Kate Dwyer, One of Winnetka’s Finest and Longest-Serving Teachers

Education pioneers Carleton Washburne and Kate Dwyer, c. 1920. (WHS archives)

Originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2021 Gazette, by Duff Peterson.

In a village justly proud of its schools, Winnetka has only one street named after a teacher, Dwyer Court, which runs between Elm and Oak. It’s one of our few one-way streets, and our only street without a single residence or business on it. It honors a much-loved Winnetka teacher, Kate Dwyer, who taught as many as 3,000 Winnetka children in a career spanning 48 years. She taught first grade at Horace Mann School, which stood from 1899-1940 on the present site of the U.S. Post Office.

Both of Kate Dwyer’s parents came from Ireland, probably during 1845-1849 when famine, epidemics and civil unrest overwhelmed the country. At least a million people in Ireland died during those terrible years, and about two million people emigrated, mostly to the United States.[1] Thomas and Bridget Dwyer met in a cabin near the Patterson Tavern, which stood near the present entrance of Lloyd Park, and were married there in 1856. The couple lived briefly in a house near the present-day junction of Westmoor and Rosewood, where Kate was born in 1858. In 1864, Thomas Dwyer built a wood-frame house for his family at the southeast corner of Elm and Birch. Kate Dwyer would live in this house for more than 60 years.

In the early days, deep woods surrounded the Dwyer house, and Kate and her sister Emma had trouble finding their way to Winnetka’s only store, located at the southwest corner of Linden and Oak, until their father blazed a trail on trees along the way. Elizabeth Otis, an old-time resident, recalled that during the 1870s, the Dwyer house was “the last house on Elm Street . . . before you plunged into the wilderness.”[2] To the west, through the woods and down a slope, was a creek that children found difficult to cross. (Today’s Provident Avenue follows its course.) Beyond that, after a few hundred more yards of deep woods, lay the Skokie marsh, which in wet seasons was up to a mile wide.[3] These dense forests and wetlands formed an almost impenetrable barrier to east-west travel to and from the tiny settlement.

The founders of Winnetka, Charles and Sarah Peck, employed Thomas Dwyer to plant trees on and around their 11-acre property bounded by Elm, Maple, Pine and Lincoln. Over time, the area became known as an “arboretum,” attracting botany professors and their students.[4] This part of Winnetka still features a great variety of trees, many not native to the Midwest. It’s possible that some of the trees Thomas Dwyer planted are still standing.

Young Kate Dwyer strikes a pose for her formal portrait, c. 1890. (WHS archive)

Kate Dwyer attended Winnetka’s first public school on the present-day Village Green followed by Academy Hall, then the only school in the area offering a high school curriculum.[5] She did not go to college.[6] As a first-grade teacher, she taught generations of young Winnetkans to read and write, and she had a lot of patience, understanding that not all kids learn these skills in the same way. Reminiscences by her pupils recall her “gentle nature and outstanding ability.” For decades, many Winnetka parents specifically requested that Miss Dwyer teach their children.[7]

In 1919, the Winnetka School Board appointed the 29-year-old Carleton Washburne as Superintendent of Schools. Washburne soon introduced what became known as the “Winnetka Plan” of education, which recognized learning differences among children, replaced letter grades with “goals,” promoted self-paced learning, and provided kids with greater opportunities for creative expression.[8] Many parents saw Washburne’s ideas as a rejection of academic standards, and he was controversial in the village,[9] but Kate Dwyer (who by then had been teaching for 40 years) looked favorably on the young Californian’s reforms. Soon after Washburne’s arrival, she published an article in the local press contrasting the new methods with the old system of rote learning, saying, “We have passed from that day of cold formality to our present schools in which children are self-expressive and responsible.”[10] Near the end of her career, she was described as “one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the individual system of instruction.”[11]

In 1927, after Kate Dwyer retired, the School Board acquired her property at Elm and Birch to be used as play space for Horace Mann School. Although the Board planned to sell the Dwyer house at public auction, it being in good repair and worth moving elsewhere, it was demolished in July 1929.[12] In 1941, after Horace Mann itself was torn down, the Park District purchased a 0.6-acre tract behind the school site from the Board of Education.[13] This tract, combined with the old Dwyer property, became Dwyer Park.[14] Dwyer Court was platted before the Post Office’s construction in 1959.[15]

Kate Dwyer never married. She died in October 1933 and was buried in Greeley, Colorado, where she had been living with her sister.[16] She is remembered today in Dwyer Court, Dwyer Park, the Kate Dwyer Room at Skokie School, and as one of Winnetka’s finest and longest-serving teachers.

