped to see the flowers again." She was always ready for a long drive into the country. She did not like solitude, consequently it gave her great joy to invite one or more of her friends to accompany her. She took it for granted that they too loved all out of doors. She admired her beautiful lawn and would not consent to have it broken into patches of artificial designs. She cooperated with nature. Among her favorite flowers were lilies of the valley, violets, roses, sweet peas, Easter lilies, gladioli, carnations and orchids. Her love for the beautiful was a little less than a religion.

BOOKS

Mrs. Ferris was a lover of great books. She was especially interested in American Biography. The achievements of noble Americans was for her a tonic. Her keen discrimination and appreciation of constructive thought led her to read and reread the great essayists. Her favorite author, for more than a third of the century was Emerson. After reading some popular inspirational book she would remark, "It is all in a few paragraphs of Emerson. My older editions of Emerson's Essays contain many marked passages expressing the precious thoughts that furnished food for her soul. During the last years of her life she read a very large number of wholesome American and English works of modern fiction. She avoided novels that discussed sex problems. She was ever alert for bright, wholesome, inspiring stories. Her unwavering belief in human goodness, her admiration for heroic deeds, guided her unerring in her choice of books. At Christmas time the "morning readings" at the Institute are commemorative. Mrs. Ferris eagerly read and selected the Christmas stories. Her judgement was exquisite.

THE DRAMA

Mrs. Ferris was passionately fond of the drama. In her life time she had the good fortune to here Edwin Booth, Lawrence Barrett, Henry Irving, Joseph Jefferson, Sol Smith Russell, John Drew, Mrs. John Drew, Richard Mansfield, E.H. Southern, Mme. Januschek, Mme Modjeska, Denman Thompson, J. Forbes Robertson, Maxine Elliot, Maude Adams and many others. She most enjoyed plays that abounded in good cheer, plays that expressed the simple life like "The Old Homestead," "The Passing of the Third Floor Back," and "The Servant in the House." The last play she ever saw was in Vicksburg, Mississippi, November 10, 1916 where together we fell in love with Maude Adams in "The Little Minister." This is another of my precious memories.

LOVE OF HUMOR

All who came in close contact with Mrs. Ferris were quick to recognize her keen sense of humor. Her merry laugh was contagious. This found its heartiest expression when she came in touch with children. She was untiring in her efforts to entertain them and reveled in their play. She was never boisterous.

The humor of Mark Twain and Josh Billings failed to command her attention. She preferred the quiet, elusive humor of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Samuel M. Crothers and Robert J. Burdette.

She always manifested a happy, joyous disposition, a disposition made beautiful through self-mastery.

IN SOCIETY

On account of her school and home duties, and on account of her delicate constitution, she affiliated with few social and public associations. She was deeply interested in every movement for making the world better. So far as her health would permit, she visited the sick, helped the needy, and comforted and encouraged those who were discouraged and heart sick. Her inborn timidity made it impossible for her to address, under any circumstances, any audience large or small. She always underestimated her ability. Only her students and friends who came in close touch with her, knew that she was a woman of remarkable intellect, rare culture and refinement.

Mrs. Ferris loved her neighbors. She regretted her inability to entertain them frequently in her own home; she regretted her inability to attend social functions except on rare occasions. This was a cross which was hard for her to bear. Her callers always found her cheerful, frank, sympathetic and sincere. She could not be induced to discuss human weaknesses. She was absolutely free from even the semblance of malice. Doubtless she recognized faults in herself, faults in her husband, faults in her children, faults in her friends, but her admiration for their redeeming qualities grew out of her appreciation of the beautiful, the good and the true.

HER LETTERS AND ESSAYS

In her letters Mrs. Ferris revealed all of her characteristics, especially the sunny and sympathetic side of her nature. To the unfortunate, to the discouraged, to the bereaved, she sent letters of healing and comfort. For me her letters were a wellspring of life.

Occasionally she wrote a short essay for some one of our school publications. Her style was simple, direct, clear and discriminating, a revelation of her inner self. In January, 1897, she wrote a brief essay for "Useful Education" entitled "Loyalty to Purpose. I take pleasure in quoting the following paragraphs:

A steady purpose attended by increasing effort will accomplish more than we have yet dreamed of. If we form the habit of giving to small matters our best endeavor, than great things must receive it. I have come to feel that our possibilities and powers are almost unlimited, if we will be listen to the voices of duty and hold ourselves responsive to the light.

One of the chief elements of success in any line of work is the power to take infinite pains with that work. No part of a task should be regarded as trifling, unworthy of attention.

Submission to our mistakes is the climax of cowardice. Submission to the right is the height of nobility.

In February 1900, she wrote for the "Ferris Institute News" an article entitled "Vision without Decision. I quote the following paragraphs:

George Eliot makes the destiny of each hero or heroine turn upon the use of those critical hours when some ideal confronts the soul for acceptance or rejection. The two factors most essential to culture, growth and achievement are to see the right and then to do it, to have the courage and force to work this into the web of life and carry our intuitions and better impulses into action. We curb our ambitions and distrust our ideals. When ease, comfort or pleasure stand in the way of advancement they must be swept away with a power as relentless as fate.

This inward vision is the mainspring of our continual improvement, the inspiring influence without we never could press onward and upward. I can find nothing that has hindered more effectually mental and moral growth than the failure to heed these promptings and act upon them immediately. Selfishness creeps in and whispers some other time will do as well. The convenient time never comes and to all eternity those impulses, which, carried into action would have conveyed happiness and joy, remain unused.

Many a virtue struggling into being is warmed and stimulated by the sunshine of appreciation. Many a battle with temptation owes its final victory to the reinforcing influence of encouragement. No one can estimate the effect of a single worthy deed, still less fix any limit to its influence. We all have the impulses toward right action; the need is for us to spontaneously follow them from the leap and spring of the spirit within.

LAST DAYS

On March 8, 1917, I came from the Institute to my home a few minutes before noon. Just as we were about to enter the dining room for lunch, Mrs. Ferris was seized with excruciating pain unlike any she had ever experienced. I called our family physician immediately. He was unable to diagnose her ailment. The following morning her condition was such that little hope for her recovery could be entertained. On March 20, a serious operation was performed. She rallied and again manifested new hope. Three days later she passed to the Great Beyond. During these fifteen days of awful suffering she manifested the courage that conquers. For her loved ones and for all who were allowed to come into her presence she had a smile and a word of cheer. Her last days were in harmony with all the other days of her heroic life of self-sacrifice. She had no fear of death. She worshipped at the shrine of the living. Again and again she fondly welcomed the visits of her only grandchild, little Helen.

The life of Mrs. Ferris adds new luster to American womanhood. For years her husband has carried in his pocket the following sentiment:


Say not welcome when I come:
Say not farewell when I go,
For I come not when I come
And I go not when I go,
And a greeting ne'er I'd give you
And farewell would never say
In my heart I'm always with you
Always shall be every day.
Mamma.

Source: Ferris, Woodbridge N. In Memorial of Mrs. Nellie G. Ferris. (Big Rapids: Ferris Institute, 1917).


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