After the University of the Northwest closed and Morningside College was established in its place, Miss Lillian Dimmitt elected to stay on at the “college in the cornfield” as she had both become fond of her new home and because she considered it “an open door to Christian service.” Those first years of Morningside were described by Miss Dimmitt as the “Heroic Age.” The faculty that remained along with the new faculty understood there was a chance that the school might close any day. Salaries were not guaranteed because the only funds running Morningside were from the tuition, room, and board generated from the few students enrolled.
Perhaps as a result of these early struggles, one of the early initiatives Miss Dimmitt took on was bringing the women of Morningside College together in fellowship. In addition to her professorial responsibilities teaching Latin, Greek, and the Classics, Miss Dimmitt established Agora Club in 1912, which was created with “the intention of more fully uniting all the feminine elements of the school and by such unity to attain for them broader development and wider influence.” Agora Club’s constitution had many specific objectives for its work, but Miss Dimmitt’s primary intent was to help women be successful at Morningside. The spirit of “unity and loyalty” and “fellowship among the girls” offered a 1900s version of what we would likely deem as mentoring today, designed for Morningside’s women scholars. In addition to Agora Club, Miss Dimmitt also established three literary societies for women between the years of 1898 and 1908 called Atheneum, Zetalethean, and Pieria.
During this time, Miss Dimmitt continued her own studies. In 1903, she elected to “take a rest” from her teaching responsibilities at Morningside to spend a year studying and researching in Rome, Italy. At the time, the Sioux City Journal acknowledged that Miss Dimmitt had received several other offers to teach elsewhere, but Miss Dimmitt had shared that it was her preference to “stand by the staff of Morningside.” So, she took a brief break from her teaching responsibilities and shifted her attention to learning about the culture of Italy and taking in its rich history. Miss Dimmitt’s studies grew within her a deep fondness for Italy. In a note she sent to the Sioux City Journal from Italy during Christmas 1903, Miss Dimmitt shared:
“Writing from the American School of Classical Studies, I extend to Sioux City friends the season’s greetings and congratulations, too, for though Sioux City’s hills are not far famed nor has she traditions by which she may hold her visitors entranced, and though her skies may not be quite as blue, nor sunsets as golden, nor climate as mild, yet she is blest with resources and with citizens of energy activity, and business ability who can use those resources; consequently she enjoys present prosperity, and her future success is assured”.
For many years later, Miss Dimmitt would continue to share of her research and studies in Italy, serving as a conductor for 10 different travel parties to Europe throughout her life. She frequently gave on-campus and community presentations on the topic to encourage others to go abroad, and her descriptive accounts and the generosity she had in retelling these tales not only reflected her love for travel but captured her skills as both a teacher and mentor.
In addition to her trips overseas to research and indulge in her love of travel, Miss Dimmitt also continued her formal education. She earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1913 and completed other graduate work at the University of Chicago throughout the years. She also received a L.H.D. degree from her alma mater Illinois Wesleyan University in 1920.
As Miss Dimmitt would continue to teach throughout the early 1900s, her popularity and leadership roles at Morningside also began to grow. As early as 1906, records of student publications being dedicated to Miss Dimmitt can be found. She would often host talks and teas to share tales from her travels to help garner interest in Morningside and the work happening at the young college. She frequently sponsored campus organizations and published articles on classical languages and college administration, and she was a vocal advocate for her beliefs. One such example occurred in 1906 when Margaret Gay Dolliver, sister of Senator Jonathan Dolliver and the first Dean of Women at Morningside, formed an advisory board of 44 women in an effort to establish a separate Coordinate College for Women.
The Coordinate College was to be placed in the newly acquired Renaissance Hall that had been donated by Arthur Samuel Garretson, a prominent banker and builder. Miss Dimmitt formed a resistance among the faculty to argue that women should have education on an equal basis with men and that the Coordinate College would be a step backward for Morningside. Her resistance resulted in the effort failing and the Garretson Mansion instead serving as the president’s home and a fraternity house before it was eventually purchased by the city in 1931.
Miss Dimmitt’s leadership eventually led her to be named dean of women, in which she took an active role in helping Morningside to expand its campus, increase its fundraising, and grow its enrollment. Writers for the student newspaper were never shy in sharing their devotion for their beloved professor turned administrator, with one student writing:
“We feel that [Miss Dimmitt] is a friend as soon as we see her smile on registration day. A first summons to her office may look formidable but though a girl may go with trembling knees, she returns with a feeling of confidence, knowing that Miss Dimmitt is a friend in whom she may confide at any time. Miss Dimmitt is our counselor in a variety of needs, from cloths, or beaus, to money; even in those times of depression she seems to have an uncanny gift for getting money for loans when weaker ones would have given up in despair. Though her name is not visibly connected with many projects which are put over successfully, she is often the power behind the throne who has been the cause of the efficient production.”
