Trained as a teacher of physical education at the Sargent School in Boston, Ruth J. Totman enjoyed a career at state normal schools and teachers colleges in New York and Pennsylvania before joining the faculty at Massachusetts State College in 1943, building the program in women's physical education almost from scratch and culminating in 1958 with the opening of a new Women's Physical Education Building, which was one of the largest and finest of its kind in the nation. Totman retired at the mandatory age of 70 in 1964, and twenty years later, the women's PE building was rededicated in her honor. Totman died in November 1989, three days after her 95th birthday.
The Totman Papers are composed mostly of personal materials pertaining to her residence in Amherst, correspondence, and Totman family materials. The sparse material in this collection relating to Totman's professional career touches lightly on her retirement in 1964 and the dedication of the Ruth J. Totman Physical Education Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Supplementing the documents is a sizeable quantity of photographs and 8mm films, with the former spanning nearly her entire 95 years. The 8mm films, though fragile, provide an interesting, though soundless view into Totman's activities from the 1940s through the 1960s, including a cross-country trip with Gertrude "Jean" Lewis, women's Physical Education events at the New Jersey College for Women, and trips to Japan to visit her nephew, Conrad Totman.
The collection is open for research.
Background on Ruth J. Totman
Excerpted from Recollections of Ruth Jane Totman, By Conrad Totman
Ruth Jane Totman was born on the farm of her parents Frederick L. and Jennie (Brower) Totman on November 20, 1894. She was the seventh of ten children, five of them girls, five boys. The farm always loomed large in Ruth's life, the place to which she returned whenever she could, summer after summer and often for Christmas or other vacation moments. She did so regardless of where her career took her, whether her first job teaching physical education in a public school district in central New York state, or later at Indiana State College in western Pennsylvania, New Jersey College for Women in New Brunswick, or Massachusetts State College (renamed UMass. in 1946) in Amherst.
From early on, it appears, Ruth, the youngest of the girls, the plain, rangy tomboy, had some difficulty getting along with her older sister, Harriet, born 1891. Harriet was the pretty one, the one who went on to a fine schooling at Mt. Holyoke College (class of 1914), while Ruth went to the less elegant Sargent School of Physical Education in Boston. The sisterly tensions lasted the rest of their lives, eased no doubt by Harriet's distance, since she pursued her career teaching the blind in Cleveland, Ohio, sharing her life with Ann Kessner, a school teacher, until senility brought her to the Amherst Nursing Home and final repose in Pine Grove Cemetery in Conway.
Ruth started school in the fall of 1898. She was only 3 years 9 months old at the time and, as she recalled it, was sent to school because her next older sister Mary had just turned five and was the only child scheduled to enter the first grade that year. Her teacher asked Jennie to send little Ruth, too, to keep Mary company, so the precocious child went, proving herself able to handle the work. After she graduated from high school in 1911 she was asked to teach at the Broomshire School, which was needing a teacher at the time. For two years she taught grades 1-6, earning money for her own schooling, and then went on to Sargent School in Boston.
The years of Ruth's youth were a time when pundits were expressing alarm that city life was undermining the good health of the young, and the alarm intensified during World War I as American military leaders began preparing their flaccid army for war in Europe. The concern led to mandatory physical education in many school systems across the country, and that development gave Ruth ample encouragement to become a teacher of physical education. In 1916, after three years at Sargent, she took a job teaching it at several public schools in the vicinity of Cortland, New York. In later years she spoke fondly of the three years she traveled from school to school in her horse and buggy, or sleigh in winter, staying at local houses on her circuit.
At the age of 25 she served for a year as instructor in physical education at the State Normal School in Cortland, NY, and she spent the following year in the employ of the New York State Department of education, supervising instruction in physical education in a larger rural region. In 1921 she moved to eastern Pennsylvania to teach at the State Teachers College in East Stroudsburg, working there for six years and completing her own undergraduate study in Physical Education at New Jersey College for Women (NJC) in 1927. Degree in hand, she moved to New Castle, in far western Pennsylvania, to supervise physical education in the public schools there. She then took a position teaching at Indiana State Teachers College in Indiana, Pennsylvania (some 30 miles northeast of Pittsburgh) from 1928 to 1936.
There, in the depths of the Great Depression, she met another young, newly appointed teacher, Gertrude Minnie (Jean) Lewis (1896-1996). They agreed to share an apartment and ended up lifelong friends. While teaching at Indiana State, Ruth also continued her own schooling, earning an MS degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
About 1936, Ruth took a job on the faculty of physical education at NJC, where she stayed until 1943. There she established a number of friendships that were to last for decades, including Mary Raven, who was a dietitian and head of the NJC cafeteria, Virginia Spencer and Ruth Stevenson, colleagues on the physical education staff, Winnie Schonlieber, evidently a physical education major there who later followed Ruth to teach in Amherst, and Helen Curtis.
By 1942 the United States was embroiled in World War II, and Ruth, still at NJC, took on new tasks. Perhaps her war effort that family and friends remember best was "Peaceful Acres" a project of the summer of 1942. It anticipated the "American Women's Land Army" program that the federal government launched in early 1943. Along a narrow country road was a fine old but vacant house and farm-turned-estate that had formerly been occupied by a Mrs. McAllister. Ruth arranged to rent the estate, dubbing it "Peaceful Acres," and invited a number of her NJC students and a colleague or two to join her there. They planted a large vegetable garden, raised a field of cucumbers for market, and assisted farmers in the vicinity in their summer work. With so many hired hands off to war, the farmers, including my father, were grateful for the help.
