Women of Impact
For more than 150 years, women have played important roles in Centre County, impacting the lives of other women and the community as a whole. Strong women have advanced political causes, broken barriers in business, and advocated for improvements that continue to leave a legacy. This article honors the achievements of eight of those women as examples of the work done by countless peers over the years.
Founded in 1874, the national Women’s Christian Temperance Union focused on abolishing the sale of alcohol, but the organization had deeper roots related to the rights of women. Women could not vote or, in most states, control their own property or have custody of their children in the event of divorce. Many local political meetings were held in saloons, from which women were excluded.
Rebecca Rhoads was only 12 years old when the Centre County WCTU was organized in 1884, but she grew up to become a major leader behind local “dry” forces. A graduate of the Bellefonte Academy, she may have drawn inspiration from the work of her father and grandfather, who had helped lead slaves on the Underground Railroad in the Philadelphia area before the family moved to Bellefonte.
During her tenure as president of the local WCTU from 1915 to 1926, Rhoads increased membership and brought in state and national officials to support local efforts. When local police were not carrying out anti-alcohol raids to her satisfaction, she drove all night to Washington, DC, to recruit men to help. She also worked diligently to elect a dry district attorney and other candidates for office. According to the Centre County WCTU archives, “The woman had put the fear of God into the hearts of politicians.”
Anna Wagner Keichline
Born in Bellefonte in 1889, Anna Wagner Keichline was an architect, inventor, spy, and suffragist at a time when American women had few rights or opportunities outside of traditional household roles. She received an early start on her outside-the-box thinking by taking on woodworking as a hobby and, at age 14, earning a first prize at the Centre County Fair for a card table and chest that she had built.
She studied mechanical engineering at Penn State — the only woman in the class — before transferring to Cornell University, where she earned her architecture degree in 1911. One of the first US women to practice architecture professionally, she designed more than two dozen commercial and residential buildings, including the Plaza Theatre and Cadillac Building in Bellefonte. In 1920, when state licensure began, she became the first woman registered as an architect in Pennsylvania. She also patented several inventions, including a sink for apartments, a toy, and an air system.
As an advocate for women’s right to vote, she led a parade of suffragists through downtown Bellefonte in July 1913, seven years before the 19th Amendment guaranteed that right. As World War I drew to a close in 1918, she volunteered for the US Army and served in Washington, DC, as a special agent in the Military Intelligence Division. In her job application, she noted that her qualifications might suggest an office job, but “if you should deem it advisable to give me something more difficult or as I wish to say more dangerous, I should much prefer it.”
After the war, she continued her professional work until her death in 1943.
Rose Cologne was known to many local residents as the “queen of volunteers,” but she called herself the “biggest beggar in town.” She was a diehard fund-raiser and organizer for local nonprofits and agencies including Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, Child Development Council, Interfaith Human Services, Centre County Council for Human Services, and more.
Cologne was born in 1901 in Colorado, became a schoolteacher in 1920, and then earned a bachelor’s in home economics and master’s in teacher education from Colorado State University. During the Great Depression, she was an itinerant teacher of parent education in Kansas. While working on her doctorate in adult education from Columbia University, she was recruited to teach at Penn State for what was intended to be one year but ended up being almost three decades in home economics and adult education. During sabbaticals, she organized parent programs in occupied Japan following World War II and then developed home economics programs in Afghanistan in 1960-61.
For her pioneering leadership in adult education and social service, Cologne was honored with many awards, including the Common Cause National Public Service Award. She passed away in 1995, but her legacy lives on in the good work of many organizations she inspired and in the annual Rose Cologne Volunteer Dinner, sponsored by the Centre County Council for Human Services to pay tribute to individual volunteers in member agencies. Penn State also presents the Rose Cologne Keystone Citizen Award to recognize student leaders in volunteer service.
Marjorie Dunaway recalls becoming involved in volunteering in 1949 thanks to “one of those husbands who didn’t want me to work because he thought it reflected on him, that he wasn’t able to support me.” That was the start of 68 years — and counting — of membership in the State College branch of the American Association of University Women, advancing equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research.
Dunaway was born in 1920, the same year the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving US women the right to vote. Last fall, she was proud to cast her ballot for a female candidate for president — Hillary Clinton — marking how far women have come since newlywed Dunaway joined AAUW to get out of the apartment and meet other women. Along the way, she served as branch AAUW president from 1969 to 1971, state president from 1974 to 1978, and at the national level from 1974 to 1978.
“In the early days, AAUW was primarily concerned with education for women,” she recalled as the local branch approached its 100th anniversary last year. “They still are, but the focus has widened, and now equity for women is important.”
