Helen Temple Cooke died on April 12, 1955, on the eve of her 90th birthday. She left behind the legacy of the Dana Hall Schools: Tenacre, Dana Junior, Dana Hall, and Pine Manor. She was a pioneer in the education of women in the 20th century, and her insight influenced the lives of thousands of Dana Hall students and alumnae from every state in the United States and from many countries. From Principal, to Head of the Dana Hall Schools, to Chair of the Board of Trustees, Helen Temple Cooke led the schools from 1899 to 1955, a tenure of almost 56 years. Miss Cooke was dedicated to high standards of academic excellence and moral integrity, and she inspired others to follow her example. The hundreds of letters from loving and appreciative students that fill her 90th Birthday Book are testimonials to her remarkable influence.
Miss Cooke was born in Rutland, Vermont, on April 13, 1865 (the day before Lincoln was shot), to Edmund Foster Cooke of Rutland and Mary Anne Bardwell. In 1852 her maternal grandfather, Otis Bardwell, built Bardwell House, an inn well-known in the Rutland area as a gathering place for stagecoach passengers. Bardwell Auditorium at Dana Hall was named after Otis Bardwell.
Miss Cooke received some education in the Rutland public schools but did not have a higher degree. At the age of seventeen, she was an assistant teacher at a small private school for elementary students located above the Nickwackett Firehouse. Two years later she became head of that school. One of her students was Helen Julia Wheeler, the daughter of a successful Rutland businessman, Marcellus Wheeler.
In the fall of 1894, Helen Temple Cooke accompanied young Helen Julia to Wellesley to begin her studies at Dana Hall. Partly due to the influence of Julia and Sarah Eastman and partly to her own awareness of how much more she wanted to achieve in life, Miss Cooke soon enrolled in courses at Wellesley College as a teacher “Special,” a designation for mature women who were interested in advanced training but did not have a degree. At age 29 she was financially independent of her family, so she tutored to earn money to pay tuition, and room and board in Wellesley. She lived on a meager food budget of only 18 cents a day. Miss Cooke continued taking classes at Wellesley College through 1897-1898. Two of her English compositions, written during her last year of study are now at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University.
In 1898, when the Eastman sisters expressed their wish to retire, Miss Cooke decided to buy Dana Hall. Though she had neither the funds to buy the school nor the capital needed to develop it, she was fortunate to have a connection with Marcellus Wheeler, the father of Helen, Miss Cooke’s former pupil. Mr. Wheeler had the foresight to enter into a business partnership with Miss Cooke. On May 27, 1898, the Eastmans, Miss Cooke and Mr. Wheeler signed an agreement for the sale of the land and the buildings consisting of Ferry Cottage, Clematis Cottage, and the School Building, all of the household goods and furniture, and the business and good will of Dana Hall. The price was $60,000 and the premises were conveyed on September 1, 1899. Mr. Wheeler and Helen Temple Cooke each owned 49% of the capital stock; two shares were held by the bank and were to be given to the survivor. In 1901, they bought the remaining land and the original Dana Hall building from Wellesley College. The partnership between Mr. Wheeler and Miss Cooke lasted until Mr. Wheeler’s death on February 1, 1927, at which time Miss Cooke received the two extra shares and majority control of the school.
The 1899-1900 school year, the 19th of Dana Hall’s existence, opened with Miss Cooke as principal and Mrs. Harriett Page and Miss Jeannie Evans as associate principals. Dana was described in the school catalog as a “Home School” where each pupil was “surrounded by such restraints, and such only, as are indispensable to the best results of mental work.” The establishment of mutual courtesy and honor between teachers and scholars was important. The students were encouraged, while accompanied by a chaperone, to take advantage of the art and music opportunities offered in Boston, and lectures and concerts “of a high order” were given at Dana Hall during the school year. Until 1919 pupils receiving a certificate from Dana were admitted without further examination to Wellesley, Smith, Vassar, Cornell, and Mount Holyoke Colleges. The 1907-1908 school catalog included a lengthy description of the Department of Physical Training, whose aim was “general body-building, by means of systematic gymnasium work, and out-of-door athletic sports.” The gymnasium work was based on Swedish methods and was supplemented by other exercises and marching, and outdoor sports consisted of tennis, basketball, field hockey, ball throwing, and running. Each student was expected to spend at least one hour each day exercising outside.
