Mike Duffy ’63 remembers and interviews the only female teacher from his days at Peddie.
There’s something about Mary. It’s not just her playful sense of humor. It’s not just her obvious enthusiasm for life into her 80s.
It’s also very much about her unique place in the history of The Peddie School. For you see, Mary Linda Yeakey was the school’s only female faculty member between the first years of the 20th century until the early 1970s, after which Peddie transitioned from a prep school for boys and went fully co-educational, and then regularly began hiring female teachers.
But back in the fall of 1961, Mary Yeakey — a 24-year-old Michigan native hired to teach Latin at Peddie — instantly became the lone female on the otherwise all-male faculty of an all-boys school. Fascinating for her, yes. But also, at times, pretty nutty.
“My two years at Peddie were mind-expanding for me,” recalled Yeakey.
And that’s putting it mildly.
“This was a defining part of my life. It helped make me who I am today,” said Yeakey during two genial, wide-ranging phone conversations from her longtime home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Yeakey reflected on her time at Peddie, as well as her life before and after those two years in Hightstown.
“I was an only child. No brothers. But at Peddie, I got to know a whole range of boys and men.”
Mary Yeakey’s hiring at Peddie? She called it “a fluke.”
She was a couple of years out of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she earned a B.A. and M.A. in Latin, followed by one hectic year teaching Latin in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, high school. Out in New Jersey, Peddie found itself in a sudden bind after (according to Yeakey) a newly hired male Latin teacher, Southern gentleman Samuel Burwell Barnett Carleton of New Orleans, alerted the school that he might be drafted into military service.
What to do?
Assistant Headmaster Ben Roman decided to hire Yeakey for the teaching position. He was friends with the president of Kalamazoo College, a respected liberal arts college in Yeakey’s Michigan hometown. And Yeakey’s family knew the college boss, who interviewed her and then recommended her to Roman, who interviewed and hired Yeakey.
History Note: Both Peddie and Kalamazoo College were then long affiliated with the American Baptist church, though neither has any religious affiliation today.
And then? According to Yeakey, Carleton got his deferment and was not drafted.
Peddie wound up with two new Latin teachers in the fall of 1961. And the school had its first female faculty member in many, many decades.
“They didn’t know what to do with me. I was a woman. So, they pieced together a job for me,” remembered Yeakey. “I taught Latin to juniors, and I taught English to seventh graders (in the Junior School) because I’d minored in English at Michigan.”
And she also filled in for the regular librarian, Gladys Walker White, on Wednesday afternoons at the Annenberg Library.
As for the 16 and 17-year-old Latin students? “At that age, they were either in love with me or they thought I was a b****,” joked Yeakey, who confirmed that “it took a sense of humor” to deal with antsy adolescent students in an all-boys school.
And because she was also an imposing 5-foot-11 in height, well, Yeakey had zero problems controlling the classroom: “Being tall is the one thing that kind of gave me an edge. I could arch an eyebrow. And they might think, ‘She can grab me and shake me.’”
But the 12-year-old seventh-graders in her English class were a tad more rambunctious and challenging.
“After a short while, I decided to change things up and teach from the back of the classroom. That put the kibosh on their antics. They had to turn around to look at me. And you could see them thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s onto us!’”
If the Peddie students could sometimes be simultaneously delightful and confounding, Mary Yeakey found her fellow faculty members – all those men – to be somewhat similar.
“They were horrified, but they were kind to me. And they were generally friendly. But I was very careful not to challenge them,” said Yeakey. “Plus, I was teaching Latin. They didn’t think that mattered anyway.”
During her two years in Hightstown – living off campus in nearby apartments – Yeakey did develop friendships and brief romantic relationships with two single Peddie teachers.
“They both wanted to marry me,” said Yeakey, who seemed to be rolling her eyes through the telephone lines. “I thought, I can’t do this. I’m still in my 20s.
I really hadn’t seen the world enough.”
After her second year at Peddie, Yeakey said she was contacted by and took a position with a posh day school on Long Island, where she also taught Latin to students “who all had French governesses and were always prepared.” But after a serious power outage struck New York and other parts of the East Coast and Canada in November 1965, Yeakey was slightly freaked out.
“It was the height of the Cold War. And I’m thinking, is this how it ends? And here I am, trapped on this island. I can’t even get back to my family in Michigan.”
After the lights finally came back on and she’d calmed down, Yeakey decided to head for wide-open spaces and then found herself teaching at the Holland Hall School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from 1966 to the late 1970s. Happily so, until a particularly annoying new headmaster showed up.
“He was a jackass. And I thought, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’ I had burned out on teaching,” recalled Yeakey, who was the head of the Foreign Languages Department at Holland Hall. “And I wondered, ‘Is there anything that I haven’t done in my life that I’d like to do?’ Yes, own a standard poodle!’”
Though she taught humanities at a local junior college and did some tutoring in ensuing years, Mary Yeakey likes to say, “I had gone to the dogs by the time I was 42.”
She went full-tilt into raising and breeding standard poodles through her own business, Barbican Standard Poodles (Barbican being the name of a neighborhood in London).
“My parents saved their money. I’m an only child. I’m a trust fund baby, sort of. I’ve taken my inheritance and done well with it.”
Over the years, along with serving as president and every other officer of The Poodle Club of Tulsa, Yeakey has bred and raised 55 American Kennel Club award-winning standard poodle show dogs.
“When I was a little girl, I wanted a horse. My mother was a cat woman. So, we had cats.”
And then came Mary’s standard poodle bliss of enlightenment in early middle age.
“They’re very protective and very sociable and sit on the couch and talk to you,” said Yeakey, spreading the poodle joy. “At one point, I had as many as 10 living with me.”
Now it’s down to a canine trio – Sparkle, Simone and Lauren (as in Hollywood icon Bacall).
“As you might imagine, living with multiple standard poodles is not unlike living with seventh-graders – ‘Me first.’ ‘No, me!’ ‘Do you really expect me to EAT that?’ ‘I’m going in the car!’ ‘Me too!’ ‘Me three!’ ‘Let’s get up and cruise the backyard at 3 a.m. – or even better, the streets.’ Humbug!” Yeakey merrily related.
Looking back on her life, Yeakey is bemused by having earned two college degrees in Latin. “How stupid was that?” she kids. “There’s a strange bunch of cats in classics.”
But regrets? Mary Yeakey has had very few. She loved her years in teaching. She has many fond memories of her brief – and in retrospection, groundbreaking – two years at Peddie as the school’s only female faculty member of most of the first six decades of the 20th century. And she’s really, really loved her life with the woof, woof joys of standard poodles.
When asked about her favorite Latin phrase, she quickly chooses “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Art is long, life is short.
So, freely interpreting here, love the amazing art, enjoy your wonderful life.
“I’ve always enjoyed a life of the mind,” said Mary Yeakey. “I’ve always been pretty much a non-conformist. I’ve followed my heart, not just what would make me the most money.”
Well, absolutely. Ala Viva to that great lesson. And Ala Viva to Mary Yeakey.