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Mother’s Day discovery: Mary E. Finley was salutatorian at Harrisburg Catholic High School in 1924

… awarded a four-year college scholarship by Sisters of Mercy

A few days ago, I received a notification from that someone had posted a photo of my mother — Mary E. Finley — on my family tree. Unfortunately, my membership is no longer active, so to find it, I had to reactivate for another six months — which is probably a good thing.

However, what I found was a copy of an article from “The Daily News” of Harrisburg, Pa., printed on June 27, 1924. It was actually placed on Ancestry by the daughter of a first cousin on my mother’s, Pat John Reagan almost ten years ago. This was the first that I had actually seen it.

I remember vividly being told by my mother that she had been salutatorian of her class at Harrisburg Catholic High School (now Bishop McDevitt), but I had not seen the article confirming it.

Now, we have that. The story also has a photo of her though the caption is wrong. She is the one on the left.

In addition, the article notes that my mother and the valedictorian of the class were awarded four-year college scholarships, something that we did not know,

Two scholarships for a four years’ college course, awarded by the Sisters of Mercy of Misericordia College, Dallas, Pa., were given to Elizabeth M. Gaffney and Mary E. Finley.

The Evening News, June 17, 1924

Her accomplishments

I wish that I know where my mother’s scrapbook went, but somehow, it disappeared along with many other articles when our homestead was sold without notifying us about it. We had many boxes in that attic, but … ancient history.

However, what I do remember is being told stories by our mother of her academic accomplishments. This was one of them, although she said that her class had only 17 students in it. Still, with the Sisters of Mercy, it was a rigorous academic school. She received two individual awards for academic excellence. The first was the prize for fourth-year mathematics and the other was the bishop’s third and fourth year prize for Christian Doctrine.

The students were presented their diplomas by Bishop McDevitt, for whom the school is now named.

Rare to graduate from college in the 1920s

While she was awarded a college scholarship, my mother first attended Beckley Business College, which was then a commercial school that had opened in 1918. However, after a year, she entered Dickinson College in Carlisle, and she commuted there each day via train.

Four years later, she had earned a B.A. in English, magna cum laude. Then she sought a teaching job in English, and one was available at Lilly High School in Western Pennsylvania. The rest, as they say, is history. She taught, met my father, Hugh B. Conrad, Sr., married him in 1937 and was the mother of four children and seven grandchildren.

A woman earning a college degree in the 1920s was unusual, a tremendous accomplishment.

The question that we have had over the years is how she could have afforded to attend a private college the caliber of Dickinson. Earning a scholarship from the Sisters of Mercy could not have paid the tuition for that.

My belief is that she was very close to one of the members of the Cameron family who had brought my grandparents to the U.S. from Ireland.

Mary Cameron

Patrick Finley and Mary Norris, my grandparents, were brought to America by the Cameron family in Harrisburg in the 1880s. From what I can tell, they came over as indentured servants, which meant that their future employers paid their way to America. They agreed to work for at least five years to pay off that debt, along with a salary, and the Camerons provided lodging for them in a home behind their mansion on Front Street in Harrisburg.

Pat and Mary were married at St. James Catholic Church in 1903. Their first two children died in childbirth, but my mother was born in 1907 and became their only child.

So, for a child of two indentured servants to not just earn a college degree in the 20s but also to earn it with high honors was a tremendous accomplishment.

My grandfather worked as a coachman for U.S. Senator J. Donald Cameron and later Secretary of War under Ulysses Grant while Mary Norris worked as a servant.

Harris-Cameron Mansion, Harrisburg, Pa. where my grandparents worked

One of Sen. Cameron’s children was Miss Mary Cameron, who never married. We remember her well because every time my mother visited Harrisburg, she went to visit with “Miss Mary.” My conjecture is that Miss Mary paid the lion’s share of my mother’s way through Dickinson.

So, the Cameron legacy started by Sen. Simon Cameron who was a multi-millionaire businessman and served as Secretary of War under President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, was very important in the formation of our family.

And this little find on Ancestry fills in some of the empty links of the legacy of our family.

Happy Mother's Day to Mary Finley Conrad (1907-73).

My parents in 1972 at the time of their 35th Wedding Anniversrry

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