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Orphanage provided great start for Hagerstown woman

July 08, 2002|by CAILIN MCGOUGH

As a child, Ethel Irvine spent her days swimming, playing tennis and practicing the piano and mandolin. Nights were spent with 10 or 12 other girls sharing a dormitory room at the Lynchburg Female Orphan Asylum.

Now 92 and a Hagerstown resident, Irvine said her upbringing at the Lynchburg, Va., orphanage in the 1920s was strict but happy.

"We had to live by bells and whistles but we didn't mind that," she said.

Born in Lynchburg, Irvine was 4 years old when her father died, leaving her mother to send her to live with relatives while she worked in a local shoe factory.


Irvine calls these years "the only unhappy ones." At 8 years old, Irvine's mother placed her in the orphanage at the suggestion of a doctor she befriended.

"Everyone was so nice that I was thrilled to death," Irvine said. "We had a lot of privileges that people not there didn't have."

The privately funded orphanage had a very visible board of directors, Irvine said.

A filmmaker, one of the board members, showed movies and made movies starring the girls.

"Would you believe back in those days, he took movies!" Irvine said. "I was in some of those movies."

Two other board members began an orchestra and worked with the girls weekly. An aspiring concert pianist at the time, Irvine soon took over leading the orchestra.

Irvine also learned to sew, making items such as white dresses for the May Day pageant and swimsuits.

"When the swimming pool was finished, into the sewing room came bolts of black sateen, and we had to make bathing suits for everybody," she said.

From fourth grade on, Irvine attended public school, where she said she had a wonderful high school math teacher.

"Whatever people tell you about girls not being encouraged in math and science - that's not true, at least for me, it wasn't," she said.

A scholarship and her mother's savings allowed Irvine to attend the College of William & Mary, where she majored in mathematics, something women didn't do in the 1920s, Irvine said.

After graduating in 1931, Irvine came to Hagerstown to live with her mother and stepfather. When she applied for a teaching position, she said the superintendent of schools in Washington County told her, "We never heard of a woman high school math teacher."

Instead, she worked as a governess for the Byron family, teaching future Congressman Goodloe Byron through first grade. In 1936, she married Robert Irvine and had two daughters.

A math and science teacher for 16 years in Washington County Public Schools, Irvine is now active at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, and is a member of the Singer Society of the Washington County Museum, the Maryland Symphony Orchestra Guild and the Women's Club.

Over the years, Irvine kept in contact with a "big sister" from the orphanage until losing touch two years ago. Then last year, she received a newsletter from the orphanage, now called the Miller School.

"There was a tiny little paragraph that said interesting reading would be a book called 'Now the Song' about the orphanage in the 1920s by Iva Burford," she said.

She recognized the author as a former classmate, two years her junior, who had played harmonica in the orchestra.

The women were reunited in Lynchburg on June 16, an experience Irvine called "wonderful."

Daughter Barbara Irvine, 56, of New York City, said listening to the women reminisce was eye-opening.

The orphanage was more like a finishing school, where the girls studied etiquette and grammar while being encouraged in their talents, she said.

"She's the most centered person," Barbara Irvine said. "I think the orphanage must have given all these women a sense of themselves that we just don't have today."

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