Fenwick’s First Female Teacher

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.

Fr. McGreevy made the call in 1971.

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.


Mrs. Spingola Dovidio

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.

Alumni Spotlight on Richard Cochrane ’59

Black History Month 2019

Pioneering perspective: Fenwick’s first black graduate reflects on the segregated life of his youth. “Mine is a difficult story to tell,” he says, offering a history lesson in the process.

Interview by Mark Vruno


School records dating back 64 years confirm that alumnus Richard Cochrane ’59 blazed a trail as Fenwick’s very first African-American student and graduate. Originally from Maywood, IL, Mr. Cochrane now lives in the sunny Southwest. In high school, he was active in student government (class treasurer and secretary) and played football and basketball (captain).

Last February, one-time Fenwick student turned educator Marlon Hall, PhD. shared his freshman-year experience of the early 1970s, when he endured verbal abuse and physical bullying – all racially inspired.  In one of several replies to Dr. Hall’s guest blog, Cochrane pointed out that his memories of Fenwick were quite different and much more positive 17 years earlier:

“Dr. Hall, I appreciate your sharing your Fenwick experiences and the strength they gave you. In context, in 1950 the world-renowned chemist Percy Julian became the first African-American to take up residence in Oak Park. His home was fire-bombed on Thanksgiving Day of that year and again in 1951. In May of 1954 the Supreme Court rendered the ‘Brown vs. Board of Education’ ruling. In September of 1955 I walked into Fenwick as a freshman, two years before the ‘Little Rock Nine,’ and I am black. There were no other black students and there would only be one more in the next four years.

“Many of my experiences were similar to yours but the negatives were overwhelmed by the support of the majority of the student body, and the faculty support cannot go without mention. There were whispers and some name-calling and even a fight or two, but the Dominican family pushed, nudged and refused to let me think of anything but finishing. I was also aware of the financial burden that I was placing on my family. In return, I received an excellent education both academically and socially….”

Cochrane’s heartfelt response prompted our Alumni Relations Team to reach out. We learned that Rich is “happily retired” and soaking up sunshine in New Mexico. Our questions and his answers:

Richard, where did you attend college? Please tell us about your professional background and STEM-related career.

RC: After graduating Fenwick in 1959, I attended St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, where I majored in chemistry. While there I played freshman basketball and varsity football for two years until my knee gave out. I got a job in the coatings and ink industry and, eventually, spent 35 years with Sun Chemical Corporation. I held positions in lab synthesis, tech service, lab management, operation management and national accounts. I retired from Sun in 2003.

What was it like being the only black student at the Fenwick?

Cochrane (bottom, center) was the only black student on this 1959 Yearbook page — and one of three in the entire school. (Sophomore Wayne Morgan ’61 and freshman Harry Smith ’62 were the others.)

RC: In 1955, I believe my freshman class enrolled about 354 students and the school enrollment was about 1,236. As I’ve said, I found the faculty very supportive and the student body mostly treating me like any other student, with a smaller group either curious or distant. Only one of the other three students from my parish in Maywood [St. James, which closed in 2006] was close to me at Fenwick.

On the first day of school, when I went to the office to pick up my class schedule, the staff called back one of the students I was with to ask if I was really going to attend school there. A notable few of the upper-classmen were kind enough to offer short words of encouragement. If I missed the Madison St. bus, I would walk west until the next bus came and would often find the Oak Park Police close behind to make sure I reached Harlem Ave. The single greatest factor was the Dominican community. I got the feeling that they would not let me fail (or even consider quitting).

Did you have a sense that you were making “history” at Fenwick?

A young Cochrane using a slde rule in 1967.

RC: I had no sense of making history but there was a constant feeling of not being totally “at home.” Remember, at that time Oak Park had a population of 62,000 [there are 10,000 fewer residents today] and had only one black family — and their home had twice been bombed.

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