Fifty academic years ago, Miss Janet Spingola blazed a trail for women educators at the Dominican Catholic high school in Oak Park, Illinois, where no ladies’ restroom yet existed in 1971!
By Jan Spingola Dovidio
Even though 50 years have passed, I am still very proud to tell the story of serving as the first female teacher in Fenwick’s history.
Fenwick High School was very familiar to me, as my father, two of his brothers and many cousins were graduates. Since then subsequent generations of cousins – male and female – have also earned the title of Fenwick alumni.
I attended Immaculate Conception High School (now ICCP) in Elmhurst, followed by four years at Northern Illinois University. My path to Fenwick began in the spring of 1971. I was in my senior year at NIU. I was ready to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in French with a minor in Spanish, and a teaching credential. I had always dreamed of serving as a high school teacher.
Fenwick notified NIU’s language department that it was seeking a French/Spanish teacher. I wasted no time in submitting my application.
About a week later I received a call from Fenwick Principal Father Gerald McGreevy that he would like to set up an interview. I was delighted when Father McGreevy offered the position to me – and my father beamed with pride.
I do recall (boldly) asking why Fenwick was hiring a woman after its decades of all-male student body and faculty. He replied that the board and administration knew that in the not-too-distant future the school would most likely have to welcome female students, in order to maintain a full student population. The administrators felt it was wise to begin with the faculty.
If you check the 1971-72 yearbook, you will see that another woman was hired as an art teacher, but she decided to leave the position after a few months. It remained to me to forge this new path for females at Fenwick.
I reported to the school several days before the first day of class for the usual teacher in-service days. The room went silent as I entered. Several friars asked how they could help me. I am not sure the good fathers believed my reply or truly accepted that I belonged there.
We need a ladies’ room!
During a break half way into the morning session, I asked Father McGreevy to direct me to the ladies room. His face turned pale and his expression was priceless.
“I failed to realize that we needed to have a ladies room!”
Even though the school had an all-male faculty and student body, there were two female secretaries working in the office. Over the years, they went over to the adjoining rectory to use its restroom. That arrangement just wouldn’t work now.
The administration quickly prepared a sign saying “WOMEN” and attached it to the door of a first floor bathroom. For the first few days, several of my fellow lay teachers valiantly guarded the door while students adjusted to the change and did not walk in unexpectedly. The restroom was also remodeled to remove the urinals and install more stalls to make it a true ladies room.
As a rookie teacher at the school, I did not have my own classroom, but instead used other language department rooms during fellow teachers’ preparation periods.
I taught French and Spanish to freshmen and juniors. What a pleasure to teach students serious about their education and dedicated to doing well.
There was a period of adjustment for about the first week. The young men were not only taller than me but also were not quite sure how to react to a female teacher. It was a new experience in those hallowed halls. I appreciated that they all remained seated during class so that no one towered over me. More than that, many students became more than
cooperative to “earn points” with this new teacher and others were very shy about answering at all. We all settled into a very appropriate teacher/student connection within a few days.
The adjustment among the faculty also presented challenges at first. My fellow lay teachers were always welcoming and helpful, especially as I learned my way around the halls for my various classroom locations. Most of the friars were very polite and hesitant at first but they soon grew to accept the idea of a woman in their midst. The adjustment was hardest for the older friars who had served the school for decades without changes.
Who were the Alognips?!
A group of my freshman students formed a team for the winter basketball intramural tournament. The boldest among them asked if they could name their team after me. While I appreciated the compliment, I wasn’t sure how this would go. They decided to name the team by using my maiden name backwards – from Spingola to Alognips. I proudly supported them at their games.
I had the best possible experience as a first year teacher – dedicated and serious students, always polite, phenomenal history and alumni at the school and the full support of the faculty, parents and administration. The fact that this also forged a new path for Fenwick – they hired six women the following year and soon became a coed student body – made me very proud to have contributed to the beginning of the new journey.
Sadly, I only spent one year at Fenwick. I was engaged to be married when I accepted the position. My soon-to-be husband Tom, who graduated from Notre Dame Law School that May, was job-searching that year. He ultimately accepted a position in California.
How blessed I was to have my Fenwick experience. I will always be grateful for the students, the faculty and the administration for welcoming me and embracing such a major change at Fenwick.
My special thanks to the current Fenwick administration for allowing my extended family to offer the Spingola Family Scholarship each spring to a deserving junior. It is an honor to continue our connection to Fenwick.