Willetta Strahan, who came to Muscatine in 1929 to become the first dean of the new junior college, had a passion for learning, and she was not passive in providing opportunities for others to learn. In 1963 when the college finally got its own building, it was named for her.
Attorney Orville Schauland, president of the first graduating class, recalled: “We had a very, very marvelous faculty. I think Miss Strahan is one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever known . . . We sort of loved our teachers in those days. Nine of us . . . went on to the U of I. Our credits were recognized credit by credit. One of the reasons for this was because Miss Strahan and the first faculty set high standards.”
One of Miss Strahan’s many recruits was Keith Larson, later chairman of the MCC humanities division. His class gathered at Jefferson School in 1931: “The Dean’s desk was there in the hall…I remember Miss Strahan showing us still photographs of her recent trip to England, holding them up in front of the class without benefit of audiovisual aids. I remember her reading aloud from Wordworth’s “Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey” and describing what it is like really to be there. I remember her reading portions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English. The day she described the Clerk of Oxford, ‘gladly did he learn and gladly teach’ was the day I dedicated myself to education.”
The male students left during World War II; the junior college might have collapsed without Miss Strahan’s guidance. The student body numbered fewer than twenty, almost all girls. The ratings of the school remained excellent.
Miss Strahan did more than change the lives of the youth of Muscatine. She organized the local branch of the American Association of University Women and was not only its first president, she was state president twice. She helped organize the local branch of the Business and Professional Women and was its first president. She was a member of the Ethics Club and the PEO. Over the years, she presented many programs, led many committees, and participated fully in community affairs.
She attended many colleges over the years including Coe, Chicago University, the State University of Iowa, Peabody College, and Cambridge in England. She was principal at Denison High School before she came to Muscatine, and she continued teaching English and speech and was librarian at the college after she retired as dean. She died in Mason City in 1974.
Her philosophy is best expressed in her own words:
“The accumulation of facts, the acquisition of knowledge, is not the sum total of education. Knowledge we must have if we are to survive in this technological world in which we are now living, an age of violence and uncertainty, but there must be provided more than ever a place for the assimilation of these human intangibles . . . to give life meaning. After all, is not education a becoming process, a process whereby our vision is being broadened, our feelings and sympathies awakened and our understanding of values deepened?”
Willetta Strahan was truly a woman of influence, a woman who was an inspiration in Muscatine for many years.
This article was written by Kristie Conlon. A group of local women came together in 2020, as part of the Iowa League of Women Voters' "Hard Won. Not Done.” commemoration, to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment. This amendment gave women the right to vote. The project was entitled Muscatine Women of Influence and Inspiration. The committee selected women from the past century to research; they then wrote short biographies on the work of these women and their lives in our community. Although we don’t know if they were suffragists, their actions helped advance women’s rights. The women featured chose independent paths and made a difference in times when society did not encourage or expect it of them.