Harmon’s Histories: 121 years ago today, 2 remarkable women became UM’s first graduates

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

“The day was a beautiful one, even for Missoula which is full of beautiful days,” wrote a newspaper reporter.

It was Wednesday, June 8, 1898, the day of Missoula’s very first commencement at the University of Montana.

Montana Governor Robert Burns Smith, members of the State Board of Education, Chief Justice Pemberton and other dignitaries from Helena joined UM President Oscar J. Craig and the university faculty for the ceremonies, held at Union Hall.

Now let’s pause for some perspective.

So far in our story, everything sounds quite routine and normal. But you have to appreciate how we arrived at this day in 1898.

Missoula had been designated the site for the state university in 1893, but funding wasn’t approved until two years later.

When classes began on September 5, 1985, the university consisted of a single, eight-room building with only two rooms actually renovated and ready to use.

A mere 135 students had registered for classes, and according to one account, “to keep the rest of the state from knowing (of the) small attendance, the first catalogue issued by the institution listed any and everybody connected with the school … special students, preparatory students and music students.”

The bit of deception was an attempt to win over well-to-do Montanans who, at the time, were inclined to send “their progeny to eastern schools or military schools.”

The entire faculty at UM consisted of President Craig and four others.

So, as we return to our story of that lovely spring day in Missoula, it will come as a bit less of a shock for you to learn that the graduating class of 1898 numbered – two: Miss Eloise Knowles (bachelor of philosophy) and Mrs. Ella Robb Glenny (bachelor of arts).

Miss Knowles came from one of Missoula’s most prominent families; her father was federal Judge Hiram Knowles. She later went on to the University of Chicago, where she obtained a higher level degree in philosophy, then returned to UM as an Art Department instructor.

Knowles also “founded Theta Pi which became Kappa Alpha Theta in 1909 … (working) at the university until 1915 when ill health forced her to go to California on a leave of absence. She died on April 9, 1916.” Knowles Hall, on campus, is named for Eloise.

Eloise Knowles

Ella Robb Glenny was married to William Mount Glenny, the chief dispatcher for the Northern Pacific railroad in Missoula, a prominent position in town. “They had one child, William Robb Glenny,” according to historical documents. Mrs. Glenny died in Minneapolis, MN.

The graduating class may have been small, but “(t)he hall was packed with friends and acquaintances of the graduating class,” wrote the Daily Missoulian.

Mrs. Glenny’s oration, “Some Tendencies in Education,” was “worthy of great thinkers” according to the press. Miss Knowles’ presentation on “The Expression of Thought” was said to be “well handled and faultlessly delivered.”

Governor Smith congratulated the pair, then “congratulated the people of Missoula for the great honor that is conferred upon them by having an institution that was capable of turning out such perfect scholars.”

Following commencement, a parade formed at Higgins and Main, led by a “cordon of police” and the fire department. Then came the Odd Fellows, Foresters, Elks, Knights of Pythias, State and local officials.

William Mount Glenny and Ella Robb Glenny

The parade marched down Higgins, across the bridge to south Fifth, then east to Maurice and onto the university grounds led by Grand Marshal John L. Sloan, the local police magistrate.

At 2:30 p.m., “the laying of the cornerstone of the university will be under the direction of the university building commission.” Gov. Smith, acting as president of the state board of education addressed the crowd, and University President Craig summed up the state of “State Education.”

More than 50 years later, a member of the founding faculty, Dr. Frederick Scheuch, praised the first two graduates of the university, saying they “brought strength of character, self-reliance and love of beauty” to the campus. His remarks came at the groundbreaking for the new Women’s Center in 1952.

Of course most everything has changed on campus since those first classes were held in the fall of 1895 and the first commencement took place in the spring of 1898.

This year’s graduating class at UM numbered 2,046. Hopefully each one of them benefited as much from their campus experience as Eloise and Ella, class of ‘98.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.