Lillian Dimmitt’s ability to build and create deep relationships with her students and other Morningside connections not only made her popular on-campus, but as time marched on, it also resulted in her being the primary driver behind fundraising despite not having a formal title for that work. Miss Dimmitt often wrote donor solicitations to alumni and friends of Morningside and frequently accompanied administration on calls to alumni in addition to making calls of her own. The Sioux City Journal and The Collegian Reporter are littered with social mentions of Miss Dimmitt’s travels throughout the United States and around the world on behalf of Morningside. As one example, after suffering a hip fracture in her 92nd year of life in 1959, Miss Dimmitt chose to push through her own ailments and made the trip to visit Clair J. Westcott of Boise, Idaho, who was a 1908 graduate of Morningside. Miss Dimmitt returned with a check from Westcott with the only stipulation being that Miss Dimmitt was to choose how the funds were used (Miss Dimmitt chose the geology department).
One of the projects that Miss Dimmitt was instrumental in making reality was the construction of a women’s residence hall in 1927. She spent many months visiting alumni and doing the work necessary to ensure the building would be constructed, and it was well known throughout campus that the project likely would not have been possible without Miss Dimmitt. Nearly two decades later, students and alumni enthusiastically worked together to encourage the Morningside board to honor Miss Dimmitt by naming the residence hall that she was largely responsible for after her. It was their prerogative that a woman who had done so much for Morningside and led it to prosperity deserved to be formally recognized for her efforts. The board took up the matter in 1948 and voted to both change the name of the building to Lillian E. Dimmitt Hall – a name the residence hall carries to this day – and to award Miss Dimmitt with an honorary Doctor of Literature degree.
Even before the building was officially named for her, a tradition that took root in Dimmitt Hall was hosting an annual birthday party for Miss Dimmitt that was also an opportunity for all Dimmitt Hall residents to collectively celebrate their birthdays.
Each February, Morningside’s best silver was brought out and a delicious cake made for the residents of the all-girls hall to celebrate their collective birthdays alongside Miss Dimmitt. Miss Dimmitt was always part of the festivities, and it was a social highlight on campus for the women of Morningside for many years. While the tradition stopped after Miss Dimmitt’s death, the dozens of parties held over the years are well-documented and were clearly beloved by all those who attended, including Miss Dimmitt.
While Morningside was certainly where Miss Dimmitt was best known, her notoriety extended beyond the campus as well. In 1920, Miss Dimmitt was elected president of the Association of Deans of Women of Iowa Colleges at their annual convention held in Iowa City. At the time, more than 175 deans of women from all parts of United States were part of the organization.
Upon returning from the national convention that year, Dimmitt shared with The Collegian Reporter that a key focus of her work and conversations at the convention were around finding academic, health, and personal balance for women during the college years so that they emerge from college stronger in all ways and prepared to take on life in whatever form it might take for each woman.
“The really big thought of the convention was that college girls must be more closely related to life. One of the objections frequently voiced against college graduates is that they are brought up in an idealistic and unnatural atmosphere and it is hard for them to get back to earth when they finish school. We must remove, as far as possible, all artificiality and bring the girls in contact with the same forces they meet out of life,” said Miss Dimmitt.
In taking on this larger role, Miss Dimmitt also found herself in the crosshairs of controversy when she spoke out at the 1921 National Council of Deans of Women convention in Atlantic City, N.J. There, Miss Dimmitt declared that both World War I and the advent of the automobile were at least partly responsible for the “appalling immorality” among high school students. Miss Dimmitt posited that colleges and universities needed to more closely adhere to the old standards of chaperonage to remedy the issue. While there were plenty at the time who agreed with Miss Dimmitt’s theories, there were also many who refuted her notions. Affirmations and rebuttals to Miss Dimmitt’s remarks appeared in newspapers across the country in the weeks that followed.
As one example, a contradiction from the principals and vice principals of Los Angeles schools was submitted to the Los Angeles Evening Express shortly after Miss Dimmitt’s remarks at the convention, with Hollywood High School Vice Principal Miss Bertha Green stating, “Young people today are very much as they have always been. I know of no cases of flagrant immorality among students. Because there is an occasional case of a high school girl who errs is no reason why sweeping charges of immorality should be brought against students.”
Despite the national controversy she drummed up, Miss Dimmitt’s home campus proudly stood by her. The Morningside student newspaper The Collegian Reporter printed an editorial addressing the controversy and defending their beloved Miss Dimmitt, writing:
“Miss Dimmitt was not speaking after snap thinking. She is in as good a position to ascertain the facts as anybody we know, and her remarks were the pronouncement of deliberately formed judgment… She merely states that it is her observation and the observation of others that social standards of today are not as high as they were four or five years ago. This statement is absolute fact. Daily newspapers who pretend to deny or discount it are either uninformed or desire to misrepresent. The Reporter will back Miss Dimmitt’s statements to the limit, expecting therefore to be called both pessimistic and prudish”
Look for the next installment of the story in the winter/spring issue of the Morningsider.