Mary Elizabeth Post crossed the desert from San Diego to Yuma in a mud-wagon, landing on the banks of the Colorado River on April 13, 1872. Coming from a genteel family, she was appalled at the rough, crude surroundings that greeted her in the small town of Arizona City (renamed Yuma in 1873).
Mary’s early years were spent in Elizabethtown, New York, where she was born June 17, 1841. Denied entrance into the University of Vermont, which did not yet admit women, she graduated from the Burlington Female Seminary in 1863.
In January 1872, Mary arrived in San Diego to establish a girls’ school only to discover the town’s population did not yet warrant such an undertaking. When she heard the Territory of Arizona was looking for teachers, she selected her coolest dresses, purchased a broad-brimmed hat and booked passage on the next coach headed east.
According to Mary, “The vehicle in which the trip was made was not a Concord stage, such as was afterwards put upon the line, but what was known in common parlance as a ‘mud-wagon.’ It had two seats, and could carry three persons besides the driver, was covered with canvas as a protection against the sun, with curtains on the sides which could be raised or lowered at pleasure.” Because the stage was full, “there was nothing to do but sit erect in that stage for forty-eight hours, the only respite being the short stops made three times each day for meals.”
Mary’s first teaching position was in Ehrenberg, 100 miles upriver from Yuma. On the five-day boat ride, she lost her hat overboard, encountered her first Indians who supplied wood to fuel the boat, spent several hours stranded on a sandbar and was appalled when the captain pulled out his whiskey flask in her presence.
Ehrenberg was booming in the early 1870s as freight for mining communities and the military came through the river port. Mary rented a room in one of the small adobe houses and attempted to converse with her Spanish-speaking landlady.
The language barrier worsened when she discovered none of her 15 students spoke English. Since she was already fluent in French and Latin, however, it took her only a short while to become proficient with in Spanish.
The Ehrenberg School was housed in an old saloon, and occasionally a thirsty former patron staggered into the classroom. Most made a hasty retreat, but some lingered and listened for a while.
Mary stayed in Ehrenberg for five months before accepting a teaching position in Yuma. The ride back downriver was more pleasant.
Yet she was unprepared for the lawlessness that permeated Yuma’s streets. When the first official hanging in the territory occurred next to the schoolhouse, Mary sent her students home rather than have them witness the execution.
She discovered her pupils were not used to attending school on a regular basis and she often had to track down her truant charges, much to the disgruntlement of their parents, who saw no reason for daily lessons.
Determined to improve relationships with her students and their families, Mary ordered an array of patterns and taught mothers how to sew for their children. Delighted with how smart their children looked, Mary and the parents soon reached a satisfactory accord in school participation.
But as determined as she was to educate her students, Mary could not abide the violence and turmoil that permeated Yuma streets. After one year, she accepted a job as vice principal in a San Diego school.
The Yuma Board of Trustees, aware of Mary’s reluctance to live in their unruly community, initiated improvements in the public school system and invited Mary back to serve as principal. She accepted the challenge, particularly when the board proposed a separation of girls and boys in the classroom. She persuaded her brother, Albert Post, to come west and teach the boys while she managed the girls. Albert brought the first organ to Yuma.
Mary became an integral part of the lives of her pupils and their families, almost all of Mexican heritage. She was invited to baptisms and communions, attended family celebrations and heart-rending tragedies.
She was a driving force behind local women’s organizations and an avid supporter of the women’s suffrage movement.
Yuma Territorial Prison was completed in 1877 and although Mary feared the presence of prisoners would revive undesirable elements in the community, she provided occupational therapy for some of the women inmates.
As the town grew, Mary was challenged for her job as principal by a man who believed the school should hire only male educators. When he boldly handed out pre-marked ballots in the predominately Mexican sections of Yuma and told people who to vote for, Mary countered by offering transportation to the polls for the parents of her students. She soundly defeated her opponent.
In 1912, when Arizona passed its first pension law, Mary retired from teaching, becoming the first recipient of the state teachers’ retirement fund. She collected $50 a month.
She was awarded an honorary master’s of arts degree from the University of Arizona in 1918 for her humanitarian work in predominantly Spanish communities.
In an interview at the age of 86, she was asked why she never married. “It was not for lack of opportunity,” she said, “But I was in love with my work. I think I was born to be a teacher.” And she could still turn heads. A local fireman confessed during this time, “Just between you and me, she is better company than half the girls I have for partners at our dances.”
On Sept. 15, 1934, 93-year-old Mary Elizabeth Post died. She had witnessed the arrival of the railroad in Yuma, telephone service and electric lights. She was probably a little embarrassed when ladies’ hemlines crept above the knees and couples held hands in public, yet nothing stopped her from teaching the children of Yuma.