Miss Julia Eastman, who with her sister, Sarah, was one of the founding principals of Dana Hall, wrote in an 1899 letter to a friend:
Miss Cooke is changing things all about and superintending all details in the most vigorous manner and with the greatest apparent ease. I have never seen the man or woman who could carry so much care with so little fuss or worry … and she looks as fresh and exquisite in her white shirtwaist at sunset as she did at breakfast time in precisely the same dress (Post, Purpose and Personality 18).
Miss Cooke had grand plans for her school. In 1902 she started making major additions to the existing school buildings. The large Living Room dominated by a great fireplace was a centerpiece of her plan. It was furnished with art, rugs, and antique furniture collected by Miss Cooke. On an oak panel above the fireplace (which today is over the fireplace in the Dining Center) was inscribed “The Hearth Song,” a verse written by Miss Florence Converse, one of Dana’s first teachers. The Living Room was the heart of Dana Hall, where students gathered for coffee and relaxation after Friday and Sunday dinners. Some of the most cherished student memories of this space are the arrival of the yule log at Revels, and listening to Miss Mabel Jenkins read aloud from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In 1905 the Eastman Reference Library, a gift from the Class of 1905, was built inside Dana Main, and in 1912 a new gymnasium was completed and connected by a corridor. The final major addition to this structure was Bardwell Auditorium. It was dedicated in 1929 and enabled Miss Cooke to bring the most talented musicians, poets, writers and lecturers of the time to Dana Hall.
Many activities and traditions were instituted in the early 1900s. The first class book, called The Tattler, was published in 1902. The same year the senior honor society, Tau Kappa Delta, was formed. The Athletic Association was also organized in 1902, and the first Field Day was held in 1903. Elections of the junior and senior class officers were also cause for celebration, and were followed by step-sings, which took place in “The Court,” the stairs and landings between the Living Room and Dining Room in Dana Main. (The exact origins of step-sings are unknown, although it is known the tradition was begun at Wellesley College in 1899.) Students arranged by class year expressed their school and class spirit by singing class songs, traditional songs, and the school’s Alma Mater.
In 1910 Miss Cooke started Tenacre, a boarding school for grades 8 and 9. A year later she heeded the desire of graduating seniors to start a post-graduate department, which became known as Pine Manor, and later Pine Manor Junior College. As Tenacre gradually added grades for younger students (including boys, in 1941), the Dana Hall Junior School (“Dana Junior”) was formed for 7th through 9th grades. The resulting “Dana Hall Schools” became a legacy that has continued on three campuses for generations.
One beloved Dana Hall tradition, Revels, was started more than two decades into Miss Cooke’s time as principal. In December 1921 the annual pre-Christmas party was replaced by a pageant written by English teacher Constance Grosvenor Alexander. The pageant was titled “Saint Francis Keeps Christmas at Greccio, 1223” and was written to commemorate the 600th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death. Over time it became known as Revels, and for many decades was performed without modification.
Miss Cooke was known as an astute businesswoman who financed her dreams for Dana Hall through her skills as a collector and dealer of antiques, art, and real estate. Her collection of Persian art and calligraphy was unique, and its quality was matched by only one or two museums in the world. Much of it is now in the Harvard Art Museums. Her collection of American antique furniture, bought over a 40-year time span, showed her keen knowledge and feeling for furniture design. This
collection represented the top-quality furniture made by Massachusetts craftsmen working between 1720 and 1810, and included a block front secretary illustrated in Wallace Nutting’s Furniture Treasury. Miss Cooke managed in the space of nine years to turn her initial investment with Mr. Wheeler of four buildings into eight buildings. In 1938, she was the biggest taxpayer in the town of Wellesley. By the time of her retirement from active management of the school in 1951, Miss Cooke had increased the size of the campus to 70 buildings on nearly 100 acres.
