As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I am honored to reflect on the many remarkable women who have helped shape Graceland University over the years. From Marietta Walker to Cleo Hanthorne Moon, the contributions of these extraordinary women have left an indelible mark on our institution and on the wider world.
Marietta Walker is known as the “mother of Graceland.” Her initial donation of farmland to Graceland in rural Iowa helped establish the University in the late 19th century. She was a staunch advocate for education and published writings for the Community of Christ – an act that at the time was considered unsuitable for women.
Velma Ruch served as Graceland’s first interim female president and paved the way for female leadership for decades to come. Ruch was the first woman on Graceland’s faculty to hold a PhD and was heavily involved in the transformation of Graceland into a four-year university.
Barbara Higdon, uplifted by Ruch’s legacy, was another pioneering figure at Graceland and served as the university’s first full-time female president. Higdon embodied excellence and was known as an innovative and courageous leader. She led Graceland into the 21st century by bringing the first modern computer technology to campus, initiating the Outreach Nursing Program, and raising $10 million for the college in three short years.
Finally, Cleo Hanthorne Moon was a beloved member of the Graceland community and served as the college’s librarian from 1935-1945 and from 1956-1969. She is fondly remembered as Graceland’s poet laureate and wrote “The Bell’s Tower’s Eye,” a beautiful compilation of poems describing Graceland and its ambiance. She led the work on the publication Graceland’s Firsts and served as a sponsor for the Acacia yearbook and Graceland Tower newspaper.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it is important to remember and honor the many contributions of women like Marietta, Barbara, Velma, and Cleo. Their courage, determination, and leadership have helped pave the way for the generations of women who have followed in their footsteps, and their legacies continue to shape the future of our university and the world at large.
In more recent years, I think about the Graceland women today who are harbingers of greatness and establishing the next generation of leaders.
While a student, Tamela Hill ’19 simultaneously served as both the Graceland Student Government president and the Black Student Union president. She introduced Graceland’s newest student government branch, the Inclusion Diversity Equity Alliance (IDEA), which helps the campus become more educated and aware of the experiences of underrepresented populations in the student body. Tamela graduated with a major in business administration and a minor in computer science and is now working in the technology sector and helping her company with issues of inclusion and belonging, so the leadership she displayed at Graceland continues.
Post-graduation, Marissa Myer ’18 established The Coral Nursery project in Puerto Rico, which will be the first self-sustaining satellite coral restoration unit to date. This past year she hosted our Enactus team to learn about coral restoration and the micro-fragmentation process.
As a student, Haley Johnson ’19 defeated over 2,000 performers from more than 700 colleges and universities across the nation to win top honors at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Johnson was awarded the coveted Irene Ryan Acting Fellowship and was a co-winner of the Mark Twain Scholarship for Comedic Performance. Haley was granted a fellowship to attend the University of Florida and graduated in the spring of 2022 with an MFA in Theatre and Acting.
At Graceland, we remain committed to fostering a campus culture that empowers and uplifts women, and we will continue to honor the legacy of these remarkable women by working to create a more equitable and just society for all.