We celebrate Clarissa Tucker Tracy, ‘Mother of Ripon College’

As International Women’s Day is celebrated today, we honor Clarissa Tucker Tracy, a botanist and the first female professor at Ripon College. Her scholarship and mentoring influence led to her being affectionately called “the mother of Ripon College.”

Tracy was born Nov. 12, 1818, in Jackson, Pennsylvania. By the age of 14, she had started teaching while continuing her own studies. From 1840 to 1846, she was an assistant and then head at the Ladies Seminary in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.

She married Horace Hyde Tracy in 1844 and had two children, but her husband died just four years after their marriage. She wanted to open a school further west where she felt advantages for learning were fewer. When a family she knew settled in Neenah, Wisconsin, she was inspired to move there, too. She ran a private school in Neenah for three years.

After being invited to a wedding in Ripon, she became acquainted with several founders of the College. Trustee Jehdeiah Bowen already knew of her through mutual acquaintances in their previous homes in eastern Pennsylvania. In October 1859, she accepted Bowen’s invitation to become a teacher and superintendent of the new dormitory, Middle Hall, at Brockway College.

“The story of my life in Ripon has been varied with light and shadows, but I have not felt for a moment that I was not divinely led,” she said.

For a beginning salary of $300 a year, Tracy taught botany, English literature and composition, and mathematics; was head of food service and housekeeping, running the dining room and preparing meals for more than 100 people every day; and was housekeeper, counselor and nurse to both men and women.

In the advent of the Civil War in 1861, classes were delayed a year because Col. Oscar Hugh La Grange, an alumnus of the 1850s, and his men of the 1st Regiment of Wisconsin Calvary Volunteer were quartered on campus. Tracy furnished board for the officers and continued to teach private lessons to students so their education could progress during the shutdown.

She was beloved by all because of her strong Christian faith, genuine caring, and willingness to assist with lessons and help with “soul problems.” President Edward H. Merrell reported that President William E. Merriman had once “declared that he considered her service of more importance than his own.”

Her true love was flora and fauna, and over 30 years she researched wild plants in the Ripon area and decorated her china with hand-painted depictions. Based on specimens collected by her and her students, she published Catalogue of Plants Growing Without Cultivation in Ripon and the Near Vicinity in 1889.

She retired in 1893 at age 75. She then ran a women’s off-campus dormitory known as Tracy House and continued tutoring. She believed she had taught every graduate up through 1895-1896, and several after that. She died Nov. 13, 1905, at age 87. She wanted to be remembered simply as “A teacher in Ripon College.”

Three years later, Life and Poems of Clarissa Tucker Tracy was written and published by Ada Clark Merrell, Class of 1877, wife of President Edward Merrell.

The Ripon College softball field is named in Tracy’s honor.

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