Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920

Biography of Mary C. Roark, 1861-1922

By Jay-Marie Bravent, Director of Research Services & Education, Special Collections Research Center, University of Kentucky

Mary Caroline Creegan Roark (1 September 1861 - 1 February 1922) was born just south of Brighton, Iowa, on a family farm in Walnut Township, Jefferson County, Iowa, the daughter of Mary Ann McKee Creegan, of Ohio and Daniel Creegan, a farmer from Virginia. Daniel Creegan served in the Union Army, 37th Regiment, Iowa Infantry, but died of disease in New York on November 21, 1864, at the age of 47. Mary's eldest brother James, also served in the Union Army, and died in 1863. Military service appears on both sides of the family, as the McKee's descended from participants in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812.

Mary was the youngest of seven children, and in 1870, she, along with two sisters and three brothers, were attending school and living on a farm with their widowed mother in York, Nebraska. The family then appears to have moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where Mary and her siblings took courses at the school that later became Nebraska University. Accompanying her brother Charles to Ohio, Mary attended the Preparatory Department at Oberlin College from 1875-1877, followed by studies in the Women's Literary Department during 1878-1879. Mary was clearly a gifted student, and some of her school enrollment documents list her as born a year or more earlier, perhaps allowing her to attend more advanced classes.

Mary then enrolled at the National Normal School, in Lebanon, Ohio where she completed B.S. and B.A. degrees in 1880. Mary taught numerous courses at the National Normal School for the next several years, including "Letter-Writing" and "Debating" in the Introductory Department, "English Composition" and "Arithmetic" in the Preparatory Department, as well as "Business Correspondence" in the Business Department. During this time, Mary met fellow student Ruric Nevel Roark, from Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, and they married on July 30, 1881.

In 1885, Ruric and Mary moved from Lebanon to Glasgow in western Kentucky, where they served as principal and vice-principal at the Normal School, contributing to the early institutional foundations of what would later become Western Kentucky University. Over the next several years, the Roarks became well-known throughout the state as advocates for public education and improved training for teachers. In 1889, the couple moved to Lexington, where Ruric took a teaching position at the Kentucky State College (now the University of Kentucky), and in 1891, Ruric became professor of pedagogy and Dean of the Normal Department. Although she occasionally taught classes in the Normal Department, Mary's primary endeavors in Lexington centered around public service and advocacy, and she became a major figure among the Lexington progressives.

Mary served as one of the early members of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA), joining in 1888 and participating in its second annual meeting. As the Superintendent of Political Study, Mary delivered a lecture on the second day of the meeting entitled "A Council of Women." She also served as a member of the first Publications Committee. In 1890, Mary joined the Fayette County Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and attended its first annual convention at the Main Street Christian Church, where she spoke on "Parliamentary Usage," and supported commentary and discussion on hygiene and "municipal housekeeping." Mary organized the Lexington chapter of the Sorosis Woman's Club and served as its president. She was also a charter member of the Woman's Club of Central Kentucky and the Kentucky Federation of Women's Clubs (KFWC), where she presented a paper on "The Coming Man" at the Lexington Chautauqua. Mary published a paper on "Recent Tendencies in Education," in The Illustrated Kentuckian in 1893, which advocated for co-education and equal representation of women on university faculties and local school boards. Then, in 1895, Mary was listed as the first co-editor of the new WCTU publication, The Kentucky White Ribbon. Additionally, between 1887 and 1894, the Roarks had four children, all of whom attended the best schools in Lexington.

Mary's involvement in suffrage efforts initially began through seeking to expand school board voting privileges to women in Kentucky as a means for improving public education. Kentucky had extended voting privileges to certain land-owning widows or unmarried women in local school board elections since 1838, but married women and mothers across the state advocated for their right to participate as well, arguing that mothers had even more of an interest in their children's education than fathers.

In large part due to the advocacy of Mary and other suffrage leaders and educational reformers in the KERA, in 1894, the Kentucky General Assembly extended school board suffrage to women and the ability to hold positions on the board in "second-class cities," which included Lexington. In November 1895, Lexington women not only voted for public school trustees for the first time, but they also presided as officers over the election, and even ran for office themselves. Mary stood as one of four female candidates on the independent "women's ticket" and was elected to the Lexington Public School Board, defeating candidate F. Paul Anderson, professor of engineering in the mechanical department at State College, as well as the entire Democratic ticket of eight men, to represent the Fourth Ward. In pre-election newspaper articles that included biographical information on the female candidates, Mary was described as "the best educated woman in Lexington," "a woman eminently fitted," and "the brilliant wife of Prof. R.N. Roark."

