The Legacy of Dr. Elizabeth Meek, the first woman in PA to earn a doctorate degree
MONTGOMERY – Elizabeth Briton Meek was born in Allenwood on May 16, 1887, the firstborn child of Robert C. Meek and Frances Galloway Meek. She would eventually become the first woman in Pennsylvania to earn a doctorate degree. Her long career in education would span some of the most challenging times in American history, beginning before the First World War, and lasting through the Great Depression, World War II, and the first years of the Cold War.
In a time when most Americans didn’t have a high school diploma, Meek earned an A.B. summa cum laude from Bucknell Seminary in 1905 and her Master’s degree from Bucknell University in 1908. She began her teaching career filling various positions in local schools. According to Montgomery Area High School Alumni 1905-2000, she was hired as an assistant principal at the Montgomery Central School in June of 1918.
Montgomery-Clinton alumna Marion McCormick said Meek would take the train at the Reading Railroad Station in Allenwood and make the five mile trip to Montgomery. The train station was located near the intersection of Montgomery and Second Street, and she would walk up the hill to the school.
Despite beginning her career at Montgomery Central School as the assistant principal, she would eventually wear many hats as the district would undergo changes. In 1928 the Montgomery School District and Clinton Township School District agreed to merge, becoming the new Montgomery-Clinton Joint School. In the fall of 1930 the new school was open for classes.
Meek’s career at Montgomery lasted from 1918 until she retired in June of 1952. In that time she earned a doctorate in education from the Pennsylvania State Teachers College (now Penn State University). In 1938 she was teaching Latin, English, History, Occupations, and Problems of Democracy. She also served as assistant principal, dean of girls, guidance counselor, and supervising principal.
Local historian Marion McCormick remembers Dr. Meek as being “very bright,” and said that her career as supervising principal from 1945-1946 was the result of war time necessity. The high school principal, G. Marlin Spaid, left his post to join the armed services. McCormick said, “At the time it was unusual for a woman to serve as principal, but there was a shortage of men in civilian jobs.”
Dr. Meek was overseeing the school during World War II, a critical turning point in global history. Young men were dropping out to join the armed services, many students had close male relatives fighting overseas, new students were moving into the district from Alvira whose homes and been seized by government decree, and Montgomery-Clinton students could volunteer to take shifts keeping watch over the skies of the town.
On the site of the former Montgomery Central School on Houston Avenue was a building equipped with a telephone where students would go to keep their eyes and ears open for airplanes. When one was spotted, they were required to make a phone call to “headquarters” to report the time the plane was seen and what direction it was traveling.
However, the students were never told the location of the headquarters. When the atom bomb brought the war to a shocking and sudden end ushering in the nuclear age, it was obvious the world was a different place. In the 1946 yearbook Dr. Meek wrote a note to her students saying, “Of this book you can be justly proud. What other nation emerging from a global conflict has so managed that it is possible to have paper for non-essentials?” Dr. Meek didn’t mince words as she continued, and emphasized the gravity of the new era. She concluded by advising, “Foremost among the things that have contributed to the seriousness of the situation is the atomic bomb. It has been said that in the age of atom power, civilization will be in peace or pieces. May you ‘go the last mile’ for peace!”
The legacy of Dr. Elizabeth Meek has carried on to this day, as Montgomery-Clinton alumnus Bill Bastion revealed when he said, “She had an incredible impact on my life.”
He began his education in Alvira’s Stone School where he took the common school diploma test at the end of seventh grade. He passed, and although his diploma didn’t require him to attend school any more, his parents enrolled him at Montgomery-Clinton. Bastion skipped 8th grade and began 9th grade at the age of twelve. He had Dr. Meek for Latin and history and remembers her as “an incredibly dedicated teacher.” He went on to say that she was a solid, serious woman who was knowledgeable, and a task master who insisted that her students do things right. However, he was quick to note that she wasn’t a tough disciplinarian for that time, but she would be by today’s standards.
Bastion graduated from Montgomery in 1939 at the age of 16. He spent two years working on the family farm in Alvira and in July of 1941 he wanted to enroll in Penn State so he could become an engineer. However, he ran into a roadblock. It was too late in the year to enroll. Dr. Meek, who had received her doctorate just three years prior, and according to Bastion had at one time worked in Penn State’s registrar’s office, wasn’t about to let her former student take no for an answer.
Dr. Meek carried prestige at her alma mater, so Bastion, along with his mother and Dr. Meek took a 160 mile round trip to State College so she could state his case in person. Bastion drove the trio down, and Dr. Meek convinced the college to let him have a chance. The school agreed, and she tutored Bastion for several days and administered the entrance exam which Bastion passed. He was accepted into the engineering program at Penn State that year and earned his bachelor’s. He went on to earn a master’s in engineering at Lehigh University. Bastion enjoyed a long career as an industrial engineer and ran companies in Connecticut and Michigan. He said, “She was classic, one-of-a-kind.” He expressed his appreciation saying how touched he was that she would spend her time traveling and tutoring when she could have easily refused, as it was the summer and she had to prepare herself for the upcoming school year.
Dr. Meek passed away on February 17, 1954 in Williamsport. She never married, and spent her adult years sharing a home with her sister who was also a teacher.