Although a skilled investor in art, antiques, and real estate, Miss Cooke saw herself primarily as an investor in minds—the minds of the over ten thousand students educated in the four Dana Hall Schools. An undated statement found among her papers reads:
Dana Hall was founded for the purpose of educating young women to meet intelligently and happily the responsibilities which would come to them as citizens of a great democracy, the mind to be disciplined and the body strengthened by the best procedures then known. The educational philosophy of the School goes further than to make college preparation its only or even its primary goal. The task of the School is to help each girl to think, helping her to adjust to the disciplines of community living, exposing her to the best of her heritage, and placing upon her the final responsibility for her own education (Post, Purpose and Personality 32).
In 1941, Helen Temple Cooke retired to Shamballah, her home located high above Benvenue Street. It was named after the poem of the same name written by Canadian poet Bliss Carman during a weekend visit with her. Miss Cooke lived happily, surrounded by her books, carpets, American antiques, etchings, Persian art, butterflies, and chess sets. It was there that she received many visitors, especially the alumnae who often sought her advice. Plans had been made for a celebratory convocation on April 13th where she was to have received a birthday book filled with congratulations in honor of her 90th birthday. The four-school convocation held on June 4, 1955, became instead a memorial to Dana Hall School’s distinguished and beloved leader.
The Finding Aid for the Dana Hall Archives Helen Temple Cooke Collection is available here.
Fergusson, Peter, James F. O’Gorman, and John Rhodes. The Landscape & Architecture of Wellesley College. Wellesley College, 2000.
[Grimes, Mildred]. “Helen Temple Cooke.” Date Unknown. Nina Heald Webber 1949 Archives, Dana Hall School, Wellesley, MA.
Hill, Alfred Tuxbury. With the Light of the Past. The Dana Hall Schools, .
“A Memorial Tribute to Helen Temple Cooke, 1865-1955.” Dana Hall Bulletin, vol.17, no. 3, Part 1, 1955.
Helen Temple Cooke at Revels. 1940s. Photograph. Revels Photographic Collection. Nina Heald Webber 1949 Archives, Dana Hall School, Wellesley, MA.
Helen Temple Cooke in the Grove House Garden. Date unknown. Photograph. Helen Temple Cooke Collection, 1868-1981. Nina Heald Webber 1949 Archives, Dana Hall School, Wellesley, MA.
Helen Temple Cooke Seated by the Fireplace. c. 1913. Photograph. Ellen Hartshorne Sahlin 1913 Collection, DH2007-013. Nina Heald Webber 1949 Archives, Dana Hall School, Wellesley, MA.
Helen Temple Cooke with Students in Rutland, VT. c. 1890. Photograph. Helen Temple Cooke Collection, 1868-1981. Nina Heald Webber 1949 Archives, Dana Hall School, Wellesley, MA.
Post, Winifred Lowry. “Miss Cooke.” Date unknown. Nina Heald Webber 1949 Archives, Dana Hall School, Wellesley, MA.
Post, Winifred Lowry. Purpose and Personality. Dana Hall School, 1978.
Revels. 1940s. Photograph.
Robert C. Eldred & Co, Estate Auctioneers. Unreserved Auction of The American Furniture and Persian Art Collection of the Late Helen Temple Cooke. East Dennis, MA, Robert C. Eldred & Co, 1959.
Russell, Ruth Woodman. Pine Manor: The First Fifty Years. The Pine Manor Press, 1969.
Originally published as Person of the Week, April 10, 2006
Revised April 21, 2021