Building Buildings: The Women Behind the Building
Mrs. Henry Akiyama (left) and Mrs. Warren Hunter (right)
Born in Salem, Oregon, Essie L. Maguire moved to Portland in 1904 with her family and graduated from Jefferson High School. She earned a BA in sociology from the University of Oregon and in 1919 received a scholarship to the YWCA's National Training School in New York City. There she also pursued a degree in religious studies at Columbia University, and hoped to become a minister. Her first job was in Fort Worth, Texas, as Industrial Secretary for the local YWCA, a position she also held in Tacoma, Washington, and back in Portland, where she returned in 1924. Maguire's father had been involved in the Oregon labor movement and she supported working women and unionism. YWCA programs with which Maguire was involved included clubs, classes, camping, leadership training, and community service. "The object that runs all through was to help girls to learn what they could do, to be at ease in a crowd, to speak on their feet and be officers of an organization," explained Maguire in an interview. "And one day they would be officers in the PTA or their clubs or lodges or whatever they were doing." Maguire considered the completion of the building at Tenth and Main downtown as her most significant achievement during her tenure as executive director of the Portland YWCA, a post she held from 1949 until 1960.
Maguire remained unmarried throughout her lifetime, focusing her career energy on women, but despite her lack of a family of her own she was acknowledged in the local press as a "mother of mothers" and an inspiration to women and girls throughout the city. Among several memorials after Maguire's death in 1979 is a plaque in the courtyard of the downtown YWCA that is home to a magnificent ancient elm tree. The elm's name echoes Maguire's initials "E.L.M." and symbolizes the strong roots and protective cover she offered the YWCA throughout her long career.
After almost forty years of service to and affiliation with the YWCA, native Oregonian Kay Somers describes her connection to the organization as "natural." Her mother brought her to swim at the YWCA and she participated in school as a Girl Reserve. After graduating from Lewis and Clark College in 1941, she took graduate training at Oberlin College, Ohio, in the national YWCA staff management program. From there she worked on the YWCA staff at Fresno, California and then in Spokane, Washington. "In those several years," she recalls, "I was just living my dream, because my dream was to be a teenage director." That dream was inspired by the work of her parents, both career educators, and especially her father, who ran a "summer farm camp" for boys in Lebanon, Oregon in the 1920s and 1930s. While on staff at Fresno and Spokane, Somers entertained in U.S.O. clubs as a pianist (for singalongs) and as a member of a popular trio. On returning to Portland, she served on the U.S.O. committee for the city and state.
After marriage, Somers gave up full time employment to raise her four daughters, but volunteering remained a vital part of her life. She was elected to the Portland YWCA board in the mid-1950s and became board president in 1958. Those were trying years as the Board tried to raise the funds for a new building downtown and faced possible eviction from the Taylor street facility. Somers remembered, "We were laughed at by more than the business leaders because we finally found this piece of property that had a gorgeous elm tree that we weren't going to give up and they said, 'You will never carry your membership up five blocks.'" The move and construction were eventually completed, but at high cost: the sale of the Williams Avenue building. Somers was giving of her time to many organizations, including service on the Boards of Directors for the Boy Scouts, the Oregon Association of American Mothers, the YWCA National Board and World Service Council, and local churches and hospitals. Of her many awards, she is especially proud of a joint honor given to her and her husband Howard in 1996 by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, the Vollum Humanitarian Award.
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