Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 27 seconds.
The remaining leaders of the College Club of Portland (left to right): Carolyn Murray, Margaret Perkins, Shirley Pyles, Julie Howison, and Elizabeth Kean.
For more than 120 years, the College Club of Portland’s members have raised funds for a singular and steadfast purpose: to help successive generations of young women from the greater Portland area go to and pay for college.
If awarding scholarships to college-bound women strikes you as noble but not all that unusual these days, consider the motivations of the late Edith Lord, who served as the Club’s president during her 30 years of active membership.
“She lived through that period of wanting to go to college, but being unable to,” said Julie Howison of her mother. “Her two older brothers went to college, but there wasn’t any money left for my mother and her sister when it was their turn. My mother and her older sister agreed to help put each other through school, but when my aunt graduated, she got married and started a family right away. So she wasn’t in a position to help my mother.”
As a result of the experience, “my mother saw the need for women to go to college.”
As Howison recounted her mother’s plight, the Club’s other current leaders — Howison’s sister, Liz Kean; Carolyn Murray; Margaret Perkins; and Shirley Pyles — nodded in agreement. Each knew of a relative or a contemporary who faced a similar scenario: either no family resources for college or resources that were devoted solely to sons.
Under Lord’s leadership, the number of Club memberships steadily increased.
“She was always asking people, ‘Would you like to be a member of the College Club of Portland?’” said Kean of her mother, who lived to be 96. “Sometimes she would even give the gift of membership to her friends by paying their dues.”
“She was the kind of person you couldn’t say no to,” recalled Murray.
The Club’s highly creative and successful fundraising activities over the years are a testament to the members’ commitment to ensuring young women have access to higher education.
In the early years after the Club’s founding in 1900, its members sponsored an annual series of lectures, open to the public, so that southern Maine citizens could take in some enlightenment while contributing to the growing scholarship fund.
To vary its cultural offerings, the Club decided to stage an amateur theatrical production in 1913.
The first production, Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” played to rave reviews and netted $550, which enabled the Club to send three young women to college. Through fundraising from the stage, the Portland Players emerged, and for the next 17 years, these amateur plays were a much-anticipated fixture on Portlanders’ social calendars.
In 1930, the Club took over the Jefferson Theater for the entire week of November 17 to stage “Let Us Be Gay” by Rachel Crothers. For this production, Club members sold advertising and $1 tickets, yielding nearly $2,500, from which the Club netted $1,293 for scholarships.
Endowed funds, often created through generous and thoughtful estate planning, also fueled the Club’s resources. Among these were a $5,000 bequest from South Portland High School French teacher Phyllis H. Davidson and a $30,000 bequest from Iris Almy, who led the Portland Public Library’s catalog department for many years.
By 1949, at the Club’s 50th anniversary, the Portland Press Herald reported that the organization had helped 140 students pursue higher education.
Seeking to further diversify its fundraising activities, the Club, in 1974, published and sold “The Heritage Cookbook,” a compilation of members’ favorite recipes, to add to the scholarship coffers, and by 1988, the Club awarded scholarships totaling nearly $7,500 to Portland-area young women pursuing two- and four-year degrees.
Thirty-four years later, in 2021, the Club awarded more than $15,000 in scholarships to 10 college-bound women who graduated from high schools in Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Falmouth, Portland, Scarborough, South Portland, Westbrook, and Yarmouth. Each recipient met the criteria of having financial need and proven track records of academic success and community service.
At teas organized by the Club around the winter holidays, scholarship recipients would gather with members to share news of their progress in college.
“All of us would have the reward of hearing their stories and what they were majoring in,” recalled Murray.
Through meeting the recipients and reading recommendations from their school guidance counselors, “I always knew we were giving money to a group of very good people,” she said.
But as the number of scholarship recipients grew over the years, the number of active Club members waned.
“Many of us were doing four and five jobs for the organization,” Howison said. “We lacked a website and staff — all of the things that are needed for a scholarship of this size. It was hard for us to admit because we put so much of ourselves into the organization — Shirley has been treasurer for 30 years —but it was becoming a burden. We never quite caught up to the 21st Century.”
“In its heyday, it was quite a thing,” recalled Kean. “You had to apply and be voted in. You had to have references, but it was still very grassroots.”
By the second year of the pandemic, the Club was at a crossroads. The remaining members knew the need for their mission was as great as ever but carrying out the various requirements of the 501(c)(3) organization was increasingly difficult.
Sisters Howison and Kean said their struggle with the decision about whether to dissolve the organization was personal, especially given how committed their mother was to the cause.
“It was hard for us,” Howison said. “We feel like we let our mother down. You never want something to die on your watch.”
Fortunately, it won’t.
Earlier this year, the Club evaluated different youth-serving nonprofit organizations in search of a new home for its mission and financial resources. After several meetings and careful consideration, the members decided to gift their endowment to the Mitchell Institute so Maine’s premier scholarship organization can carry on the Club’s legacy of supporting college-bound young women.
“We realized the Institute’s values and mission are the same as ours, and they award scholarships based on the same criteria,” Howison said.
With their gift, the Club’s members created the College Club of Portland Pioneer Scholar award to recognize and support a female Mitchell Scholar from Cumberland County each year.
The Pioneer Scholar Program, a partnership between generous supporters and the Mitchell Institute, provides the opportunity to acknowledge specific Mitchell Scholars and Alumni who, through their contributions to school and community and their demonstration of certain qualities—as students and as citizens—stand out for recognition. The Institute establishes Pioneers in recognition of friends who have supported the Mitchell Institute with gifts of $250,000 or more.
“We are honored that the College Club of Portland has entrusted us with their resources and the responsibility to carry on their vital mission of expanding access to higher education for young women in Cumberland County,” said Jared Cash, President and CEO of the Mitchell Institute. “The commitment and hard work of the Club’s members over more than a century is an inspiration to us, and we are grateful to them for choosing the Mitchell Institute in what I know was a thoughtful decision. We look forward to recognizing future College Club of Portland Pioneer Scholars and making sure they understand the origins of this generous support.”
In its inaugural year, the College Club of Portland Pioneer Scholar was awarded to Emmanuelle Lenge, a 2022 graduate of Deering High School who is majoring in Computer Science at the University of Maine. The announcement was made at the Mitchell Institute’s annual Gala on Friday, September 16, 2022, attended by Club members who were applauded for their named gift.
For Howison, and her fellow club members, knowing the Mitchell Institute will responsibly carry on their work is a consolation.
“There is disappointment that we cannot continue, but also a sense of relief. It was a long time coming,” she said. “But I think my mother would be pleased.”