In 1898, Mary was elected as corresponding secretary for the KERA a position she would hold for nearly 12 years. Her expertise with business writing no doubt contributed to her success in this important position that coordinated the reports for local clubs across the state and communicated with the national organizations. She served additional terms on the Publication Committee and collaborated with Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and others on a number of articles for the national Woman's Journal, pamphlets, speeches, and local or syndicated newspaper op-eds on the roles and benefits of women in educational reform and women's suffrage.

At the turn of the century, educational reformers made waves in Kentucky politics, and compulsory school attendance, the establishment of a public high school system, and standardized teacher training all gained support in the Kentucky State Legislature. However, the Lexington school board election of 1901 revealed the cracks already forming within the Kentucky suffrage movement, and the growing, on-going influence of Jim Crow. In 1901, voter registrations for black women out-numbered white women in a district of Lexington, heightening concerns among Democrats and the "liquor lobby" that black Republicans and female temperance interests would join forces and make gains politically if the trend continued. As a result of these arguments against women's suffrage, the Kentucky General Assembly quickly revoked school board suffrage for women in 1902.

In turn, members of KERA and white women's groups began advocating for the retention of voting for white women specifically. In an April 13th letter to the Lexington Leader entitled "A Triumph of Petty Politics," Mary and other leading suffragists recommended that a poll tax, literacy test, or other means be implemented to ensure that "intelligent --- white women" would retain the ability to vote. Although black and white women had initially worked together for suffrage and school reform in Lexington, this incident created a rift that would only grow as Jim Crow laws dominated Kentucky politics and decisions surrounding school reform, and divisions among factions in the Democratic Party and Republicans troubled the KERA.

Mary clearly felt the sting of this revocation of the franchise most personally, as she engaged in additional leadership roles. In 1903 she chaired the Woman's Council Committee, a joint group of KERA and Fayette County ERA volunteers, that organized a program for the Lexington Chautauqua at Woodland Park. The nine-day event "was highly successful, and awakened much interest in the subject of woman suffrage." On April 23, 1904, Mary gave a lecture at a KERA meeting entitled "What is a Juvenile Court?" relating the history and current status of juvenile courts in the United States, which led to a discussion and motion to create a committee "looking to the establishment of a Juvenile Court in Lexington." Mary was elected to the committee. As women began to call for improvement in education, literacy, truancy, teacher training and pay, sanitation, healthcare, labor conditions, and beyond, interest in votes for women grew.

Meanwhile, Ruric's disagreements with State College President James K. Patterson over the establishment of regional Normal Schools and the administrative direction of the State College Normal Department led to tensions, and in 1905 Ruric resigned his position as Dean. The Roarks temporarily moved to Worchester, Massachusetts where Ruric focused on a year of advanced studies at Clark University.

During this same time, the Kentucky State Legislature took up the state normal school debate and came down on the side of state-supported regional schools. Ruric was appointed president of the new Eastern State Normal School in Richmond, Kentucky, established by the Kentucky General Assembly in March 1906. Upon returning to Kentucky, the Roarks re-emerged as leaders central to the intensifying educational reform movement sweeping the state. As part of the struggle to reduce illiteracy across Kentucky, Ruric and Mary continued to advocate for full funding of the new state normal schools, standardized preparation and credentialing of teachers, as well as compulsory attendance laws, the establishment of county high schools and a state Model School at Eastern. In 1906, Mary was re-elected as corresponding secretary of the KERA, serving in the position until 1911. She was also elected chair of the Education Committee of the Kentucky Federation of Women's Clubs in 1907, continuing to fight for the restoration of school board voting. In her role as chair, Mary delivered an address to the State Development Association in Louisville in November 1907. Reproduced in a pamphlet, the speech outlines the significant points and aims of the KFWC, later summarized in a 1908 resolution, arguing that women's suffrage would improve education, and in turn education would improve the commercial and economic standing of Kentucky:

"History proves that ignorance and illiteracy are absolutely incompatible with commercial and industrial achievement. The average height of our intelligence, the average skill of our labor, the average industry of our citizens, the average standard of living of our entire people—these determine the economic position of our State."

Mary's public roles, expertise, and advocacy work positioned her as a bellwether through 1908-1910, years that proved pivotal for public education legislation in Kentucky, but also a time of personal struggle and misfortune. Tragically, in 1908, Ruric fell increasingly ill and was eventually diagnosed with brain cancer, requiring special treatment at a Cincinnati hospital. In his absence, the trustees of Eastern State Normal School appointed Mary as acting president. When Ruric died on April 14, 1909, Mary was officially appointed to the role, making her the first female to serve as president of a public higher education institution in Kentucky. Mary received the same, full salary as her husband—an important recognition of her reputation and the trustees' faith in her skill.