1 See, e.g., J.C. Beckett, The Making of Modern Ireland 1603-1923. London: Faber and Faber (1966), p. 343-344.
2 Elizabeth L.S. Otis, “Winnetka Memories,” manuscript written in 1922, p. 5. The Kinney Store, said to be Winnetka’s first commercial activity, was finally demolished in January 1932 to make way for the Illinois Bell Telephone building, now AT&T. Winnetka Talk, January 14, 1932, p. 3.
3 Dr. Charles Shabica, “Swamp Secrets: The Natural and Unnatural Evolution of the Skokie Lagoons,” Winnetka Historical Society Gazette, Fall/Winter 2012, https://www.winnetkahistory.org/gazette/swampsecretsskokielagoons/
4 Much of the detail on Kate Dwyer’s early life is taken from the obituary of Kate Dwyer, Winnetka Talk, October 19, 1933.
5 Academy Hall stood at Ash and Ridge from 1870-1925, when it was transformed into Winnetka’s Police and Fire Station. (New Trier High School would not officially open until 1901.) The building was demolished in 1963 and replaced by a new modern public safety building, see Caroline Harnsberger, Winnetka: The Biography of a Village. Evanston: The Schori Press, 1977, p. 233, which itself was demolished in recent years and replaced by a new facility.
6 In the late 19 th century, many American teachers lacked even a high school education. See, e.g., https://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/timeline.html. In her later years, Kate Dwyer did take summer courses at Columbia University and the University of Chicago. Winnetka Talk, March 8, 1930.
7 Obituary of Kate Dwyer in the Winnetka Talk, October 19, 1933, p. 51. See also a reminiscence by Arthur S. Anderson in Lora Townsend Dickinson, The Story of Winnetka. Winnetka Historical Society 1956, p. 171.
8 Although born in Chicago and raised in the Midwest, Carleton Washburne (1889-1968) initially settled in Northern California after graduating from Stanford. He earned a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, one of the first PhD’s in Education in the country and taught at the elementary school affiliated with San Francisco State Teachers’ College. In Winnetka, Crow Island School, which opened in 1940, is his principal monument. He resigned as Superintendent in 1943 to enlist in the U.S. Army’s effort to reopen schools in Italy as the country fell
to the Allies. See, e.g., William Meuer & Jan Tubergen, “Carleton Washburne,” Winnetka Historical Society Gazette, 1998, https://www.winnetkahistory.org/gazette/carleton-washburne/.
9 Clarence Randall, a president of the Winnetka School Board in the 1930’s, not only found his own children’s jargon-filled homework assignments baffling, but fielded regular complaints about Washburne from townspeople. In their view, “If Johnny couldn’t spell, Washburne was at the bottom of it,” he recounted. Caroline Harnsberger, Winnetka: The Biography of a Village. Evanston: The Schori Press, 1977, p. 253. See also Grant Pick, “A School Fit for Children,” Chicago Reader, February 28, 1991, https://chicagoreader.com/news-politics/a-school-fit-for-children/.
10 Kate Dwyer, “Early Education in Winnetka,” Winnetka Talk, date clipped, probably 1921.
11 Margery Windes, “Kate Dwyer Teaches Three Generations of Winnetka Pupils,” Winnetka Talk, March 8, 1930.
12 “The westernmost part of Miss Dwyer’s back yard will be preserved as a play space for little children, the present apple trees being retained for climbing purposes,” noted the Winnetka Talk, October 27, 1928, p. 7; see also Winnetka Talk, March 8, 1930.
13 Winnetka Talk, May 8, 1941, p. 1.
14 Winnetka Talk, September 11 and 18, 1958, p. 1. The park also incorporated a smaller parcel known as the “Klingeman Tract.” Klingeman, the owner of the Indian Trail restaurant, located on the site of the present Tocco Winnetka, had bought the land in July 1958, concerned about the possible loss of parking spaces for his restaurant with the planned construction of the new post office. Condemnation proceedings began in September 1958, but Klingeman ended up selling the parcel to the Park District for less than his cost. Winnetka Talk, September 11 and 18 and October 9, 1958, all p. 1.
15 Winnetka Talk, October 9, 1958, p. 5.
16 Obituary of Kate Dwyer in the Winnetka Talk, October 19, 1933, p. 51.

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