In 1943 she was invited to head the Department of Women's Physical Education at Massachusetts State College. She moved to Amherst, where she found living space at Mt. Pleasant Inn, just south of the campus and a brisk walk from her office in the Drill Hall. A year later she found a home on Strong Street, a recently built Cape Cod-style house and one-acre lot just beyond Wildwood Cemetery over the hill east of Butterfield dormitory. She took out a $2,000 mortgage at the Conway Savings Bank in July 1944, purchased the house for $5,500, and in September 1945, three weeks after the end of World War II, paid off the mortgage when Jean Lewis joined her as legal co-owner.
During the summer of 1945 Ruth was joined in the Strong Street house by her friend from NJC, Helen Curtis. Helen, having received a Master's degree from Columbia in 1942, took a post as Director of Students at the Douglass Campus. Three years later she was invited to join Mass. State as Dean of Women. As Helen enjoys recalling, she came for a job interview in Amherst with little enthusiasm because a school in Pennsylvania had just offered her what seemed a more attractive position. But when Ruth heard that she was coming for an interview, she promptly cancelled Helen's hotel reservation at the Lord Jeffrey Inn and invited her to stay at her house while visiting the campus. She also assured Helen that if she took the post, she would be welcome to share Ruth's house. Perhaps those gestures of welcome made the difference because Helen did accept, and she lived at Strong Street with Ruth until the end of her career nearly three decades later.
Ruth was delighted to be back in Massachusetts. Her work at Mass. State was exciting because with so many young men off to war, the role of women on campus was much larger, and she had a growing program to nurture. Moreover, and more personally, being in Amherst brought her closer to Jean Lewis, who worked at one place or another in New England from 1938 to 1949.
Meanwhile Ruth was contributing to UMass's accelerating growth and participating actively in the broader profession of Physical Education. Mass. State was renamed University of Massachusetts in 1946, and as the years passed Ruth continued expanding her program to stay abreast of swelling enrollments. Her teacher hiring proceeded successfully, adding a number of faculty members who became stalwarts of the program, including Vickory Hubbard, Maida Riggs, and Marilyn Herscholtz. She also promoted, Maida has informed me, student involvement in physical education by making her Strong Street house the regular meeting place for the Women's Athletic Association. And in 1958 or thereabouts she oversaw the establishment of her program's Teacher Education major.
As the decade advanced, Ruth's career approached its pinnacle. In 1956, the Drill Hall, which housed her program, was destroyed by an electrical fire. Ruth scrambled for temporary housing for staff and courses and then devoted much of two years to designing a grand new building for the program. As soon as these temporary arrangements were made, Ruth plunged into the task of designing permanent quarters for her program, and in 1958 "WoPE," the new Women's Physical Education Building opened, one of the largest and finest women's PE buildings in the nation. It provided the facilities necessary for that program to continue expanding as the university grew by leaps and bounds.
Ruth retired in 1964, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. Soon diverse people were advocating that the new building be named in her honor, and in 1972, just before retiring, Warren McGuirk, Dean of Physical Education, championed the proposal, formally setting the project into motion. Thanks in no small part to the early and continuing efforts of Helen Curtis, technical obstacles and administrative inertia were overcome, and in 1984 it finally came to pass.
Two years after Ruth, Jean, too, retired. In 1968 Jean did move in permanently, and, along with Helen, the three women shared the Strong Street house for several years after that. Then following her retirement in about 1973 Helen accepted a long-standing proposal of marriage from Christopher Cole. The two wed and moved into an apartment in a newly built residential enclave just northeast of the church at the center of North Amherst.
So Ruth and Jean finally were reunited and had a house to themselves, completing the circle begun in Indiana, PA forty five years earlier. In retirement they traveled widely, touring South America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and Europe. In her last year or two Ruth declined, finally becoming bedridden. But with the loving care of Jean and much help from Helen her final days were reasonably comfortable, and three days after her 95th birthday she breathed her last at home, beloved friends at her side. She is buried in Conway, in Pine Grove Cemetery, along with her parents, sister Harriet, and Ruth's lifelong friend, Gertrude (Jean) Lewis.
The Ruth J. Totman Papers are composed mostly of personal materials with a smattering of professional or administrative documents. Documents pertaining to her residence in Amherst, correspondence, and Totman family materials, all highlight diverse aspects of her personal life. The sparse material in this collection relating to Totman's professional career touches lightly on her retirement in 1964 and the dedication of the Ruth J. Totman Physical Education Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Supplementing the documents is a sizeable quantity of photographs and 8mm films, with the former spanning nearly her entire 95 years. The 8mm films, though fragile, provide an interesting, though soundless view into Totman's activities from the 1940s through the 1960s, including a cross-country trip with Gertrude "Jean" Lewis, women's Physical Education events at the New Jersey College for Women, and trips to Japan to visit her nephew, Conrad Totman.
This collection was donated and organized by Conrad Totman, Ruth Totman's nephew. Using personal memories and documentary evidence, Conrad gave context to most, if not all, of the materials in these papers. In some instances, he included hand-written notes explaining what would otherwise be unknown information within certain materials. These notes are included in the finding aid with their relevant documents.
Acquired from Conrad D. and Michiko Totman, 2005.
Processed by Alexander D. McKenzie, January 2007.
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Cite as: Ruth J. Totman Papers (FS 097). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.