She remembers being in Washington on AAUW business in the 1960s and watching in fear as protestors burned parts of the city. At that point, she joined AAUW nationwide in advocating for action projects that would help women. Locally, those projects included the Volunteer Corps and the Family Planning Council. Looking forward, she would like to see more work in the areas of pay equity, sexual assault, domestic violence, and K-12 education for women.
In 1943, Sylvia Stein was one of about 100 women who enrolled at Penn State as part of aviation manufacturer Curtiss-Wright Corp.’s cadette program, designed to train women engineers who would work at defense plants while men were fighting in World War II. After earning a mechanical engineering certificate and working in the defense industry, she returned to State College to continue her education, ultimately earning a doctorate in biochemistry and virology.
She taught at Penn State from 1966 until 1980 and secured more than $10 million in grants for projects including “What Works,” which sought to retain women in science, technology, and math, decades before STEM became a household term. Her local advocacy for women included helping to found the Centre County Women’s Resource Center in 1975. While a director of the center, she wrote its first grant, to work with the police department on the issue of violence against women. The CCWRC’s Sylvia Stein Shelter, which houses women and children who need a safe place to stay, is named in her honor.
Until her death in 1993, Stein was very active in the local community. She served on the boards of the American Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters, and Meals on Wheels.
She was a member of the State College Zoning Hearing Board and the Authorities Board. She also ran for a state House of Representative seat in 1984.
Patricia Best was the first in her family to attend college, inspired by her Latin teacher to earn a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from Bowling Green State University and eventually a doctorate in counselor education from Penn State. She moved to State College in 1977 and became a substitute teacher, beginning what would become 32 years of service to the State College Area School District.
She advanced to guidance counselor and then through various administrative positions before moving into the superintendent’s office in 1999. At that time, only 15 percent of the state’s superintendents were women. Today, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, women hold 143 of the 500 superintendent positions — almost 29 percent.
“Our profession can only benefit from competent leaders with a diversity of backgrounds and skills,” Best says. “While serving as a superintendent is fraught with challenges and complexity, it also is a tremendous opportunity to contribute to the growth and development of children and, by extension, our community and nation.”
Since her retirement in 2009, she has continued to focus on education. She worked with Penn State’s College of Education to develop an online master’s program in teacher leadership. She and her husband, Thomas Ray, have visited schools in 15 countries as part of the American Association of School Administrators’ Invitational International Seminar on Schooling, and she serves on the board of the Discovery Space Children’s Science Museum. She remains proud to live in a community “that so values education that focusing on excellence in student learning is the norm and support for that learning is constant.”
Mimi Barash Coppersmith
Mimi Coppersmith planned on a career as an investigative reporter or a lawyer. Then, on May 8, 1953, about nine weeks before she received her journalism degree from Penn State, she met local businessman Sy Barash. She joined him in a billboard company and advertising agency, and founded Town&Gown magazine in 1966.
Along the way, she advanced her impact in business and the community even as she lost three husbands (two passed away; one she divorced) and survived breast cancer. She became Penn State’s first woman trustee chairman and advanced women’s causes including the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, Pennsylvania Pink Zone, and Centre County Child Access Center. A perpetual fund-raiser, she has worked for countless organizations, from Centre LifeLink EMS to Mount Nittany Medical Center to Penn State’s Renaissance Scholarship Fund (she was the Renaissance honoree in 1990).
Coppersmith — who sold Town&Gown in 2008 but still remains a part of it, including with her “Lunch with Mimi” interviews — says that her leadership skills got their start when she was growing up in Wilkes-Barre, where her schoolmates called her “terrible names” because she was Jewish. Julia Lieberman, a children’s program worker at the Jewish Community Center, provided a safe haven and helped her learn that she had the potential to lead, whether it was for a softball team or a charity project.
A self-professed feminist, Coppersmith says her biggest impact on the women of State College has been to listen and give advice.
“I’ve never marched, but I’ve always done a lot behind the scenes,” she says.
Elizabeth Goreham’s political science degree from George Washington University sat on the shelf for years after college as she worked in the oil equipment industry in Texas and China. As she became aware of pollution caused by oil companies and manufacturing, she became an environmental consultant, working on lawsuits fighting that pollution.
In 1993, she moved with her new husband, Jack Matson, to State College and thought she might open an organic juice bar. When that didn’t pan out, Matson suggested that she run for office and raise awareness of environmental concerns.
“I threw my hat in the ring without any expectation of winning,” she recalls, but soon found herself on borough council. In 2010, she became the first woman elected as State College mayor.
Initially, Goreham targeted environmental issues, such as recycling. With success in that area, she says, “Right now my focus is on making sure we get the word out that this community welcomes everyone.”
The mayor, who announced in February that she will not run for re-election, advises young women to speak out on issues that concern them and to run for office.
“We need more women in office,” she says. “Women have a perspective that’s much more based on nurturing and community, and that’s exactly what we need.”