Lucy Washburn

Standing, far left among colleagues, Lucy Washburn is credited with creating, editing Normal’s first history. Photo supplied by SJSU Special Collections and Archives

To most people who have passed through San Jose State University since the early 1960s, Lucy M. Washburn is remembered as one of the names identifying the red brick dorms on Eighth Street.

To her students, she was an endearing teacher known simply as “Aunt Lucy.”

To school historians, she is remembered as a higher education pioneer in the San Francisco Bay Area and a cornerstone in San Jose State’s foundation.1,2

Washburn was born on April 23, 1848, in a New York village south of Lake Erie. She spent most of her school years as a student at the Fredonia Academy and became the last student there to read a graduating essay in 1867 before it was closed and reopened as one of four state normal schools with a focus on training future teachers.

Before she turned 20, Washburn was back on the campus helping the Fredonia Academy make the transition to a “Normal School,” what the French originated as ecole normale superieure (Fredonia remains one of the campuses in the State University of New York system.) Besides Fredonia, Washburn also studied at Vassar College and Cornell University.

Although information about her early years is scant, it’s easy to imagine Washburn grew up in a home that prized a good education. Her father was a doctor and surgeon who died during the Civil War while tending to the soldiers fighting to preserve the Union.

The education bug also bit her younger brother Arthur H. Washburn, who would get a degree in mechanical engineering and would later join Lucy on the faculty of the San Jose State Normal School.

After spending time teaching in New York and Virginia, Lucy Washburn made her career-shaping move to the Santa Clara Valley with her mother in 1870 to be closer to her uncle, Dr. Elliott Reed, and his family. She grew so close to Reed and his family that she lived with them for much of her life.

Washburn joined the San Jose State Normal School’s staff in 1873, not long after the campus moved from its original location in San Francisco to where it remains today. She started out as a mathematics teacher and an assistant to the school’s principal, Charles H. Allen. Washburn also specialized in physiology and zoology.

During the Normal School’s formative years, it’s likely that Washburn crossed paths with at least three other people who went on to have their names memorialized on the six red brick dorms that San Jose State began building in 1960 (three of the dorms were demolished in 2003 to make way for the Campus Village).

One was her boss, Charles Allen. The others: Lou Henry Hoover, who graduated from the Normal School in 1893 while Washburn was teaching there; and Ruth Royce, the school’s first librarian while Washburn was on staff.

No record indicates that Lucy ever married, but her brother Arthur’s marriage to Jessica Thompson in 1888 would change her life. Both Arthur and Jessica taught the San Jose State Normal School before making a move that propelled Lucy in a new direction too.

In an effort to build an educational bridge between high school and college, Arthur and Jessica opened the “Washburn School” in 1894. With Lucy’s aid, the Washburn School helped students prepare for their entrance into Stanford, UC Berkeley and other elite colleges.

After helping her brother start the school, Lucy continued to teach at the San Jose State Normal School until leaving in 1900. Already past the age when most people retired, Washburn returned to the normal school in 1914 and would keep pursuing her passion until she finally called it quits in 1920 at the age of 72.

After her brother died in 1921, Lucy moved in with Jessica in the Los Gatos foothills. She spent most of her remaining life shuttling between Los Gatos and her nephew Lowell’s home in Porterville, where she preferred to spend the winters. After a fire destroyed the Los Gatos home, Lucy spent her final summer in Hermosa Beach before a final trip to Porterville, where she died on Sept. 26, 1939, at the age of 91.

Michael Liedtke, a former executive editor of the Spartan Daily, is a reporter for the Associated Press in San Francisco.

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