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Professor discovers lost piece of US history—first female president in higher education

Uncommon and remarkable lives have been the legacy of Fairmont State University for over 150 years. For decades, one such life had been forgotten to history but during this year’s Commencement,  the Falcon Family celebrated the rediscovery of 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 US—Margaret Elizabeth Dickey.

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. 

“In 2015, I received a WV Humanities Council grant entitled ‘The Normal on the Avenue,’ examining the Fairmont Normal School’s origins from the 1860s Adams Street start to the move on Fairmont Avenue, where the campus remained until 1916 when the third campus, the present day Fairmont State University, opened,” Dr. Alvarez said.

While reviewing documents like the original course catalogues, Alvarez found Dickey listed as principal for a period of years but couldn’t find her in the “Hall of Presidents” in Hardway Hall or on the Fairmont State history page.

“She probably was overlooked a bit when the first history of the Normal School appeared in the early 1920s. She was only identified by initials ‘M. L.’ which was a typo, as she was primarily known as ‘Elizabeth,’” he said. “For our Humanities project, I researched and published the history of the Normal School and did several community presentations including one at the Folklife Center in collaboration with Dr. Beth Newcome. In 2018, I updated the presentation for the 150th anniversary of the state of West Virginia actually acquiring the school in 1868.”

Alvarez said as he updated his lecture, he continued to add more information on Dickey and found more information and went on a search for her photo. He discovered it was published in the 1914 Mound, again mislabeled as M.L.

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.”

“There are so many ‘firsts’ when you examine the history of this institution and its early leaders and faculty innovators.  Fairmont Normal was cutting edge from inception when you look at the impact from the time this area was a village with high aspirations for training students to become educators and leaders.  Elizabeth Dickey-Fleming is just one of many, whom I hope will not be forgotten,” Alvarez said.

Dr. Martin said it was such a privilege to recognize and honor the first female president in the history of the State of West Virginia and to unveil her portrait, painted by art professor, Joel Dugan.

“After almost 140 years, it is my honor to bring home Mrs. Elizabeth Dickey.  She will now finally and proudly join the ‘Hall of Presidents’ at Fairmont State University,” she said. “For over 150 years, this institution has been a beacon of hope, shining from the hilltop. From those earliest days, generations of Falcons have taken wing and impacted the world in immeasurable ways,” she said.

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