Anne T. Dunphy: A pioneer in public education
Williamsburg has the distinction of being the only community in Hampshire County with a public school named for a woman who actually taught in the public schools – a distinction many townspeople, and the Board of Selectmen, would be reluctant to lose.
Anne T. Dunphy was a pioneer in public education, highly regarded by her colleagues and much loved by her students. She was one of the first women to serve as a high school principal in Massachusetts and one of the youngest. She was appointed principal of Williamsburg High when she was only 28, in 1918, a time when few women held high administrative posts in public schools and two years before passage of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. She remained principal for 38 years, while continuing to teach Latin, making her one of the longest serving principals in Massachusetts history.
During her tenure, she initiated a number of innovative programs and consistently worked to encourage young people’s potential, wherever it lay. She inspired many Williamsburg High graduates to go to college and helped find money to cover their costs. Her commitment earned her great affection from generations of students. In 1939, her 25th year of teaching, the high school year book carried a dedication that summarized the feelings of many students and adults in Williamsburg: To our beloved principal … in appreciation for her outstanding achievement, her inspiring friendship and encouraging advice … Miss Dunphy’s main interests have always been the welfare and success of her students.”
In the early 1950s, Williamsburg was divided over whether to invest in a new elementary school. The Helen E. James School was crowded, serving both high school and elementary students but the cost of the new school worried many frugal townspeople. However, when the idea was floated to name the school after Anne, people rallied to support the project. The opening of the new school in 1955, was attended by more than 300 people and included a talk by the state’s Lieutenant Governor, who commended Anne for her commitment to public education, which he called the “arsenal of inspiration for the free world.”
Anne was a local girl whose accomplishments continue to inspire. Born in Haydenville in 1890, she was the granddaughter of Irish immigrants who settled here in 1856. She was the daughter of a millworker who, like his father spent more than 40 years at the Haydenville Brassworks. She knew the toll factory life took on workers and saw education as a path to opportunities beyond the mill.
In 1909, Anne enrolled at Smith College, at a time when Irish Catholics were far more likely to be cooks or domestic staff than students. She graduated in 1913, later earning a masters’ degree in classics. Instead of leaving the area like many of her classmates, she returned to Williamsburg to join the staff of the James School.
Perhaps because of her family’s years of factory work, Anne recognized the role of organized labor in gaining workers better conditions and more respect in the work place. She was active in the National Education Association and the Massachusetts Teachers Association and was instrumental in forming a teachers association in the Hilltowns and served as its first president.
Anne died a few months after the opening of the school which bears her name. A newspaper story at the time captured her accomplishments which remain an inspiration to educators and town officials. “The place our school has earned as one of the leading small high schools in the state, particularly its scholastic attainment, is due – more than any other cause – to Miss Dunphy’s ideals, executive ability and determination that taxpayers’ dollars should be used to give Williamsburg students the best that money can buy.”