It wasn’t exactly a midlife crisis, because educator-turned-editor Gertrude Ellis Skinner was still in her 20s and would live to 94. But when her southern Minnesota hometown came calling in 1890, she faced a career quandary rare for women of the era.
The second of six children of a railroad engineer, Ellis was born in 1865 when Austin was not yet a decade old. She began teaching at 14 in a rural school and attended teachers college in Winona after graduating from Austin High School in 1881. That led to teaching jobs in Austin and far-flung schools in Hawaii and California. By 1889, she was in her second year in a comfy principal’s office in Omaha.
Unbeknown to her, Austin Republicans nominated her for Mower County school superintendent just after a new state law opened those jobs to women. Ellis won the politically acrimonious race by 28 votes. But the campaign was so bitter, she wondered whether she should return home.
“It was the bravest thing I ever did — to leave a job that was easy and pleasant, and take one instead that was under very disagreeable circumstances.”
When she became Mower County’s first female superintendent — and one of the state’s first — she found her predecessor had left no records in the office and several people refused to talk to her. The courthouse janitor was about the only friendly person.
Nevertheless, she persisted — serving as superintendent the next 10 years, overseeing more than 4,000 students and 150 teachers and creating 90 school libraries.
“She is a fine example of what … women can do to serve well their generation when proper opportunities are afforded them,” one Austin newspaper said in 1899.
This summer, Gertrude became the latest member enshrined in Austin’s four-year-old civic hall of fame. Her plaque was added to the city’s flood wall, joining other “Pillars of the City” who improved Austin’s quality of life.
“Gertrude left a good stable job in Nebraska and accepted the position of Mower County superintendent of schools knowing that she would be coming into a hostile political environment,” said Mike Ruzek, a retired Austin insurance agent who nominated her for the honor. “One of the outstanding compliments to her character was that she ran without opposition during her 10-year career.”
In 1900, at 34, Gertrude Ellis married Austin Herald editor John Skinner, quit her superintendent’s gig and became a do-everything co-editor of the newspaper.
Heading down what she called “the rough and stormy road of newspaper work,” her duties included writing local news and society tidbits along with managing the newsboys.
“And many a time the Skinners had to get out the horse and buggy or the cutter, in winter, and deliver papers themselves,” the Minneapolis Tribune said in a 1949 profile.
“There is no work so fantastically fascinating as newspaper work,” she said. “And if I could live my life over again, I would go into it earlier and stay in it longer.”
Never mind the 20 years of 12- to 15-hour days that started at 7 a.m.
“I couldn’t bear to hear the men yell ‘copy’ from the composing room, so I’d have to start writing something for them,” she said. “To be a great editor one must have a nose for news, love the work … have a mind that generates ideas and a brain that can fathom many problems and, above all, write simple, concise, correct English.”
She was also a world traveler, visiting Europe, Palestine and Egypt in 1888 at 22 and later joining her husband on five trips to South America and treks to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. She once acquired a pair of sealskin slippers from a South Seas islander, and a hotel fire in New Zealand destroyed their belongings while they were out on a hike.
“Gifted with a rare eloquence and a remarkable memory, she spoke without notes and was constantly in demand as a speaker at civic and social clubs,” the Austin Herald reported after her death in 1960. “Her wide background of travel, her experience as a newspaper woman, and her devotion to literature and art enabled her to speak with authority.”
Her civic accomplishments included organizing Austin’s YWCA and the city’s Sunshine Society — an early welfare program.
“I have been able to make the road a little less rough for others,” she wrote in a letter to friends published in the Herald a month before she died at 94.
Nancy Koester grew up hearing stories about her great-great aunt, who died when Nancy was 6. “My grandmother would say, ‘Oh, you would have loved Gertrude,’ and she’d tell me about her world travels, her career in education and her independence,” said Koester, 64, a St. Paul author who taught history at Augsburg University in Minneapolis.
“I take real pride in her work in education, which helped Minnesota grow into the great state we’ve become,” Koester said.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.