MARCH 2020

It has been many years since Mabel Farley walked the halls of Hicksville High School , so many years that her memory scarcely endures in the community.  Older alumni recall her with fondness and admiration.  To the rest of us, she is only a name, or perhaps the almost joyless face we encounter when leafing through the archives of past Comet yearbooks.  It is difficult to see her, posed so obviously her Principal’s desk, and not have the word “spinster” cross our minds.

This month, Ancient Hixtory continues its look at Miss Farley, and attempts to capture the nature of the woman behind so many achievements.


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Introduction

Last month, this column outlined the early years of her career.  Let us now focus more sharply on, and make crystal clear, the sweep of change that they encompassed.

When 1911 began, the village of Hicksville had one school, which offered education only through tenth grade.  For years, that school had steadily declined into dysfunction, because its Trustees had not been entrusted by Hicksville ’s taxpayers to adequately finance the expansion of its capacity.  Meanwhile, in rural Pennsylvania , a bright schoolteacher was nearing 30, and she felt the time had come to leave her small home town, and tackle greater responsibilities elsewhere.

Twenty years later, a more populous Hicksville boasted three schools, and they all worked well.  The showpiece among them was a new Junior-Senior High School , which sat on a 15-acre campus.  To build it, a revitalized School Board had convinced the village’s taxpayers to spend $525,000 ($345,000 for the original 1925 structure, followed in 1929 by another $180,000 for an addition) – an amount equivalent to nearly $8,000,000 in 2020 dollars.  The country schoolteacher was now a seasoned administrator, and Principal of the High School.  She had played a key role in getting the State to authorize four-year high school education in the village (she would later say that receiving that authorization in 1914 was the happiest day of her life).

Had the village – had Mabel Farley – changed overnight?

Before she had ever heard of Nicholai Street
All thirteen members of the Farley family sit for a portrait; Mabel (on the right) is about 17
Farley – Miller / Foose Family Tree on Ancestry.com

Of course not; the change took time, planning, and work.  Many factors were involved, and many people played important roles.  Most of those people, however, were male, they were accomplished in their careers, and they already enjoyed some well-founded prominence in Hicksville as business owners, bank directors, lawyers, or other professionals.  Farley, in contrast, had arrived in town as yet one more teacher found by an employment agency.  To accomplish anything, to become part of the machinery of change, she first had to prove her worth and build a reputation – and apparently, she did that quite readily, being made Assistant Principal by the start of her first full school year in Hicksville .

What was this dynamic young Miss Farley like?  To understand her, one must consider her in a variety of contexts.

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The Teachers Club

A century ago, it was common for a teacher to live as a boarder in a local home, either singly, or as one of several boarders.  Multiple teachers might board in the same dwelling.  As she became more established in the community, Mabel came to like the latter situation.  She must have appreciated the synergy of living among like minds, for by the late 1920s she was part of a fixed group of teachers who shared accommodations year after year.  Based on an interview with her, a newspaper reported that this group called itself the Teachers Club; it eventually had formalized itself as a co-op, and it conducted itself according to a formal set of written rules.

Teachers Club members as listed on the 1940 U.S. Census, viewed via Ancestry.com

Readers may recognize some of these names.  Nina Plantz was the Principal of East Street School ;
Helen Underhill taught both Foreign Languages and Mathematics; Ruby Burt became Chair of
Foreign Languages; Mildred Clark taught Home Economics and became Chair of Homemaking.

The group’s interests included lectures, travel (both within the U.S. and abroad), and theatre.  Early in 1941, for example, Nina Plantz and Mabel Farley addressed the Women’s Club of Hicksville, showing slides of their recent trip to Bolivia .


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Recognition, Time and Again

As noted last month, during her early years in Hicksville , Miss Farley completed her Bachelors studies, and then earned a Masters, both at NYU.  She did not simply get her degrees and leave her alma mater behind; rather, she played an active role as an alumna, and in 1933 she achieved special recognition for her work on behalf of the University.

Huntington Long-Islander, June 2, 1933

Note that the timing of the award corresponds to lowest point of the Great Depression of the 1930s, a moment in history at which the Student Loan Fund which Farley helped create would have assumed special importance for many people.

As one reads the things mentioned above, one sees new manifestations of the qualities which had made Farley successful in Hicksville’s small, once-tumultuous school district – an exceptional willingness to volunteer her time; a generosity of spirit, which led her to maintain friendships and professional relations not just for her own benefit, but for the benefit of others; a keen mind that always found new ways to use her abilities, even in milieus in which opportunities for women might still be limited.

Principal Farley was not one to undertake any task lightly.  The only way she knew to do things was to excel at them, and the only way she knew how to lead others was to inspire them to do their best.

In 1942, the Federal government needed more capital with which to fight World War II, and it created the Minute Man program, in which organizations competed by having their staff / attendees and their families commit to ongoing purchases of War Bonds.  The competition was not about having the most sales or the most money; it was about the level of participation each organization achieved, with a figure of 90% considered exceptional.  As one would expect, Miss Farley’s Hicksville High did the town proud; it was the first high school in Nassau County to reach the exalted 90% level.

Nassau Daily Review-Star, January 16, 1943

Around this time, a newspaper published a profile of Mabel Farley, and in it, the subject did her best to deflect praise from herself, and to share the spotlight with the achievements of her past students.

