Women's Honor Court Honorees
Lucy Bakewell Audubon
Born in England, Lucy spent her youth in Eastern Pennsylvania. In 1808, Lucy Bakewell married John James Audubon in Kentucky, and though their finances were tenuous, the Audubons started a family. They had two sons: Victor Gifford (1809–1860) and John Woodhouse Audubon (1812–1862); and two daughters who died while young: Lucy at two years (1815–1817) and Rose at nine months (1819–1820).
Her marriage to Audubon resulted in financial and personal sacrifice as she supported her husband's talents. The loss of the two young daughters further tested her as she coped with an often stormy relationship with her brilliant husband, while providing support, making great sacrifices and enduring public ridicule for doing so.
Lucy Audubon is described as intelligent, strong-willed, hardworking, and adaptable to her brilliant and unreliable husband who often moved his family along the western boundaries of the country in his constant search for inspiration for his work. She was often the breadwinner and head of the family, as she remained John's confidant, and "love of his life" as described by biographers. Describing her marriage, she said she was "perfectly suited to him."
By the time the couple formulated a dream of publishing John James's drawings of birds, Lucy was the family wage earner. As a necessity, she started teaching, first in exchange for board in a friend's home, then on her own, moving into a salaried position on a plantation, where she taught the daughters along with starting a successful school for neighboring plantation girls. Records show that Lucy Audubon not only shone in teaching the three R's, but also in music, sewing, social conduct, swimming, and horsemanship.
Later on, Lucy established a second school, which was even more lucrative than the first. Here, she was given not only a nice home but earned respect and social standing on her own - a remarkable feat in an era when women were barely allowed to earn wages. Meanwhile, her husband was free to pursue his art and research on wildlife.
Lucy was crucial in the creation and publication of his great book and kept her family together during long separations, one lasting four years, as John set out to find a publisher for his book. Passionate letters between the two reflect the trials the couple endured, making their marriage a true love story.
Historians believe that without her emotional and financial support, his magnum opus "Birds of America" might never have been completed and published. Lucy Audubon was the perfect partner for Audubon as she endured disappointment after disappointment during their marriage, yet remained devoted to him, her family, and his life work.
According to an article in the Cincinnati Times-Star, dated Monday, June 10, 1935, Lucy Audubon died at the home of her sister-in-law Mrs. W.G. Bakewell in Shelbyville, KY, on June 13, 1874. Her ashes were interred beneath the monument of her husband in Audubon Park in New York City.
Mary Towles Sasseen Wilson
Mary Towles Sasseen was born March 15, 1860, and reared in Henderson, Kentucky.
Known primarily as the founder of Mother's Day, she was, by profession, a teacher in the Henderson County schools. She is described as being tall with auburn hair, quick-witted and happy-go-lucky. She was noted for her bright face and her smile. Her advice, which she apparently heeded, was: "Say what you'd like to say, just so you say it with a smile."
She began teaching at Henderson's Center Street School in September 1885 and was principal of the primary department there. Around that time, she began earnestly working toward founding a day to celebrate mothers, and hoped to have it celebrated in the public schools on her mother's birthday, April 20. She wrote poems and stories that school for children recited on that day, when the mothers of the children could attend the celebration She actively promoted the idea that there be a national observance of such a day.
In 1893, she published a pamphlet "Mother's Day Celebration," and according to an article published by the Historical Society of Henderson and written by its President Netta Mullin, Mary Towles Sasseen wrote this as her definition of Mother's Day:
"Having by experience learned how much one can teach a child regarding the lives and works of the poets, by our system of Author's Day, it suggested itself to me that by celebrating Mother's Day once a year, much of the veneration, love and respect due to parents might, by song, verse, and story, be inculcated in the next generation. By a Mother's Day, I mean a day on which parents shall be invited to the school and a programme presented, the recitations being on the subject of mother, the songs referring to home."
She went on to define home "as the magic circle within which the weary spirit finds refuge; the sacred asylum to which the care-worn heart retreats to find rest. Home! That name touches every fiber of the soul. Nothing but death can break its spell, and dearer than home is the mother who presides over it." She added:
"We find that every man and woman, whom the world has called great, whose words have been treasured for their wisdom and goodness, all cherished their memories of mother, of happy, innocent childhood and of home."
