Residing in the basement of Miller Hall is the Paul R. Stewart Museum, which serves as a collection of artifacts and novelties from Waynesburg University’s rich history.
Tucked away behind the museum’s ill-lit corridors of glass-encased exhibits and rustic decor is the Visitor’s Center, also known as the office of Courtney Dennis, the associate director.
In her small corner of the world, Dennis spends her days working by herself, quietly carrying out a variety of tasks for the university. Her main duties include giving tours of the museum to alumni and visitors, conducting research on the university’s history, archiving photos and creating new exhibits.
“I am the only museum staff person, so I wear a lot of hats when it comes to this portion of my job,” she said.
Hanging above Dennis’ desk is a handkerchief sewn by Mary Charity (Scott) Martin, a 1901 alumna who is known for her time devoted to helping soldiers and families during World War II.
Done completely by hand, the work features a depiction of Miller Hall in the center, with the names of faculty members sewn around it, along with the words “Waynesburg College 1898” underneath.
For Dennis, the handkerchief is a daily reminder of the strong women who came through Waynesburg before her.
“Waynesburg University has always been a special place for female leaders,” Dennis said. “We’ve come a long way.”
The history of women at Waynesburg College began in the 1800s with Margaret Bell Miller.
According to the book “The Waynesburg College Story” by William H. Dusenberry, Miller was employed by the university in the 1850s to “take charge of a school for female students.” Miller later became principal of the “Female Seminary,” which was originally separate from Waynesburg College’s first president, the Rev. Joshua Loughran’s classes. Dusenberry wrote that this was likely due to a general reluctance to mix males and females in a co-educational classroom.
While teaching, she met her future husband, Alfred Brashear Miller in the historic Hanna Hall, and they got married in 1855. Alfred Miller became president of Waynesburg College in 1859, and both he and Margaret Miller worked to support the college and plant the roots that have slowly grown into what the university is today.
Outside of the college, Margaret Miller was also a mother to eight children, leaving little time for much of anything else. Douglas G. Lee, the current president of Waynesburg University, said a typical day for her would include teaching for seven to eight hours a day, then heading home to tend to her family.
“She worked day-in, day-out,” Lee said. “She is a really good example of a life of purpose for the glory of God.”
When she died, Margaret Miller was buried behind Burns Hall, and her grave can still be visited today.
“When they carried up her casket, the procession was female students, male professors and male students,” Lee said. “That’s how important she was.”
When Waynesburg College was created, it was English common law that women were not equal to men, and thus did not need the same education.
The Millers, as well as the other founders of Waynesburg College, did not agree with this sentiment. Instead, they made it a point to give women access to higher education. The college was one of the first institutions in Pennsylvania to grant degrees to women, with university records reflecting female graduates as early as 1857.
To Lee, this co-educational concept coincides with the overall mission of the university.
“I think, for Waynesburg, it has been our heritage to go against the grain of society,” Lee said. “Part of that was because of scarce educational resources in the region in terms of higher education. Profoundly, though, it was the belief that women should have the same rights as men.”
Dennis always dreamt of working for a museum.
“I had such a huge interest in living history, but the museum field is a hard one to break into,” she said. “But still, it was always in the back of my mind.”
Dennis received her undergraduate degree from Bethany College in 2003. With her dream of working in a museum as her motivation, she attended IUP to receive a master’s in public history. Eventually, she landed a job in Waynesburg with the Greene County Tourism office. While living in the Waynesburg area, Dennis had the chance to fall in love with Waynesburg College.
“Living in Waynesburg for so long, the college was a major institution here, and the school, I thought, seemed like a wonderful place with a lot of opportunities,” Dennis said.
In March 2010, Dennis was hired by the college through the Office of Institutional Advancement. As her department began to grow, Dennis said she finally had the chance to branch out and find new opportunities for herself within the college.
That’s when she began working with James D. “Fuzzy” Randolph, the curator for the Paul R. Stewart Museum since 1974.
As they began working together, Randolph and Dennis grew a “beautiful” friendship. He taught her everything he knew about the university, and she absorbed his knowledge of the institution like a sponge.
“Not only was I able to work in a museum, which was a dream for my career, but I also got a chance to form a relationship with Fuzzy, which was so special to me,” Dennis said.
After Randolph passed away in 2016, Dennis became the full-time director and curator of the museum. For her, it’s more than a job — it’s an honor.
“My variety of roles at Waynesburg are a reflection on the fact that this institution allows you to follow your interests and your passions, and puts you in a position where your strengths are put to good use,” Dennis said. “I feel so fulfilled.”
While today’s campus has zero traces of Greek life, at one point, Waynesburg was flourishing with fraternities and sororities.
In the fall of 1960, the college already had two sorority chapters, Alpha Delta Pi and Sigma Kappa, but several freshmen girls wanted to start a third: Beta Sigma Omicron, a southern national sorority. After inquiring to the sorority chapter’s national headquarters, the group was made official in January 1961.
In the sorority’s third year, the spring of 1963, two students expressed interest in joining the sorority: Marilyn West, who was black, and Lynn Marcus, who was Jewish. After checking with national headquarters, there were no discriminatory clauses that would stop them from joining, so they continued with the initiation processes.
However, soon after, the chapter received a letter to halt all initiations. Several months later, it was clear to the sorority leaders on campus that the halt in the process was discrimination against West and Marcus.
At this point, the national organization gave the Waynesburg chapter three choices: West could join the sorority only as a social member, she could leave the sorority altogether or they could send their charter back. In President Lee’s mind, the choice they made was “humbling.”
“They sent their charter back,” Lee said. “That’s part of who we are.”
Eventually, the BSO women became Alpha Beta Nu, which was a new, local sorority. While some women were upset with the new chapter, the majority of the group’s new motto was this: “God and others before ourselves.”
Dennis said this small act of just a few women eventually garnered the attention of thousands.
“This was a story that originated in The Yellow Jacket, but ended up being picked up as a national story,” Dennis said. “It’s just another great story that has come out of this school, which is another thing I love about my job here. We’ve got a lot of really, really great
stories to tell.”
When it comes to sexism in the workplace, Dennis describes herself as one of “the lucky ones.”
“I really have not experienced discrimination in any of my roles,” Dennis said. “I am one of the lucky ones. That’s not something I have had to struggle with. I have always had the same opportunities, respect and compensation as my male counterparts.”
Dennis said she is especially impressed by Waynesburg’s clear efforts of hiring women and placing them in important positions.
“If you look around campus, especially if you look at our senior staff, I think a majority of them are women,” Dennis said. “That’s very telling of what type of institution we are. The only thing we have not had is a female president, but I don’t feel like that’s out of the realm of possibility.”
Lee said having female leaders is important to him, but discrimination is not in his vocabulary.
“I wanted women in leadership roles here for the perspective,” Lee said. “More often than not, my question becomes whether or not they have the tools and knowledge to get the job done. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a man or a woman.”
Despite never feeling the weight of gender discrimination herself, Dennis said she feels a strong connection to the women of Waynesburg’s history.
“Though I didn’t go to school here, I still feel like part of the Waynesburg family,” Dennis said. “For those who stood up against prejudice and discrimination, I appreciate their struggles, and I am always so amazed by what they’ve done. They changed history.”