Famous Michigander Friday: Elmina R. Lucke

I’d like to create a weekly feature where I highlight an important person from Michigan’s history every Friday. I’m calling it Famous Michigander Friday because I like obvious titles almost as much as I like alliteration (too bad this blog isn’t about Florida!). 

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to attend the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame 2012 induction ceremony in Lansing. The Hall of Fame inducts 8-10 women from Michigan each year into the Hall of Fame. Some inductees are contemporary women while others are historical figures. The ceremony was lovely and I greatly enjoyed hearing the contemporary inductees speak about their work.  I had the chance to attend because I spent a month this fall volunteering on a project digitizing the large media collection of the Historical Center & Hall of Fame. This project was absolutely fascinating, as it combined some of my greatest interests – history, Michigan, and women. It also gave me the opportunity to learn about some pretty awesome Michigan ladies. For my first Famous Michigander Friday, I’d like to talk about one of these amazing women – Elmina R. Lucke, inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1986.

I learned about Elmina by listening to some of the oral histories done by the Historical Center & Hall of Fame. The other volunteers and I needed to listen to each one and write a summary, and so to start I randomly grabbed a CD out of a box, which turned out to be Elmina’s. Soon after I started listening, however, I realized that this oral history was anything but random for me. Instead, it became one of those rare moments when history becomes personal – when you can connect something about the past to your own life. As Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen notes in their book, The Presence of the Past, people enjoy history the most when they can make they can make connections. Even as a trained historian, who enjoys all kinds of history, my ears still perk up when I hear something I can relate to.

So why did Elmina’s story become personal? Because she was born and raised in Carleton, Michigan, the same town I grew up in. Carleton isn’t a big town – in fact it’s not even a town, it’s a village. In 2000, its population was only 2,562, and in 1889, when Elmina was born, it would have been much smaller (it wasn’t even incorporated until 1911). It is quite unlikely to hear about someone else from my town when studying history. Thus, as soon as she said she was from Carleton, her story got much more personal, and I admit, interesting, to me.

Even though that was what got me hooked on her story, Elmina didn’t stay in Carleton for long. She attended grade school in a local one room schoolhouse, and as there was no high school in the area at the time, she moved in with an aunt in Toledo, Ohio, to continue her education. After that, she attended Oberlin College.  She graduated from Oberlin in 1912 and became the first person from Carleton to obtain a degree.  She then moved home for a year to “get to know her family” as she put it – due to going away for high school and college, she hadn’t lived with them for 8 years! She was not able to stay idle for that year, however. When the supervisor of education for the county found out there was a person with a college degree living in Carleton, he insisted that she put the degree to use and help him found a high school in the village. He taught science and math while she taught everything else. I find this part of the story interesting as there is an old school building (now dance studio) in Carleton that is always called “the old high school.” However, it was built in the 1930s – twenty years after Elmina started the first high school!

Elmina only taught in Carleton for the one year, after which she went abroad to Europe for a year with a group from Oberlin to study music. For anyone keeping track of the chronology, you’ll realize that we’ve now reached 1914 – a less than ideal time to be in Europe.  After WWI broke out, Elmina returned home but was unsure about what to do with her life. She taught for a few more years, thought about joining the Red Cross, but eventually settled into what would become her true calling – social work. She began that career directing social services for the U.S. Children’s Bureau in Gary, Indiana, before founding and directing the Detroit International Institute in 1919. The DII assisted immigrants assimilate into American life by teaching English and connecting immigrants to social services. The institute employed many translators due to the varied languages spoken by the immigrants coming into Detroit. In her interview, Elmina notes that she could access 27 languages with just a phone call!

After a few years working with immigrants in Detroit, Elmina realized that she wanted to do more to help people, but to do so she needed to further her education. In 1922, she enrolled in the International Law and Relations program at Columbia, becoming one of the first women in that program and eventually earning an M.A. She stayed at Columbia for 20 years afterwards, teaching at the Lincoln School of Columbia’s Teacher’s College.  In 1946, her work became more global in scope. She traveled to India to found and direct the Delhi School of Social Work. While in India she befriended Mahatma Gandhi, who became a great admirer of her work.  After her time in India, Elmina continued advising on social work education around the world, traveling to Egypt and Pakistan.

Elmina was given many awards, including an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College. She published a book, Unforgettable Memories, A Collection of Letters in India, in 1985, and passed away in 1987. Although she is not the most famous person from Michigan, her story is fascinating. It shows the broad reach of Michigan’s citizens, as a woman born in a small village went on to impact the lives of people around the world, and befriend one of the most famous people of the past century.  The fact that that small village is the same one I grew up in makes the story extra personal for me, but I think anybody can find Elmina’s life inspiring. She certainly deserves her induction into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame as she touched many lives through her work as a teacher and as a social worker.

Elmina with Social Work students, n.d.
Image from the Elmina R. Lucke Papers at Smith College

For more information, check out the Hall of Fame portion of the The Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame website. The site has biographies of the over 250 women inducted since 1983. It is definitely worth a look for anyone interested in Michigan history. The Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, also contains the Elmina R. Lucke Papers, an archival collection of her papers from the post-WWII period.


One thought on “Famous Michigander Friday: Elmina R. Lucke

  1. Pingback: Famous Michigander Friday: Harriet Quimby | Mitten History

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