First Ladies of Education: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

As the teachers and children go back to the classrooms of Conway for a new year, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to the ladies who made such an impact on the children of Conway Public Schools that the district named school buildings in their honor.

Medora Ellen Grissard Smith (1868-1951) became the first woman in the state of Arkansas to be elected to an official position when she was elected to the Conway School Board of Education in 1921. After a period of financial difficulties, the district was able to build a new east side elementary school in 1925 which was named in her honor. After the new Ellen Smith school was constructed in 2000, St. Joseph School bought this building.

Ida Lawrey Leigh Burns (1876-1970) taught 44 years (1899-1903, 1910-1950) as an elementary school teacher in the Conway School District. The original Ida Burns Elementary building, named in her honor, was constructed in 1955, with buildings added in 1964, 1975 and 1992.

Sallie Fisher Hildreth Cone (1892-1975) earned a bachelor’s degree from Central College then attended Arkansas State Normal School (now UCA) where she obtained a Licensed Instructor degree. She taught in Helena and then in Montrose where she met and married Jesse G. Cone. After moving back to Conway to be close to her sister, Mary Beth Hildreth Crafton, Sallie was hired by the Conway School District to teach. She later went on to earn a BSE from ASTC and an MSE from the University of Arkansas. Mrs. Cone taught for 40 years. In 1956, a new elementary school was named in her honor because of her love of children. She continued to substitute teach for several years afterward.

Florence Mattison (1895-1988), was raised at Sweet Home in Pulaski County. She met her husband, Preston, at Philander Smith College and they were married in 1916. In the early 1920s, they came to Conway where he was hired to be the Pine Street School principal. She taught there for most of her 40 years of teaching. In retirement, Florence tutored in her home and worked with VIPS (Volunteers in Public Schools). Florence Mattison Elementary opened in 1981.

Marguerite Irby Vann (1909-1996) was a music teacher for the Conway district. She and her husband, Ben Vann, owned a portion of the former Lollie Plantation from 1952 until they sold it to the Schaefers in 1973. She also led the music in the children’s department at First Baptist Church. After teaching for 15 years, she became the district supervisor of choral music in 1965. Marguerite Vann Elementary was built in 1986 and named in her honor.

Ruth Browning Doyle (1914-2003) was born in Fort Worth, Texas but raised in Milan, Tennessee. She came to Conway in 1925. She received a bachelor’s degree from Hendrix in French and English and then a master’s degree in French from ASTC. She taught high school in Fayetteville for one year before returning to Conway to teach high school English in 1936. There she married her principal, David Doyle, and then became a fifth-grade teacher at Ida Burns. Ruth Doyle Intermediate (now Middle) School opened in 2004.

Julia Lee Moore (1918-2003) graduated Conway High School. She received her bachelors at ASTC before she earned her master’s degree in education at the University of Arkansas. Except for one year in Little Rock, Miss Moore’s entire career was spent in the Conway system. She taught in the Central Grade School and at Ida Burns. She then served as principal of Ida Burns for many years. In 1978, the new Julia Lee Elementary School was named in her honor.

Phyllis Moix Simon served as the district’s first director of computer services for twenty years before her retirement in 2005. She is married to Ray Simon, Superintendent of Conway Schools from 1991 to 1997. She took the district from no computers to one of the most technologically advanced districts in the state. In 2006, a new intermediate school was named Ray and Phyllis Simon Intermediate (now Middle School) in recognition of the contributions this couple made to the district.

Carolyn Hazel Lewis, a 1961 graduate of Conway Schools, taught elementary school in Conway and was principal of Sallie Cone Elementary until her retirement after 32 years. She then served on the school board for ten years, five years as its president. Carolyn Lewis Elementary opened in 2012.

Recently the Conway Board of Education honored the late Betty Courtway by renaming a middle school the Bob and Betty Courtway Middle School. Mrs. Courtway taught kindergarten not only in the public schools but in First Baptist Church’s private kindergarten. Many Conway children, including myself, got their start under Mrs. Courtway’s care and guidance.

These ladies and many more have educated generations of Conway students. Next week, we will look at the exceptional men for whom school buildings were named.

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