As a member of the Tri Kappa Sorority (Indiana’s largest women's philanthropic organization at the time), the only child of a successful industrialist, and the granddaughter of a self-made man and lawyer, Ruth knew what it took to be a success in the America of the 1920s. She was born with the purported ‘bad luck’ of being a woman, but times were changing. The twenties had come roaring: the suffragettes had achieved their amendment, hair was frizzed and chopped into the newest fashion of 'the bob', skirts were raised from modest ankles to scandalous knees, and the new independent American woman was endowed with more confidence in her future than ever before.
The whole country seemed steeped in optimism. The Great War, so devastating to Europe, had ended before bringing its misery to American shores, a fortunate turn that had brought a new age of industry and wealth to the United States. The Great Influenza Epidemic, commonly (but quite unfairly) referred to as the Spanish Flu, had ravaged the world next, infecting over 500 million people and killing between 25-50 million people, more than half a million of those deaths in the United States itself. For two years Americans wore masks, quarantined, and did their best to return to normalcy, and, by the early spring of 1920, life returned.
The return of joy to America was made all the more clear in the summer of 1920, when Sallie Hume Douglas and Helen Hill composed the hymn “Follow the Gleam,” winning the Silver Bay Prize at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. The hymn was inspired by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1889 poem, “Merlin and the Gleam,” an uplifting romantic piece about the quest for the Holy Grail. The hymn was an instant hit, becoming an anthem for the newly energized USA. The Young Women’s Club of America (YWCA), a program at the forefront of women’s social movements since the 1850s, adopted the hymn and sang it at every possible opportunity, introducing young women across the country to the hymn’s hopeful words. Girls' camps and schools across the country embraced the hymn as a paean for the modern woman, claiming that to live by the lyrics was, “to be in the vanguard of one’s generation,” as the secretary of the YWCA herself claimed in 1921.
America was on the cusp of greatness, as were Ruth and the other twenty-nine girls who would share a senior year together at the Birmingham School.
There were also big changes happening in Birmingham, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1797 in a grand plan to remake the great manufacturing city of Birmingham, England, our little village proved too geologically complicated for that idea. The Juniata River was too shallow for transport ships, and the land...well, it’s awfully difficult to build a factory with water wheels when your land is on a lovely cliff overlooking the river, not on it.
All the better for the many students who have passed happy days in this bucolic village. Birmingham soon grew into a borough of almost 200 people who decided, since the land next to their village had never been turned into a factory, they should build a school on it instead. It was 1851, and the Second Great Awakening was in full swing. An obsession with improving the country was sweeping across the land, and various reformers were hellbent on temperance, prison reform, women’s rights, and expanding education for all. After almost all the citizens of Birmingham bought shares in the school for $5 each, a 70-foot by 35-foot building was erected next to the village, and the Mountain Female Seminary officially opened in 1853.
The school struggled until 1857 when Mr. Lemuel Gulliver Grier, the principal at Kishacoquillas Seminary in Lewistown, PA, bought the property to start a school “after his own heart.” He formed a school where, “[o]ur aim is not to stuff the mind with undigested knowledge but to train its powers so that the student may be able to think for herself.” In October of that year, Mr. Grier, his wife Sarah Boileau, and fellow teacher Nancy Jane Davis moved to the property to renovate it and prepare for students to arrive in May of 1858. They were surprised, however, when three charges showed up on their doorstep not long after their own arrival, ready and willing to be pupils of the school! Those earliest students spent as much time painting, wallpapering, carpeting, and building as they did practicing their Latin and their geometry, but their numbers continued to grow and the school soon flourished. The Grier family has owned the school ever since.
By the time Ruth Ellen Billman entered its halls in 1921, the Mountain Female Seminary was now The Birmingham School for Girls, a respected member of the Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools of the Middle States and Maryland (now the Middle States Association), and actively stressing its college preparatory program at a time when college education for women was still a rarity. The school motto had been solidified as “Mens Sana in Corpore Sano” (A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body), and classes had been updated to reflect the growing confidence that young women had in their future, a future that contained their own successes and achievements, not just those of their future husbands.
Founders Hall was built, as was a new gymnasium, swimming pool, and extra classrooms, and Jolly Hall had been rebuilt. The Nancy Jane Davis Library had been built to honor the former principal and principal emeritus who, after helping to found the school with Lemuel Grier and had served in its halls for 64 years, had died in June of 1921. Tuition was $1000 per year (a large jump compared to the original 1857 tuition cost of $130 per year), with extra expenses for music or riding lessons. Advanced mathematics and botany courses were offered alongside etiquette and china decorating, and it was clear the school, though still in line with traditional ideas about a woman’s place in society, was preparing their students for a much broader future than previous generations.
For a girl like Ruth, who, according to the 1921 Pine Needle, saw higher education in her future, who was an active member of the Glee Club and the Missionary Society, who longed to sail around the world and see everything she could, the school was a dream come true. She dove into Professor Moulton’s Latin class, where Virgil was her favorite reading of the year. She made friends aplenty and gained school-wide fame for being able to blush on command. She was shy, but friendly. Quiet, but intelligent. She graduated in June of 1922 - educated to the fullest extent an eighteen-year-old woman could be in America - ready to continue her journey at Western College in Oxford, Ohio, where she would be starting as a freshman undergrad in the fall of 1922.
And then, in September of 1922, with her whole life ahead of her, Ruth Ellen Billman, only child of Otto and Emma Billman, future scholar at Western University, lover of Virgil and treasurer of the Glee Club, succumbed to diphtheria. Her heart already weakened by a bout of scarlet fever from the year before, she was unable to survive the cardiac dilation that came with her diphtheria, and she died at home after a short battle with the illness.
Her parents mourned their daughter by building her a beautiful memorial on the grounds of her beloved Birmingham School, constructing it out of concrete and slate to make it last and designing it in the neoclassical style that was still so popular during the 1920s. White columns surrounded a simple, meditative space, and the phrase “Follow the Gleam” on the top of the entryway encouraged future girls to be the vanguard of their generations, to seek the bright future that Ruth once did. Her death is a stark reminder of how quick a precious life can be cut short and how dreams and ambitions could end in an instant. Yet, it should also serve as a testament and a sense of wonder for how far we, as a society, have come since.
Now, 100 years after her death, Grier honors our fallen alumna. Her memorial still stands in the beautiful stillness of the woods behind our newly constructed orchestra and AV building, where our students use instruments and equipment that couldn’t have been imagined when Ruth was alive. The memorial has been restored to its former glory by McCloskey Builders of Altoona, who replaced the frame and added a synthetic slate roof to replace the original, which had been damaged by a falling tree. They took care to use materials that matched the original structure, respecting the wishes of Ruth’s grieving parents. Mr. Geoffrey Grier, the latest in the long line of the Grier family to direct this school, cleared the woods around the building and built a new walking path to the memorial, allowing current and future students to celebrate in the campus that Ruth loved, and pay their respects to a fellow Grier girl.
Ruth now lives on as a quiet moment for our students, forever giving them a place to silently take in the beauty of their school, as she did in her lifetime. Shy, but friendly. Quiet, but intelligent. She will live on. As she said herself in her yearbook signature, “Think of me just occasionally, if accidentally.” We will, Ruth. Your spirit and memory will remain with us as we, too, follow the gleam.