Louisa Shotwell’s Wild Ride

“The Opportunity Class. That’s where the bean-pickers got put. Roosevelt Grady wondered what it meant. Roosevelt knew about schools. Third grade, fourth grade, things like that. He knew about schools from experience: three weeks here, six weeks there, a day or two somewhere else. But Opportunity Class. This was something new.”

These are the opening lines of Roosevelt Grady, published in 1963, a novel for young adults, the work of author Louisa R. Shotwell, easily the finest writer to live in Skaneateles.

Louisa Rossiter Shotwell was born in Chicago in 1902, but her family moved here, to her father’s boyhood home, when she was nine. After graduating from Skaneateles High School, she went off to study at Wellesley (Class of 1924) and then returned to Skaneateles to teach English. In 1928, she earned an M.A. from Stanford. In the 1940s, she served as Dean of Women at two schools: Hanover College in Indiana and Wilson College in Pennsylvania. But travel would always be a big part of her life. While researching books on minorities, migrant workers and families in other lands, she went to Japan, Indonesia, India and Thailand.

Some of her best known books, Roosevelt Grady, Adam Bookout and Magdalena, are still being read today. Roosevelt Grady, the recipient of at least three book awards, has been translated into German and Danish.

Louisa is also remembered here in connection with Shotwell Park, the site of our village’s war memorials. The funds used by the village to buy the land and beautify the park were bequeathed by Florence Thorne Shotwell, wife of William J. Shotwell, Louisa’s uncle. In her will, Florence requested that the park be dedicated to her late husband. Later, Louisa gave the village a maintenance fund for the park.

Louisa Shotwell wrote this about Skaneateles:

“This became my symbol of ‘a satisfactory stay-put place,’ as Matthew Grady would say. I grew up there and taught English in the high school after my graduation from Wellesley. Through the years, as I’ve taught and traveled and studied and done a variety of things in a variety of places, I’ve always managed to get back there at least once a year. Now I spend my summers there in a cottage on Skaneateles Lake, elastic summers that begin in early May and end only when late October brings killing frosts.”

About her writing, Louisa noted:

“Most things I do rather fast, but I am a slow writer, especially of fiction, which is what I like best to write. I am always working on a story and I think about it all the time, even when I’m busy at something else. After a while, and it takes a long time for this to happen, the characters begin to talk back to me, and when they wake me up in the morning, I know the time has come to get them down on paper and see what happens.”

But I promised you a wild ride.

Back then to Wellesley College, April of 1922, and a hidden chapter in the life of Louisa Shotwell as first reported in the New York Times on May 1st:

“Names of four students of Wellesley College who were suspended last week for violation of college rules became known today. The students, who were charged with taking part in forbidden auto rides with Harvard undergraduates are: Louisa R. Shotwell, of Skaneateles, N.Y., Ethel M. Rogers, of Newark, N.J., Bernice Anderson of Hamilton, Ont., and Mary McCarthy, of Marlboro, Mass. The girls have been sent to their homes, but will be permitted to re-enter college in the fall if they desire.”

Miss Shotwell was not going to let this rest. Her clarification appeared on May 2nd in the Poughkeepsie Eagle-News:

“Miss Louisa R. Shotwell, daughter of Trumbull Shotwell of Skaneateles, mentioned as one of the four girls suspended from Wellesley College for having remained away from her dormitory overnight, denied the report tonight. Miss Shotwell said they were automobiling riding with two young men, friends of one of the girls, and remained out a couple of hours over the time prescribed by college authorities. They aroused the janitor to let them in at 10:00 o’clock at night, they said.”

In the New York Times on May 3rd, Wellesley responded:

“Motoring at night and attending theatres without chaperones after registering the intention of spending the evening otherwise caused the recent suspension of four juniors at Wellesley College, the college authorities said today. A college official said the young women had not remained away from their dormitories over night at any time.”

Motoring, the theater, out until 10 p.m.: torrid stuff in 1922. But Louisa lived it down, graduated from Wellesley, and became a Dean of Women herself, a teacher and an author. She died in 1993. She was a gift to us all.

* * *

My thanks to Jean N. Berry, at the Wellesley College Archives in the Margaret Clapp Library for biographical information and the photo of Louisa Shotwell from her yearbook. Also, the Third Book of Junior Authors (1972), edited by Doris de Montreville and Donna Hill, for Miss Shotwell’s insights into Skaneateles and her writing.

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