Louise Haley Lester (1901-1974) faced discrimination as a single mother, a member of a minority religion, and a liberal, outspoken thinker. A woman ahead of her time,she lived long enough to see the times, at least partially, catch up.
Louise was of Irish Catholic immigrant stock. Her father rode horseback in the 1889 land rush. He staked a claim to what became part of Oklahoma City and opened the first business there, a tavern. Between the tavern and selling city lots, he became wealthy enough that his family could summer in Eureka Springs to escape the Oklahoma heat.
Louise loved Eureka. She attended Crescent College and graduated from Oklahoma City University in 1921. As a college girl, she marched for women’s suffrage. Then she did graduate study at the University of Chicago, that hotbed of liberal thinking.
But Louise interrupted her studies to marry a man who developed a tragic alcohol addiction. When their son was four years old, Louise left her husband to return to school in Chicago. But her plans changed drastically when she realized she was pregnant. Knowing that her family would pressure her to return to her husband, Louise told them that she was going to do that. Instead, she fled to the only place she felt at home, Eureka Springs.
Her family’s fortune had reversed in the recession. Though extremely qualified, Louise could not secure a job as a teacher. It was scandalous that she was an unmarried woman with an infant daughter and a young son. The school board, older men with no children in school, knew what they wanted in a teacher, and this independent firebrand was not it.
Louise opened a private kindergarten in Eureka Springs. She wrote and illustrated children’s stories about the mythological Brownies of her Irish folk culture, who wore rumpled brown suits like long johns and pointed shoes and caps. Their job was to put baby birds back into the nest.
She was an energetic playmate. For a woman who could dance an Irish jig, the fine art of skipping was no challenge.
When World War II ended, and the young men came home, Louise began to work for a more forward-thinking school board. She held meetings to educate young parents on what a school board should be. Louise’s agitating worked. The old guard was overthrown, though one ousted school board member threw a rock at her car.
High in Louise’s priorities was the immunization for small pox, a new procedure. Parents were terrified of having that poison injected into their children. At the first vaccination clinic, the first child in line was Louise’s daughter, Mary.
Louise taught in the public schools for 51 years. She taught Eureka’s few black children after school.
“My mother always said that no matter how little you have,” Mary told me, “you can share with someone who has less. One year, I got two pairs of mittens for Christmas, a blue pair and a red pair. My mother said, ‘Isaac has no mittens.’ Isaac was a little black boy that she taught after school, and we played together. I knew what she was telling me, but I loved both my pairs of mittens. Which would I give up? The red? Or the blue? I finally gave Isaac one of each, so we both had mismatched mittens. I wore mine to school, but he couldn’t go. My mother taught the black children to the fourth grade, and then the Methodist minister taught them to the eighth.”
After Louise retired from public school, she went full circle and reopened a private kindergarten. But after a few years, she told Mary, “I don’t think I can teach much longer. I can’t skip.”
“I knew what she was telling me,” Mary said. “Teaching was her life. If she was giving up teaching, the end was near.”
Indeed, Louise died within a year after her last class. But she lived to see the results of her life’s work in the march forward by women, civil rights, and education, of which she skipped ahead.
This article originally appeared in 2NJOY Magazine September 2012.