With the state legislature's first major appropriation of state funds to the normal schools in hand, Mary's leadership guided the growth of the campus and curriculum. She established the first female residence hall and supervised the construction of two new buildings, saw the addition of sports leagues at the school, as well as the development of the new campus power plant. Her promotional efforts across the state significantly increased enrollment. Completed in 1909, the Roark Building became home to the sciences and agriculture departments and held Mary's administrative offices. Despite her successes, mourning and widowed with two children still at home, must have required a great deal of fortitude.

Mary's term as president ended in April 1910, when John Grant Crabbe was appointed the next president. Mary received wide praise for her strong leadership, bringing "success and harmony out of discord and seeming failure." With many hoping she would stay on as "an able assistant and sympathetic advisor" to Crabbe, she agreed to serve as the Dean of Women. Mary frequently entertained students at her residence and served as a sponsor for student organizations, while continuing to promote expanded educational opportunities for Kentucky women.

In 1911, Mary joined the Madison County Equal Rights Association and served as county delegate to KERA. During this time, she also recommended and judged a KERA sponsored student essay prize. At the regional and national levels, Mary served as president of the Women's Department of the Southern Educational Association in 1911-1912. She attended the organization's twenty-second annual convention in Houston, Texas in 1911, and delivered an address at the 1912 convention in Louisville. In 1913, Mary represented the Eastern State Normal College at the sixteenth Conference for Education in the South in Richmond, Virginia, which sponsored the first joint meeting of five women's educational organizations and was billed as the first conference in the United States focused on women's education in the South. She gave an address on women's "social life in the country" related to the conference theme of farm life and rural education.

After retiring from Eastern Kentucky State Normal in 1915, perhaps due to increasing health concerns, Mary joined her middle and youngest sons Raymond Jefferson and Eugene Washburn in Madison, Wisconsin, where she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned a master's degree in 1916. Her thesis, "A study of the graduate work done by women in the universities belonging to the Association of American Universities" served as the culmination of her work forwarding women's rights and access to universal education. While in Madison, Mary stayed involved with the local women's club.

In 1918, however, Mary again faced tragedy. Her youngest son, Eugene, an instructor of plant pathology, enlisted in the Navy as an aviator to serve in the Great War. Shortly after joining, Eugene died in Minneapolis at the Dunwoody Naval Training School of pneumonia, caused by the Spanish flu. Mary was by his side at the time of his death. From 1919-1921, Mary appears to have split her time between Madison and staying with her daughter Mary Kathleen in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, a growing area at the end of the new rapid transit line, known at the time for its "rooming houses and kitchenette apartments [and newly built] walk-up apartment buildings." They occupied a dwelling in a three-unit building (razed c1972) along with two other mother/widow-daughter pairs. Mary's son Ruric Creegan also listed the same address in Chicago from 1917-1919 while working for the United Sanitation Products Corporation as a chemist, before moving to Baltimore.

Although documentary evidence could not be located, one would like to hope that Mary participated in some way in the 1920 Suffrage Convention in Chicago and celebrated the passage of the 19th amendment along with other leaders in the cause.

Over the years, Mary contributed to a variety of charitable organizations and subscription drives, including the Belgian Fund during World War I, the Madison Wisconsin General Hospital, and numerous Kentucky charities.

Mary died on February 1, 1922, in Baltimore, Maryland, at the home of her son Ruric Creegan, who had recently purchased a new single-family house north of Johns Hopkins University. Her funeral was held in this home. Mary was buried in a family plot at the Richmond Cemetery in Kentucky (Section J, Lot 681) alongside her husband Ruric Nevel and son Eugene.

The Roark's four children, Ruric Creegan Roark (1887-1962), Raymond Jefferson Roark (1890-1966), Eugene Washburn Roark (1894-1918), Mary Kathleen Roark (1898-1981), each exemplified their parents' values of life-long education and community service.

Sources:

Birdwhistell, Terry L. Divided We Fall: State College and the Normal School Movement in Kentucky, 1880-1910. 1990. Online. Accessed 2020. https://uknowledge.uky.edu/libraries_facpub/5

Clark Alumni Bulletin, 1930. Clark University Archives.

Clark Alumni Register, 1940. Clark University Archives.

Clark University and Clark College, List of Degrees Granted 1889-1920. Clark University Archives.

