Our First Lady

Image: First Lady

President James A. Garfield’s connection to Hiram College is clearly deep, as evidenced by the statue honoring him near Koritansky Hall, the building once a parish under his guidance and now home to Hiram’s political science department, the College’s esteemed Garfield Society, the Garfield Center for Public Leadership, and other significant landmarks on campus. But most are unaware of the connection that his wife, First Lady Lucretia Rudolph, had with the early history and founding of what was then known as the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute.

Arabella Mason moved to Hiram, Ohio with her family when she was just six years old. At the age of 20, she married Zeb Rudolph, a local gentleman, and they lived on a farm just north of Garrettsville. Together, the couple had four children: Lucretia, John, Joseph, and Ellen. For all their children, ensuring a proper education was a priority. “It was very important to them that their children received an education, and they were willing to generate opportunities to help make that happen,” said Debbie Weinkamer, a first-person historian who portrays Lucretia Garfield at both the James A. Garfield National Historical Site and the James A. Garfield Cabin.

Lucretia acquired a love for learning, and attended high school at Geauga Seminary, where she first met President Garfield. Following her time there, Zeb, alongside his church, the Disciples of Christ, were prompted to establish an academic institution. The goal was to further provide education, not just for their families, but for others in the surrounding area. “The school was away from city influences and distractions,” said Weinkamer. “The church wanted to create a place where students could take their ideas and cultivate them, much of what we still see today at Hiram.” And so, in 1850, the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute was founded.

After 20 years of living in Garrettsville, the Rudolph family moved to Hiram, at the insistence of Arabella, so that the four children could be well educated. They even opened their home as a place for teachers and students to board and study. “Zeb and Arabella’s home was where Hiram’s dining hall is today. They were known as Mr. and Mrs. Hiram,” said Weinkamer. “Although they were very serious people and not very public with their affections, they opened their home to Hiram, and they were really such a significant part of the community.”

As a student at the Eclectic Institute, Lucretia had a classical education, where she was introduced to debate, sciences, and various languages. It was important to her that she was immersed in her coursework and widened her expertise in various studies. According to a biography written by the National First Ladies Library, “Lucretia helped organize a literary society that staged elocution, debate, and oratorical presentation.” Lucretia would also often take the stage to defend the rights of women, though it was deemed improper by men for women to present themselves publicly. “At the Eclectic Institute, Lucretia felt as though women students could give speeches in public, and she was the only woman to deliver a speech at her commencement in June of 1854,” said Weinkamer. Later, she worked as an editor and illustrator for the school magazine, The Eclectic Star. “Women like Lucretia cherished their education and paved the way for women today. She was a remarkable person,” said Weinkamer.

It was at the Eclectic Institute that she also crossed paths for a second time with President Garfield, and in 1858, the couple married at the Rudolph’s home. Together, they had seven children, two of which died in early childhood.

President Garfield’s election as President of the United States in 1881 brought a cheerful family to the White House. Although Lucretia was not particularly interested in social duties, she was genuinely hospitable when hosting events. After her husband’s death just six months after taking office, Lucretia continued President Garfield’s legacy. She created various memorials, protected his correspondences from those requesting their use, and furthered her interest in writing and architecture. “Lucretia never shirked her duties and rose up to her responsibilities,” said Weinkamer. “She was community-minded, tenacious, and so curious about many things. After her husband died, she fell back on what she always loved, and that was learning.”

Lucretia raised her children to become productive, well-rounded adults who contributed to their communities and the nation. “She continued to live a quiet life and was not very visible, publicly, but went about her widowhood assisting her children, family members, and institutions and causes she believed in.”

The devotion to her education was a fundamental right and gift that Lucretia sought to embolden throughout her life, a spirit that is seen in Hiram students to this day.