She of course took time to mention those who had won academic honors, and those who had careers in, or were studying, medicine, engineering, and law (incidentally, at least one of the latter was by then a judge).  At least eleven Hicksville graduates who had gone on to become teachers were at that time working in Hicksville ’s schools.  But she also mentioned athletes who had graduated from her school – one had gone on to become a national women’s fencing champion; another was then captain of the football team at American University.  She praised others of her students generically – for example, those who had been placed in jobs by her “employment bureau,” which operated out of the Principal’s office.  Miss Farley took the time to match graduating students with employers.  She made sure that her pupils were diligent about following through on opportunities, and she was proud of all those who succeeded in their workplaces, thus making a number of local employers willing to hire more Hicksville graduates.


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The Mercy of Mabel Farley

In the summer of 2008, a number of letters were written to Hixnews.com in support of granting Mabel Farley entry to the Hixnews Hall of Fame.  I looked back at them before writing this article.  As my elder sister Marilyn had been a student under Miss Farley, I was not surprised to see people write about their Principal’s famous blend of stern demeanor and understanding heart.  Apparently, she did not confuse forgiveness with giving people free rides.  And yet, when it mattered, she could be unexpectedly flexible.

Students who ran into problems, even problems of their own making, knew that they could come to Mabel Farley for advice.  In nominating Miss Farley, one graduate talked about Miss Farley’s having first got to know him because he had had some difficulties that required her intervention.  Despite first meeting under awkward circumstances, near the end of his senior year she unexpectedly booked a job interview for him, at a company she felt would be a good match.  He got the job, and he went on to work for that employer until he retired, more than forty years later.

Another student wrote that he had tried to tailor his classes at Hicksville so that he would qualify for a specific engineering program.  Along the way, he hit an obstacle, and was in danger of having to delay starting college for a year – he lacked a pre-requisite for two courses he needed.  After considering his situation carefully, Miss Farley and the faculty member who would teach those two courses agreed to waive the pre-requisite.  With their extra help, he was able to get into the program on time; he went on to become an engineer and enjoy a good career.


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Good Citizen Farley

It is obvious that serving others was extremely important to Mabel Farley; she constantly found ways to help people.  Although earning her degrees at NYU had served her own purposes well, she also used her experience there as an opportunity to help other alumni, and to assist needy students.  Perhaps it was inevitable that she would extend her obligation to oversee the education of Hicksville ’s new young adults into career guidance and job placement.  The Teachers Club, born out of the need to live affordably, evolved into a way of sharing knowledge with, and mentoring, her peers.

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Reading about the many “extra” things she did to help people, one accomplishment in particular struck me, because everyone whom I knew in High School took it for granted: the National Honor Society.

Surely, that is just one more part of high school, right?  Well, it was not always.  When Hicksville High was new, and a graduate wished to enroll in a college, the Admissions people at the college might be skeptical.  They had never seen any Hicksville grads before; they knew nothing about the school; they might not trust that the student’s good grades accurately represented her/his performance.

To help address this skepticism, Farley began lobbying people associated with the National Honor Society whenever she attended an educators’ conference anywhere in the Northeast (which happened a lot).  She wanted her graduates to be given fair consideration for a slot in college, not dismissed out of hand.  It took years, but she finally succeeded; Hicksville was among the first Long Island high schools authorized to recognize its graduates as NHS members.

All this work was a gift to her students.  At that time, an NHS affiliation might make the critical difference in awarding a college seat to one applicant or another.

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In her seamless view of the world, being Principal was only part of her greater work, especially where the village was concerned.  She became part of the fabric of Hicksville .  One can only imagine the pride and concern she must have felt in the 1940s, when her former students went off to fight.

Fred Fluckiger (Class of 1938, and now deceased) wrote a moving letter about having to retrieve the body of a fallen comrade during combat, which appeared in the September 2009 edition of Hixnews.  This is a slightly edited excerpt from that letter:

 

I waited until nightfall, organized a four-man patrol, and under cover of darkness led the patrol to a point near the victim's foxhole.

We were very close to the enemy, so we could hear their voices; I dared not risk forward movement of the patrol. Motioning to the others in the patrol to stop and lay down, I crawled on my belly, hands and knees, to the foxhole.  From the prone position I reached down to pull up the body. As I did so, the stern teaching voice of Ms. Farley rang out in my brain: "Good job".

It is doubtful that she had expected the lessons she instilled in her students to be with them in combat – but she could do something, even if it was only a small thing, to honor her students who were going to war.  Hence, at Mitchel Field, and at the Hicksville Canteen (the location of which is not known to me), ex-students in uniform were served sandwiches and cake by their devoted former Principal.  I find that quite a touching image.

Nassau Daily Review-Star, April 12, 1944


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End of this Installment


Note that the picture of Miss Farley used at the beginning of this article was taken from the 1956 Comet Yearbook.  The other items shown refer to some of her personal travels: a postcard of the luxurious RMS Berengaria, on which she sailed to Europe in 1930, and a 1939 Bolivian airline schedule, representing the trip that she and fellow Hicksville Principal Nina Plantz made to Bolivia around that time.  Clearly, Miss Farley’s love of learning was matched by a fondness for adventure.