It’s no accident that Helen Martha Ekin was brilliant. In a way, it was almost as though her genetic code was specifically designed to be such, long before she was even a twinkle in her parents’ eyes.
Helen’s mother, Esther Fell Lee, had a long and well-documented pedigree among the well established and well educated Quaker and Society of Friends families in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. For generations, the Society of Friends held progressive views towards education—especially for girls. Though the sexes were often separated, this was not always the case. The girls were expected to “make progress in their studies fully equal to the boys,” and, quite often, outpaced them.
The Reverend John Ekin, D.D., her father, was a prominent minister and scholar, and felt strongly about educating his daughters. According to his obituary in the Daily Kansas Tribune, he “possessed more than ordinary ability, and was unusually respected and esteemed.”
Helen Martha Ekin was born on September 19, 1840, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the oldest of five daughters and one son. Helen Martha, Rebecca Adeline (“Dellie”), Rachel Frances (“Frances”), Mary Eliza, Anne Warden, And William Lee. From all accounts, it appears as though Dr Ekin was especially close to all of his bright and witty daughters.
Helen’s intelligence was apparent early on. She entered Pittsburgh’s Central High School in 1853 at the age of 13. During this time, it doesn’t appear that there was an actual “graduation ceremony” or diploma, but, on Thursday, July 15, 1856, an exhibition was held to demonstrate the students’ skills and accomplishments. An anonymous “philanthropist gentleman” donated $100 to be used for cash prizes for essays, miscellaneous awards, and other prizes at the exhibition.
The first place prize—and largest cash award at the exhibition was awarded to Miss Helen Ekin for her outstanding poem, titled “Evening,” (and signed under the pen name “Heloise”) which was noted to be a “fine specimen of versification for a novice,” contained some “beautiful thoughts,” and was “an admirable piece of composition.” The prize was $10. Helen also was awarded one of three “Class B” prizes—copies of Prescott’s Histories of Peru and Mexico (valued at $8). Adjusted for inflation, the combined value of her winnings that day in 1856 total $499.50*.
Later that year, Helen was teaching her own class in the Pittsburgh Public School System, and by the time she was 17, she had a job teaching music and mathematics at the prestigious Edgeworth Ladies’ Seminary in Pittsburgh, the first institution of higher learning for girls in western Pennsylvania.
The Ekin girls had taken various teaching positions around the country, and Rev Ekin had traveled from Pennsylvania to Ohio, and eventually southward to Louisiana for his health.
In 1858 Helen was offered a job teaching at the Scott Female Institute in Georgetown, Kentucky, and had performed so well that she was quickly promoted to principal. Unfortunately, her tenure would be short. When shots were fired at Ft Sumter, the Ekin family banded together and headed north to Xenia, Ohio, where together, they would start their next chapter.
*Inflation adjusted from 1856 to 2014. Helen’s poem was printed in the Pittsburgh Gazette on July 15, 1856, page 4. Unfortunately, the scan I found online was pretty hard to read, and any attempt I made at including it was unsuccessful!
© Julie Dirkes Phelps
Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, and Storyteller.
© Copyright 2015.
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