After traveling extensively and addressing numerous meetings around the country, she finally saw Mother's Day celebrated in a public school in Springfield, Ohio.
In May 1899, the Gleaner carried a campaign ad for her candidacy for Superintendent of Public Instruction, where it was written that she was the "author and originator of Mother's Day . . ." and that within the past five years (which would have been since 1894) "she has, unaided, secured the adoption of the day in a large number of states, and cities like Boston, Brooklyn, and Little Rock have had [thousands] of pupils lined up and singing songs of home and reciting poems in honor of mother."
After teaching for many years in the Center Street School, she gave up teaching soon after 1900, but continued her quest for Mother's Day and continued to travel and make speeches promoting the idea.
She married Judge William Marshall Wilson of Pensacola, FL, on September 28, 1904, and on April 16, 1906, Mary Towles Sasseen Wilson died in childbirth, without seeing the national establishment of Mother's Day as a holiday.
It became a national holiday in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother's Day a legal holiday, and the Kentucky Legislature has passed a resolution recognizing her as the originator of the idea of a yearly celebration of Mother's Day.
A notice of her death in Freeport, Florida, was published Tuesday, April 24, 1906, in the Henderson Gleaner. The articled mentioned that she "will be long remembered for her institution of 'Mothers' Day' in the schools," eight years before it became a legal holiday. Her funeral was at the Presbyterian Church in Henderson on April 25, and on the 26th the newspaper carried a write-up about the funeral and burial at Fernwood Cemetery.
She was a member of the General Samuel Hopkins Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, tracing her ancestry to General Samuel Hopkins and Lt. Col. Henry Dixon, and she was a first cousin to Mary Willie Arvin. Her mother was Mary Towles and is listed in the 1850 Census of Henderson County as the daughter of Thomas Towles Sr., and Judith Towles. Her sister Elizabeth "Betty" (mother of Mary Willie Arvin) is also shown as a child of this family.
MARY WILLIE ARVIN
Mary Willie Arvin was born in Henderson County, Kentucky, on April 21, 1879. In 1904, she graduated from the School of Nursing at Owensboro City Hospital in Owensboro, KY. In the 1910 United States Census, she was shown as general practice nurse in Memphis, Tennessee.
In June 1917, while she was visiting in Richmond, VA, she decided to join an American Hospital Unit. The American Red Cross had organized six base hospitals for service with the U.S. Army. Base Unit No. 5 was organized at Harvard University, and Mary Willie Arvin received Nursing Badge #10433 and soon thereafter was deployed, sailing from New York City to join Harvard Unit No. 5 at Dannes-Camiers, France.
The New York Times reported that this unit had 1,000 beds and that trench fever ran a close second to war wounds in the numbers of patients; later the Times reported 1,800 beds.
On September 4, 1917, Base Hospital No. 5 was bombed by German planes. This was Mary Willie Arvin's first experience working under fire. It was reported that casualties at Base Hospital No. 5 were the first battlefield casualties of World War I.
On June 30, 1918, the hospital was again bombed at Boulogne-sur-Mer, and it was for her actions in this air raid that Nurse Mary W. Arvin received official recognition by the three major allied nations for her actions during and after the raid.
As a souvenir from one of the raids, she saved a piece of shrapnel.
Nurse Mary W. Arvin was recognized by Britain, France, and the United States for her bravery, and The Kentucky Commission on Women has noted: "Nurse Arvin remained at her post, stead-fast, taking command, and treating wounded soldiers."
When told that she was to be decorated, she reportedly said she "didn't deserve the credit" and that she "stuck with the patients, kept them under control, and tried to keep cool and keep my head." In acknowledging her bravery, Commander-in-Chief John J. Pershing and Brigadier General Richard Coulter praised her highly for her service and devotion.
In July 1918, the Nurse Corps became the Army Nurse Corps, and in January 1919 Base Hospital No. 5 was relieved of duty. In March, Mary Willie Arvin returned to the United States on the SS Noordam.