"Daniel Creegan" and "James Creegan," The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database. National Park Service. Online. Accessed 2020. https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm

"Eastern Progress - 13 Nov 1997," Eastern Progress. Eastern Kentucky University, 1997. Online. Accessed 2020. https://encompass.eku.edu/progress_1997-98/13

Ellis, William E. A History of Eastern Kentucky University: The School of Opportunity. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2005. Online edition: https://uknowledge.uky.edu/upk_higher_education/10

Ellis, William E. A History of Education in Kentucky. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2011. Online edition: https://uknowledge.uky.edu/upk_united_states_history/180

"Eugene W. Roark," University of Wisconsin–Madison Gold Star Honor Roll, Memorial Union. Online Database. Accessed 2020. https://www.uwgoldstarhonorroll.org/service-member/178/eugene-w-roark

Forderhase, Nancy K. ""The Clear Call of Thoroughbred Women": The Kentucky Federation of Women's Clubs and the Crusade for Educational Reform, 1903-1909." The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 83:1 (1985). 19-35. Online. Accessed July 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23380314

Hay, Melba Porter. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and the Battle for a New South. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2009. Online. Accessed July 2020. https://uknowledge.uky.edu/upk_united_states_history/192

Hopkins, James F. The University of Kentucky: Origins and Early Years. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1951.

Kentucky Equal Rights Association Minutes and Reports, 1890-1917. Special Collections Research Center, University of Kentucky. Online. Accessed July 2020. https://exploreuk.uky.edu/?f%5Bsource_s%5D%5B%5D=Kentucky+Equal+Rights+Association+minutes+and+reports

Kleber, John E. The Kentucky Encyclopedia. 1992. Online. Accessed 2020. https://uknowledge-uky-edu.ezproxy.uky.edu/upk_united_states_history/146/

Laura Clay papers, General Correspondence. Special Collections Research Center, University of Kentucky. Online. Accessed 2020. https://exploreuk.uky.edu/fa/findingaid/?id=xt70rx937t9n

Leonard, John William. Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915. New York: The American Commonwealth Company, 1914. [LINK to Roark sketch]

"Kenwood," Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2005. Online. Accessed 2020. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/689.html

"Mary Creegan Roark," Eastern Kentucky University,Discover Eastern's First Ladies, Discover EKU Online Exhibit. Online. Accessed 2020. https://discovereku.eku.edu/exhibits/show/firstladies/normal/roark

"Mary Roark," Eastern Kentucky University: A Look in Time, Discover EKU Online Exhibit. Online. Accessed 2020. https://discovereku.eku.edu/exhibits/show/ekuhistory/eastern/mroark

Minutes of the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees, 1862-2015. Special Collections Research Center, University of Kentucky. Online. Accessed 2020.#x200ehttps://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog?f[source_s][]=Minutes%20of%20the%20University%20of%20Kentucky%20Board%20of%20Trustees

National American Woman Suffrage Association and League of Women Voters. Condensed Minutes of the Victory Convention (1869-1920) National American Woman Suffrage Association and First Congress, League of Woman Voters. Chicago: 1920.

National American Woman Suffrage Association. The Woman's Journal and Woman's Journal and Suffrage News, Boston: s.n., 1870-1917. Online. Accessed 2020. https://listview.lib.harvard.edu/lists/hollis-002490378

Oberlin Catalog, 1909 and Alumni and Development Records, Former Student Files. Oberlin College Archives.

Porter, Melba Dean. "Madeline McDowell Breckinridge: Her Role in The Kentucky Woman Suffrage Movement, 1908-1920," The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 72:4 (October 1974). 342-363. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23378346

Roark Family Collection, 1879-1960. Special Collections and Archives, Eastern Kentucky University. http://www.findingaids.eku.edu/?p=collections/controlcard&id=552

Roark, Mary Creegan. A study of the graduate work done by women in the universities belonging to the Association of American Universities. Master's thesis. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1916. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/005749272

Roark, Mary. "Recent Tendencies in Education," The Illustrated Kentuckian 2:3 (July 1893). 170.

Roark, Mrs. R. N. "Relation of the Public Schools to Kentucky's Commercial Development," School Betterment for Kentucky. Kentucky Federation of Women's Clubs. Harrodsburg, KY: Press of the Democrat, 1908.

"Ruric [Creegan] Roark," The Kentucky Basketball Statistics Project, Big Blue History. Online Database. Accessed 2020. http://www.bigbluehistory.net/bb/Statistics/Players/Roark_Ruric.html

Smith, Travis Edwin. The Rise of Teacher Training in Kentucky. Nashville: George Peabody College for Teachers, 1932.

