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History of the School

Our School Founder
School founder, American Impressionist and educator Mary Colman Wheeler was born on the family farm in Concord, Massachusetts, on May 15, 1846. The Wheeler Family were friends and neighbors of the Alcotts, Thoreaus and Emersons and she is buried along with other Concord notables on Author's Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.
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Early Days On Campus
With its beginnings in Providence, The Wheeler School grew to encompass two campuses after Miss Wheeler acquired farm property in nearby Seekonk, MA.  At one time the School was advertised in Vogue Magazine as "Miss Wheeler's Town And Country School."
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Second Head: Mary Helena Dey
Mary Helena Dey was hired in 1914 to reorder the school’s curriculum. As a result, the school became a pioneer in the educational theories of John Dewey. Through Dey’s contacts, such notables as Carl Sandburg came to campus to meet with students or in Sandburg’s case, deliver the graduation address.
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Third Head: Mabel Van Norman
In 1940 Mabel Van Norman was appointed the third headmistress on the retirement of Miss Dey. Miss Van Norman continued the school after and through the years of the Great Depression and World War II and spent her free time visiting war-torn schools in the Netherlands and Belgium which Wheeler students helped to support with food and supplies. In 1950 she was succeeded by S. Rowland “Rowly” Morgan, Jr. upon her retirement.
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Fourth Head: S. Rowland Morgan Jr.
The first man to lead the school, and among the first men to lead any girls' school in the nation, S. Rowland Morgan became Headmaster in 1950. A student at Princeton and graduate of Williams College and the University of Pennsylvania, he was a former college athlete, scholar and wartime naval air navigator.
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Fifth Head: Hugh A. Madden
Hugh Madden assumed the Headmastership of the Mary C. Wheeler School on July 1, 1968, after serving as the Director of Admission at the Pembroke-Country Day School in Kansas City, Missouri. During his tenure, the Board of Trustees approved coeducation for the lower grades in 1973 and expanded to include the entire school in 1975. Also during his tenure, the name of the school officially changed to The Wheeler School. The boarding program was phased out in 1979, with the last boarder, interestingly enough, being a male student!
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Sixth Head: William C. Prescott Jr.
William C. Prescott, Jr. succeeded Hugh Madden in 1980, and instituted a number of new programs for which the School of today is celebrated.
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Today's Head: Dan B. Miller
Dan Miller, the seventh — and current — head of The Wheeler School, began his tenure upon Prescott's retirement in June, 2003 and has recently celebrated his tenth year as Head. Under his leadership, the School has seen a physical and financial transformation unmatched in school history and in a period of national economic stagnation.
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The Wheeler School Motto
The genesis of The Wheeler School Motto — The Spirit Giveth Life — as described by second Headmistress Mary Helena Dey, writing in a school publication:
". . . A recognition of what underlies the school, a purely spiritual event, was the choosing of the school motto, The Spirit Giveth Life. In the classes there was continual emphasis laid on the truth that the spirit in which we seek knowledge and share our findings gives life to our learning. All the school groups, in considering the basis of our life together, had discussed the fact that the mere literal observing of rules was not a sufficient motive for conduct, that the best guide is rather a constructive spirit, one of consideration for others and a desire for the welfare of the whole school. I had used on a Christmas card the words, The Spirit Giveth Life. The upper classes, the student council, and finally the whole school discussed it and asked the trustees to make the words the official school motto. This was immediately approved and since May, 1933, has become an inspiring watchword for all of us."


East Side Monthly article
Thank you East Side Monthly for this feature article on Wheeler's Quasquicentennial.
Our School History
The Wheeler School was founded in 1889, the inspiration and life-work of a visionary educator, artist, and activist named Mary C. Wheeler. Miss Wheeler, as she was always called, believed her girls deserved a challenging and rigorous curriculum more substantive than the “finishing school” approach typical of the age. An innovator, even rebel, Miss Wheeler brought her students overseas to paint — living next door and becoming acquainted with Claude Monet. Wheeler developed an urban campus in the heart of Providence to benefit from the proximity to Brown University, and purchased a “Farm Campus,” 15 minutes away, to serve as a “rural counterpoint” where her growing crop of day and boarding students could study botany, biology, and astronomy in a pastoral environment. From this beginning, grew the coeducational, Nursery-12 day school of today.
The Wheeler School Seal
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The official Wheeler School seal that is used today was created in 1945-46 by noted artist John Howard Benson, described at the time as the 'greatest calligrapher in the world."  (Benson also did the lettering on the tablet marking Wheeler Memorial Hall.) Writing in a school newsletter about the "new" seal, Headmistress Mabel Van Norman, who commissioned the artist, said: "Throughout the ages, in the art both of the East and the West, a flame has symbolized the spirit. In Oriental art it is seen in the haloes of Buddhas and in the aura within which the Hindu sungod Siva dances...In western art it is used frequently to symbolize the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The flame fittingly symbolizes the spirit because it has no substance, it has a shining quality, it penetrates darkness, it gives warmth and it is necessary for life. Plato refers to the flame as a symbol of light, of intelligibility, of clarity.  May our school motto and its symbol inspire us to even higher attainment of these qualities of the spirit which will bring an ever better life to our school and its members."
Wheeler's Public Art Initiative Begins With Founder
Wheeler Archives Coordinator
Laurie Flynn
Assoc. Dir. of Institutional Advancement; Communications Director; Archives Coordinator
(401) 421-8100
Year Appointed: 1989
Student Film: Founding of The Wheeler School
Archives Policy Statement