Her military awards included:
The British Royal Red Cross*
The French Croix de Guerre
An Official Citation** from
WW I General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing
*The British Royal Red Cross was presented to her on November 13, 1919. Her invitation from the military attaché of the British Embassy in Washington, DC, asked her to appear at the investiture to be held by Britain's Prince Edward, Prince of Wales, in the Washington, DC, home of Perry Belmont, politician and diplomat.
**The Official Citation from Gen. Pershing allowed her to receive the Purple Heart, which could be given at that time for bravery. It is not known that she was ever wounded.
After returning to Henderson, she was in demand as a speaker in the area, and was honored at a tea given by the General Samuel Hopkins Chapter NSDAR on April 29, 1919. She was a member of the DAR as a descendant of both Gen. Samuel Hopkins and Lt. Col. Henry Dixon. The 1850 census of Henderson County shows that her mother and the mother of Mary Towles Sasseen were sisters, being daughters of Thomas Towles and Judith Dixon Towles, making these two remarkable women first cousins.
She later went to Florida, where she married real estate businessman William Tiller of Orlando. In less than a year he died, and she later married Robert Henry Sessons, who was the office manager of an auto dealership. Both men were also WWI veterans.
Mary Willie Arvin Tiller Sessons died September 9, 1947, at her sister's home at 402 Chestnut Street in Henderson. Her funeral at the Presbyterian Church in Henderson was followed by burial with full military rites in Fernwood Cemetery.
Extensive, detailed information about Mary Willie Arvin was written by John M. Trowbridge in his 2010 book "Nurse Mary W. Arvin: An Angel of Mercy Under Fire," which contains several articles from local and national newspapers and details about the war and lists the battles of WWI that took place while Base Hospital No. 5 was deployed in Europe.
At a dedication on a rainy morning in January 2011, a marker was placed at her grave by the Kentucky National Women's Annual Veterans Experience which reads:
Nurse Mary W. Arvin
Kentucky's most decorated WWI female veteran
THELMA BANKS JOHNSON
Thelma Banks was born in 1909 into a family who worked in the cotton fields. She was one of six children. Her parents kept her in school through eighth grade but then told her that she would have to help the family by working in the cotton fields.
After being told "you're through" with school, she took the train from her Florida home to Savannah, GA, where she enrolled in high school at the Industrial College there, leaving behind her family and the life she knew. She received her diploma there, where she had worked cleaning, cooking and doing laundry to pay her tuition and board.
And she wasn't "through" yet. She earned a degree in home economics at Ohio State University and went on to study at the University of Kentucky, Cornell, and other colleges and universities. She loved learning and said that if it had been financially possible, she would have gotten her Ph.D.
She came to Henderson more than 60 years ago, where she was a home economist, receiving a Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Extension Home Economists. She went on to become the first African-American elected to public office here, when she served 8 years on the Henderson County Board of Education and as its chairman for 6 of the 8 years.
After retiring, she stayed active by volunteering at Redbanks Nursing Home. She also served on the Human Rights Commission and worked with Head Start education program.
The Henderson Chamber of Commerce gave her their "Distinguished Citizen of the Year" award, and the General Samuel Hopkins Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution presented her with their Community Service Award. In 2012, when Henderson built the Early Learning Center, it was fittingly named in her honor.
When Gleaner writer Judy Jenkins interviewed her shortly before her 103rd birthday, she was looking forward to her birthday cake with ice cream and friends coming by to visit.
Although Thelma Banks Johnson and her husband, Starling, had no children, her life is a positive force for many children of Henderson and will continue to be for decades through the Thelma Banks Johnson Early Learning Center, so appropriately named in her honor.
In the October 28, 2012, issue of the Henderson Gleaner, a simple obituary read:
Thelma B. Johnson, 103, Henderson, died at 7:21 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26, 2012, at St. Anthony's Hospice Lucy Smith King Care Center.
A simple write-up about a woman whose 103 years were filled with obstacles that she overcame, challenges that she faced, and honors that she deserved.