Lily Pearl Chamberlin
By Chris Guthrie
For all intents and purposes, Lily Pearl Chamberlin (Ponder) can be considered to be Tarleton’s first female faculty member. Several women had taught at the school when it was still Stephenville College, but they did not last to see the official opening of John Tarleton College in 1899. In that year, the new president of the institution, Cr. W.H. Bruce, hired two new female teachers: Mrs. Chamberlin and Miss Clara Bartholomew. Miss Bartholomew resigned the following year, but Chamberlin remained to leave a lasting impact on the early years of the college.
Chamberlin never discussed her birthdate, but it appears likely that she was born sometime in the mid-1870s. She attended Sam Houston Normal School in Huntsville, Texas and graduated with a teaching certificate (but not a bachelor’s degree) in 1895. that same year she accepted a teaching position in Fairy, Texas where she remained until Dr. Bruce’s offer brought her to Stephenville.
During her first few years at Tarleton, Chamberlin offered whatever class needed to be taught: Latin, arithmetic, college algebra, English, spelling, ancient history, and “perhaps other subjects that I do not recall.” Once the new school became better established, she specialized in teaching subjects (six to eight classes per day). Although it entailed more work with no increase in salary, she also assumed the position of “Lady Principal” (an early version of “Dean of Women”) in 1902.
She stayed at Tarleton in this capacity until 1907. In May of that year she resigned to marry Mr. W. Chamberlin, intending to become a full-time housewife and mother (she would ultimately have four children). But after a year and a half, the superintendent of Stephenville public schools convinced her to return to teaching English at the high school for six months in order to alleviate a temporary teacher shortage. Once her six-month temporary appointment expired, she accepted a full-time position at the high school and eventually became head of the English Department.
Mrs. Chamberlin taught at Stephenville High School until 1913. However, in that year, James F. Cox, a former student of Chamberlin during her first year at Tarleton, took over as president of the college. Stressing their mutual affection for Tarleton, Cox persuaded her to return to the college to help him rebuild its declining reputation. She returned in 1914 and resumed her job as an English instructor.
Mrs. Chamberlin returned to Tarleton with more than teaching in mind. While she worked at Stephenville High School she had become convinced that “mush of the poverty and sickness and misery of our land is due to the lack of proper training in home making” and that “home economics teaching would at least be a step in the right direction.” However, every time she introduced the subject to the local school board, the members rejected her proposal on the grounds that they had insufficient funds to pay for another teacher and purchase the necessary equipment. She now took advantage of Cox’s gratitude at having her back at Tarleton by pursuing the issue at the college level. Cox agreed with her idea but also claimed that he did not have the money to implement a home economics program.
Mrs. Chamberlin would not be deterred. Even though she had never taken a home economics course, she was convinced she could teach the subject because she “had many years of practical training under a very capable mother and also in my own home.” She also began attending classes at the College of Industrial arts in Denton, Texas (now Texas Woman’s University) during the summer of 1914 to obtain the necessary professional training to supplement her practical experience. She was convinced that if she got a home economics program started at Tarleton, people would realize its value and it would quickly gather momentum.
She submitted her proposal to President Cox, who agreed to take over her two afternoon English classes (she still taught four English classes in the morning) in order to give her the time to teach home economics. He could not, however, provide her with any additional salary nor the money to buy equipment. She gladly sacrificed additional salary in exchange for the opportunity to get a home economics program off the ground. She overcame the equipment problem by personally soliciting small contributions from Stephenville businessmen, eventually raising nearly 200 dollars. She also persuaded many Stephenville stores to sell her what she needed at wholesale prices. Ion this manner, she managed to obtain nine two-burner stoves, several pine tables, four sewing machines, a cabinet, a cloth-cutting table, and a few dished and cooking utensils. She set the equipment up in two basement rooms of the newly constructed Mollie Crow Building.
Chamberlin offered her first two courses in home economics in the fall of 1915. Both classes proved so successful that Chamberlin would teach them each semester for the nest two years. During the summers, she attended the college of Industrial Arts and obtained her B.S. degree in clothing in 1918.
When Tarleton joined the A&M System in 1917, Cox used the increased funding made possible by state affiliation to create a full-fledged home economics department and hired a clothing teacher and a department head. Chamberlin continued as a teacher of “applied home arts” (as well as an English instructor). In the spring of 1918, Chamberlin also assumed the position of Dean of Women, while still retaining most of her regular teaching duties.
The new clothing instructor hired by Cox resigned to get married in 1919 and, two years later, the new head of the home economics department also left. Chamberlin assumed both of these positions. Until her own resignation in 1928, she taught clothing and applied home arts classes, ran the home economics department, and served as Dean of Women. Under her guidance, the home economics faculty increased to six full-time members by 1928.
Chamberlin left Tarleton in 1928 to become head of the home economics department of North Texas Agricultural College in Arlington. The move did not entail any increase in salary, but it allowed Chamberlin and her husband to be closer to their grown children. She retired from NTAC in 1940 and moved to Henderson, Texas, to live with one of her married daughters. She died there on Christmas night, 1943. In 1925, three years before her departure, Tarleton named an annex to the women’s dorm after this talented teacher whose determination, vision, and self-sacrifice created the home economics program at the college.
Lily Pearl Chamberlin, “Reminisces on the History of John Tarleton College,” in John Tarleton: A Memorial to the Founder of Tarleton College. Stephenville, TX, 1933, pp. 77-82.
Christopher E. Guthrie, John Tarleton and His Legacy: The History of Tarleton State University, 1899-1999. Acton, MA, 1999, pp. 379-82.
C. Richard King, Golden Days of Purple and White: The John Tarleton College Story. Austin, TX, 1998, pp. 40-43.