The life story of the pioneering educator.
Edith Lesley Wolfard, founder of Lesley University, was born January 27, 1872 in Panama, then known as New Grenada, and died May 16, 1953 in Boston, Massachusetts. She was the elder daughter of Alonzo and Rebecca (Cousens) Lesley.The Lesleys moved to Bangor, Maine about 1874; Alonzo Lesley had grown up in nearby Carmel, Maine and Rebecca Lesley was from Trenton, Maine. Alonzo Lesley worked as a shoemaker, while Rebecca Lesley took in boarders, at the family's rented homes at 7 Adams Street; No. 1 One Broadway; and 112 State St. Edith's sister Olive May Lesley was born in December, 1875 in Bangor.
Edith Lesley graduated from the public elementary schools of Bangor. She studied privately for two years with Bangor educator Helen L. Newman. In 1890 the Lesley family moved briefly to Boston, before settling permanently in Cambridge, Mass. Alonzo Lesley continued to work as a shoemaker. At some time in the 1890s, Edith Lesley received training in kindergarten education at the Anne L. Page Kindergarten School in Boston, following the precepts of Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel, widely credited as the inventor of the kindergarten.In 1897 she was hired as the assistant kindergarten teacher at the Riverside School, Cambridge. Her sister Olive joined her there the next year. Later both would move to the Houghton School, which replaced the Riverside (and which was replaced in turn by the present-day Martin Luther King, Jr. School).Between 1904 and 1908 Edith Lesley attended Radcliffe College as a special student, studying philosophy with Josiah Royce, Hugo Munsterberg, and George Herbert Palmer. She may have taken these classes to prepare to open her school.
In 1909 Edith Lesley founded The Lesley School, called in its early years The Lesley Normal School. The term "normal" is based on the French école normale supérieure, a school to educate teachers. The primary purpose of the school was to train young women in kindergarten education. The school enrolled nine students and charged $100 in tuition. Several of the classes were taught by Edith and Olive Lesley, with part-time instructors to teach specialty classes.By 1912 Edith Lesley resigned from her teaching job to devote her full attention to The Lesley School. The school added training for the early primary grades, and in 1917 opened a Household Arts department, which continued until the 1940s. Enrollment grew rapidly in the 1920s, peaking at well over 300 students.In 1912 Edith Lesley married Merl Ruskin Wolfard, an engineer and graduate of the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard. Merl Wolfard was a silent partner in the business of the school, buying several of the properties that became dormitories. Olive Lesley left the school in about 1915. She had worked for several summers with Wilfred Grenfell in his mission at Labrador. She volunteered for war relief work in France and after the war remained in Europe for the balance of her life.Edith Lesley Wolfard purchased the 29 Everett Street house her family had long rented in 1915, turning it into the headquarters of The Lesley School. A few years later the Wolfards added a one-story brick addition to 29 Everett St. for classes and student boarding (later added to and now known as Stebbins Hall). In 1928-29 the school was rebuilt with a garden and quadrangle between Everett and Mellen Streets, giving the residential campus the form it still has today.Edith Lesley Wolfard hired Getrude Malloch, a Boston kindergarten teacher, in 1914 as an instructor in methods courses. Miss Malloch rapidly moved into administration as well as continuing to teach, and frequently accompanied Mrs. Wolfard in her travels and professional work on behalf of kindergarten education.
The Lesley School gained a reputation for solid teacher preparation focused on extensive experience. Graduates readily found employment across the state as well as in other regions of the country. The school's leaders and faculty kept up with changes in teacher education, adding a three-year course, more liberal arts, and refining pedagogic methods. Edith Lesley Wolfard continued to set the general direction of the school; Gertrude Malloch, as Associate Principal and later Principal, was the de facto head of school.
Enrollments declined in the mid-1930s as a result of the Great Depression, while Edith Lesley Wolfard began to struggle with chronic illness. In 1938 she received an honorary master's degree from Suffolk University, which marked the end of the Lesley School as a proprietary institution.
The Wolfards created a trust and attempted to run the Lesley School on this basis from 1938 until 1940. The school incorporated in 1941 as a non-profit institution, and petitioned to be able offer the bachelor's degree. This petition was granted in 1943. In 1944 The Lesley School officially became Lesley College.
Edith Lesley Wolfard remained a trustee until 1947. The Wolfards continued to live at 29 Everett Street until Edith Lesley Wolfard's death in 1953. Merl Wolfard remained a corporator at the college until his death in 1964. They had no children.
President Moore's Centennial Address
Centennial Alumni Stories
Share Your Story
Edith Lesley Biography
Lesley's First Century
Centennial Image Gallery
Meet the Advancement Staff
Every past and present student, faculty member, and administrator has played a role in shaping Lesley's storied history. Share your Lesley experience and see it posted on our site!
Lesley University gives heartfelt thanks to the Centennial Committees for making the celebration of our first 100 years a spectacular success.
Give Online Today
Sign up for our Alumni Newsletter!
Read previous stories