Vertical Files, 1906-Present, Box 5, Folder: 51- Mary Roark. Special Collections and Archives, Eastern Kentucky University.

Wyatt, Nelda. Into the promised land: the transformation of Eastern and Western Kentucky normal schools into teachers colleges, 1906-1922. PhD dissertation. University of Kentucky, 1999.

Note: According to WorldCat, The Kentucky White Ribbon, Lexington, KY: Kentucky Woman's Christian Temperance Union, c1901, may have existed for at least 42 volumes, with the last known publication in March 1949. Only a handful of issues have survived or are currently cataloged.

Newspapers (from Newspapers.com):

  • "And Still Another, Mary C. Roark, Glasgow, KY," The Voice (New York, NY), 28 June 1888.
  • "Evolution of Democracy Discussed," The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, OH), 19 November 1904.
  • "Important Property Transfer," The Record (Greenville, KY), 19 August 1909.
  • "The Educators, Many Distinguished Men," The Houston Post (Houston, TX), 29 Oct 1911.
  • "Educators Convene Today," The Houston Post (Houston, TX), 30 November 1911.
  • "Women's Interest," The Farmer and Mechanic (Raleigh, NC), 1 April 1913.
  • "Women's Interests to Received Attention at Richmond Conference," The Charlotte News (Charlotte, NC), 9 April 1913.
  • "Farm Life Made Chief Subject," The Owensboro Messenger (Owensboro, KY), 18 April 1913.
  • "Women's Interest," The Farmer and Mechanic (Raleigh, NC), 1 April 1913.
  • "Woman's Club to Lunch," The Capital Times (Madison, WI), 11 May 1918.
  • "Dr. Roark Buried at Forest Hill, Military Unit Acts as Escort, Taps Sounded at Grave," Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), 16 October 1918.
  • "Mother Dies," Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), 2 February 1922.
  • "Mrs. Mary C. Roark, Madison, Dies in East," The Capital Times (Madison, WI), 2 February 1922.
  • "Mary C. Roark," The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, MD), 2 February 1922.

The Richmond Climax, The Climax-Madisonian (Richmond, KY)

  • "The Eastern Kentucky State Normal has certainly not suffered," 13 April 1910.
  • "Delegates Selected," 11 October 1911.
  • "Personals," 7 October 1914, 24 February 1915, 4 August 1915, et al.

Richmond Register, Madison Journal (Richmond, KY)

Leader, Herald-Leader, The Daily Leader (Lexington, KY)

  • "The White Ribboners," 20 March 1890.
  • "The Women Enter Upon Their Political Rights Today," 8 August 1895.
  • "Gift of Books," 30 April 1896.
  • "Lecture Tonight," 12 December 1899.
  • "Belgian Relief," 16 December 1914.

Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY)

  • "The Women Complete Their Board of Education Ticket," 8 October 1895.
  • "Women will Try Their Hands at Politics," 3 November 1895.
  • "The Women Carried the Day at Lexington's Election," 6 November 1895.
  • "Women at the Polls In Lexington Last Fall," 17 May 1896.
  • "Society News Notes, Richmond," 10 January 1914.

Ancestry.com:

  • 1860 United States Federal Census
  • 1870 United States Federal Census
  • 1910 United States Federal Census
  • 1920 United States Federal Census
  • "Application for Charles Creegan to North Dakota Sons of the American Revolution," Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970. Provo, UT: 2011.
  • "Census Place: Chicago Ward 6, Cook (Chicago), Illinois; Roll: T625_309; Page: 6B; Enumeration District: 308," 1920 United States Federal Census. Provo, UT: 2010.
  • Nebraska, Marriage Records, 1855-1908. Lehi, UT: 2017.
  • New York, New York, Index to Death Certificates, 1862-1948. Lehi, UT: 2020.
  • Ohio Department of Health. Ohio, Death Records, 1908-1932, 1938-2018. Provo, UT: 2010.
  • U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995. Provo, UT: 2011.
  • U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865. American Civil War Research Database. Provo, UT: 2009.
  • "Ledger Book page 415," Warren County, Ohio Marriage Records, 1774-1993. Provo, UT: 2010.

Find-A-Grave:

Special Thanks to:

Katie Stebbins
Goddard Library, Clark University

Jeanne Doan
Harmon Museum, Warren County History Center

Caitlyn Rahschulte and Jackie Couture
Special Collections & Archives, Eastern Kentucky University

Josh Caster
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Louisa Hoffman
Oberlin College Archives

back to top