Art professor paints portrait of “lost history”—first female president in higher ed

During Spring Commencement, Fairmont State University unveiled the portrait of Margaret Elizabeth Dickey, a pioneering Fairmont State president and the first female president of a state school in the history of the state of West Virginia and in the U.S. 

Joel Dugan, associate professor of art, was commissioned to paint the portrait based on a photo from what was the Normal School’s yearbook. While challenging, Dugan said it was a great experience. 

“Using the photo was probably the most predominate challenge to take something that was black and white and interpret that into color,” he said. “My root endeavor was to figure out the origins of the family’s last name and what the ethnic characteristics were like.” 

With research, Dugan determined Dickey was likely to come from a Scotch-Irish background. As someone who comes from an Irish family, he was able to recognize that she had a lighter complexion. 

“It was a struggle at first, I just found so much to be remarkable about her,” he said. “The style in that era in regard to hair was so interesting. The fact that she had a long enough head of hair that was not only braided into half a crown and the other half comes down in a braid. I was trying to keep it stylistically in a really painterly touch.” 

Dugan pulled other Scotch-Irish female photos to reference, especially to work on the coloration of the portrait.

“I used an app on my iPad that changes black and white photos to color, the interpretation wasn’t that great but did help show the tone of her shirt,” he said. “One of the big challenges was based on the skin tone. I knew the shadows are blue or green and typically we’re going to be looking at someone with blue or green eyes.” 

The portrait was completed and revealed for the first time during commencement. It will now hang in the “Hall of Presidents” on Fairmont State’s campus. 

It was Dr. Raymond Alvarez’s, professor of healthcare management in the School of Business, research that uncovered the historical achievement that has been missing for over 100 years.

“The search for a photo of Elizabeth was not an easy task but we found her in a 1914 Mound that honored prior leaders from inception of the school,” he said. “Joel was able to make her come alive by incorporating ancestry and other aspects into the painting. He blended colors to reflect the 1880s era. She was unique in her career and appears so today.”

President Dr. Mirta Martin was honored to finally be able to bring Elizabeth Dickey “home.” Noting that for over 150 years, this institution has been a beacon of hope and from the earliest days, generations of Falcons have impacted the world in immeasurable ways. 

“I can think of no greater tribute to a once-lost president than to have a member of our amazingly talented Falcon Family paint her portrait to display in the Hall of Presidents,” she said. “She’s not only a vital part of our institutional heritage, but she’s also a trailblazing inspiration to the entire Fairmont State community.”

“We are proud to recognize Elizabeth Dickey’s accomplishments, and honor the lasting impact she had in her role as the first female president in the history of the State of West Virginia.”

Born in Chester County, Pennsylvania in January 1847, Margaret Elizabeth Dickey was educated at the State Normal School in Millersville, Pennsylvania where she graduated in 1866. She began her teaching career in New London, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia.  In 1870, Elizabeth accepted a position as a teacher at Fairmont Normal – the forerunner institution of who we are today. 

In 1878, Miss Dickey was appointed acting principal (in today’s terms – acting president) of Fairmont Normal.  In 1879, she was officially named as Principal (or president) and served in this role until 1882 when she married Fairmont native, Colonel Rufus Edward Fleming.  In 1884, she had to resign due to her forthcoming pregnancy.

Her Alma Mater, Millersville Normal School, noted the following in their 1906 “Normal Journal” – in other words, their yearbook:

“Mrs. R. E. Fleming, also known as Miss Elizabeth Dickey was the honored and efficient Principal of the State Normal School in Fairmont, WV. She had the distinction of being the only woman principal of a state normal school in the United States.” 

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