Friday, February 10, 2012

Sepia Saturday: One for the Books

Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.

This week’s Sepia Saturday challenge features a man with a book, a “man of letters,” perhaps.  My grand aunt Violetta Lorane Davis Ryan certainly qualifies as a “woman of letters.”

In 1923 Violetta earned her teaching certificate from The State Normal School in Harrisonburg, Virginia, later known as Harrisonburg State Teachers College, then Madison College and today James Madison University – Go Dukes! 

Violetta Lorane Davis
1923 Graduation picture
This next picture of Violetta with a small stack of books under her arm (my Sepia Saturday connection!) was taken outside her parents’ home in Shenandoah, Virginia, in 1924, so she was most likely THE TEACHER, not the student. 

from Violetta's sister Velma's album
"Old Sis"
411 Sixth St, Shenandoah, VA

The brief biographical sketch under her graduation picture in the 1923 yearbook says she was a member of the French Circle, Athletic Association, High School Club, and YWCA.  The yearbook staff summed her up this way: 

Success, seasoned with humor and good nature – that’s Violetta.  “If a task is once begun, Contentment’s never reached until it’s done.”  She is never satisfied until her good is better and her better best.

All very complimentary, don’t you agree?  Violetta’s classmates seemed to regard her as rather “bookish” but not in a good way.  The yearbook supports the view many people held that women went to college in order to find a husband.  Two pages of the 1923 yearbook were devoted to listing the 31 recent and upcoming happy nuptials. 

The emphasis on marriage coupled with the fact that Violetta didn’t make the list must have stuck with those fine women who composed The Class Prophecy.  It was intended as a light-humored prediction of the futures of the graduates, but girl bullies were sharpening their claws to hurt their own even in Violetta’s day.  Her natural intelligence, her “bookishness,” making “her good better and her better best” earned her this little mention in the Class Prophecy:

C. Kibler and Annie Councill shy
Both married ministers.
Sue Turpin and V. Davis lead
Sad lives as spin(i)sters.

Nice girls.

Where did Violetta’s bookishness take her?  She returned to school and earned her BS in High School Teaching and Administration in 1930.  In 1934 she graduated from Columbia University with a Master of Arts degree, very unusual in her day.  She taught school and served as principal in several schools in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  Violetta was also on the staff at Madison College supervising student teachers. 

Violetta built a beautiful apartment building on South Mason Street.  (My husband and I lived in the cutest basement apartment when we first married.) 

Violetta checking on the construction of her apartment building

473 South Mason St. Harrisonburg, Virginia

She also married.  Dick Ryan worshipped her as she deserved.

Violetta and Dick Ryan
Check his shoes!

Aunt Violetta was the first liberated woman I ever knew, being liberated long before women were burning their bras in the 1960s.  She encouraged women in our family to be educated.  She preached the importance of independence.  That’s what books did for Violetta.

Take THAT, you B*tches. 


  1. These days the snipers appear on Facebook. Books and education can liberate us all. Violetta is a prime example.

  2. Violette was a woman certainly ahead of her times. Good for her! And what a wonderful role model for the women of your family.

  3. Living well is the best revenge, and your great aunt Violette had hers in spades! Brava!

  4. What a treasure and great example you have in this family member. Way to go Violette

  5. It is sad that they thought spinsters' lives were "sad."

  6. She sounds a human dynamo, she has a welcoming face. In times when women did not have the life opportunities of today she bucked the system. Hurray for Violette.

  7. I was going to make the same comment Postcardy did. So sad the way society thought every woman had to have a man to be complete. There are still plenty women or rather girls out there who think so. Especially teens these days.

  8. I love your Aunt Violette, what a wonderful and courageous Lady.

  9. Aunt Violetta had the last laugh, didn't she? I love her big, happy smile in that last photo.

  10. I wish my words could do her justice; she was just cool. She was dearly loved, and admired by everyone who had the chance to know her. When I lived in my little basement apt. there wasn't a day that Mel and I didn't go "upstairs" to Violetta's to sit around and chat. I loved counting my 70-something great aunt as dear friend.

    It is funny to think that all of us cousins rented from her. They were the best apts. and so many funny things happened in that apt. building!

    I thank my lucky stars she was ours.

  11. Yeah, Violetta!
    I stand in admiration for that strong wonderful woman, who didn't bow to pressure. I'm actually surprised that those "all-in-fun" predictions were printed in the yearbook. They really do seem mean-spirited.

  12. What a wonderful "happy ever after"! Her graduation photo is dreamily, naturally beautiful. The apartment building is lovely and I wish more looked like that today! You were truly lucky to have her influence in your life. And in some way, we women of today profit from her strength as well!

  13. What an interesting face your great aunt has. Full of knowledge and learning. A book reader personified.

  14. What a great character piece! A nice complement of photos with the Sepia Sat. theme too. I bet her students loved her.

  15. A strong-minded woman with a lovely face.