Vassie James Ward Hill

Formerly Missouri Valley Special Collections
Pembroke Hill Country Day School
Administration Building of the Country Day School. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

As one school historian has written, the Kansas City Country Day School opened its doors in a September 28, 1910, ceremony resembling "a cross between the launching of a crusade and an old-time Fourth of July celebration." It was the culmination of much hard work on the part of Vassie James Ward Hill, a trailblazing female political leader whose progressive vision led to the founding of Country Day and its sister institution, the Sunset Hill School, today known collectively as Pembroke Hill.

Vassie James was born March 29, 1875, into a Kansas City, Missouri, family known for its work in the field of education. Her father, John Crawford James, was a prominent businessman and Brown University graduate who served on the Kansas City Board of Education for 28 years, during which he oversaw the district's expansion from 11 to 72 schools. Vassie's mother, Fanny Shouse James, was a graduate of Vassar College during an era of few female collegians. Vassie attended Central High School and then received a degree from her mother's alma mater. She returned to Kansas City and, on October 26, 1898, married Hugh C. Ward, son of another wealthy Kansas City pioneer—Indian trader and frontiersman Seth Ward.

Sadly, Ward died just 10 years into the marriage. Vassie Ward, left with three sons and one daughter, dedicated the next period of her life to obtaining the best possible education for her children. While she and others of her generation of Kansas Citians had received hometown schooling, a growing number of parents in the early 1900s sent their children to Eastern boarding schools known for tradition, prestige, and progressive teaching methods. During her investigation of several such schools, Vassie Ward encountered the "country day school" idea, in which a wide range of activities and experiences, such as athletics, recreational periods, and group meals complimented a rigorous curriculum.

With the support of several Harvard professors and a group of interested local parents, Ward recruited faculty and secured the historic John Wornall House, at 61st Terrace and Wornall Road, as the location of the Kansas City Country Day School, attended by 20 students in its inaugural 1910-1911 school year. Hoping to create for their daughters a learning environment similar to the all-male Country Day, Ward and her friends visited prestigious girls' schools throughout the country and opened their own in 1913. Early classes were held in Vassie Ward's own home, located in a neighborhood just south of the Country Club Plaza from which the school received its name—Sunset Hill.

While she is most often heralded for spearheading the creation of two of Kansas City's finest private preparatory schools, Vassie Ward's historic accomplishments extended into her political life. Following her leadership of Red Cross and Liberty Loan recruiting efforts in Kansas City during World War I, she was one of five selected to represent the interests of women in the 1919 League of Nations Peace Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. When passage of the 19th Amendment ushered in a new era of female voting, she became Missouri's first Democratic National Committeewoman, and later organized the Jefferson Democratic Club to foster the political involvement of Kansas City women. In 1933, she was appointed by Eleanor Roosevelt to serve as the Missouri Chair of the National Women's Committee for Mobilization for Human Need, and she was also elected president of the Kansas City League of Women Voters.

In 1919, Vassie Ward married University of Missouri President A. Ross Hill, who later ran for mayor of Kansas City in opposition to the Pendergast political machine. Hill's reformist Fusion party ticket was defeated in a 1934 election noted for voting irregularities and violence at the polls. With her interests returning to education in her later years, Vassie James Ward Hill served the American Association of University Women in various executive capacities, and in 1940 the organization created a fellowship named in her honor. She died at the age of 79, on June 23, 1954.

Acknowledgement: 

A version of this article previously appeared at http://www.kchistory.org/content/biography-vassie-james-ward-hill-1875-1...

KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.