As we salute Old Glory during commencement, let’s hearken to an era gone by, and remember Katharine Lee Bates (August 12, 1859 – March 28, 1929), Wellesley Person of the Week. A celebrated poet, Bates authored the vividly descriptive “America the Beautiful”, whose words and melody grace public gatherings throughout the land to this day.
Bates was born in Falmouth, MA. Sadly, her father, Congregational minister William Bates, passed away a mere month following her birth. Katharine’s brothers entered the world of work at an early age to help their mother, Cornelia Frances (Lee) Bates, support the family in William’s absence, and to ensure that their sister “Katie” would receive the finest education available. Her intellect and academic potential were evident even in her earliest years.
The Bates family moved from Falmouth to Wellesley, MA, when Katharine was 12 years old. Bates graduated from Newton High School and Wellesley High School. She then enrolled at the recently founded Wellesley College, where she earned a B.A degree in 1880, and was president of the college’s second graduating class.
She found her calling as a teacher, upon graduating from Wellesley College. Bates taught at Natick High School and at Dana Hall, a preparatory school in Wellesley. In 1885, she became an instructor of English literature at Wellesley College. Following a year of studies at Oxford, Wellesley Collegegranted Bates an M.A. degree, and she became a full professor and was named head of Wellesley College’s English Literature Department in 1891, a post she would hold until 1920. She retired in 1925.
Her teaching demeanor was described by many students and colleagues as serene. Nevertheless, she demanded the highest standards of accuracy and integrity of her students. When intellectually provoked, she could be lured into debate. Her keen mental power, knowledge of the facts, and mastery of the art of badinage tested the limits of anyone foolish enough to try to defeat her in argument. Her intellectual agility stood in clear contrast to her physical nature, which was ungainly, and characterized by very slow movements.
Bates was a lecturer at Colorado College, in Colorado Springs, CO, in the summer of 1893. That year, she wrote the poem “America the Beautiful”, which was the fruit of her inspiration, after experiencing the breathtaking view of the countryside from atop nearby Pike’s Peak. She rewrote the poem in 1904, and wrote her 3rd and final version in 1913.
Bates is widely recognized as a writer of poetry, verse, travel books and literary texts. She was also an accomplished Spanish/English translator of texts. Bates dedicated her book Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance, to Katharine Coman. Much of the poetry contained therein, refers to her relationship with Coman. Bates shared many years with her companion, Coman, who was a professor, department chair and dean at Wellesley College. Coman died of cancer in 1915.
Bates was an active member of numerous and wide ranging humanitarian, academic, and political organizations, including the American Association for Labor Legislation, the Antivivisection Society, the League of Nations and the American Poetry Society, to name but a few.
Katharine Lee Bates died at her Wellesley home on March 28, 1929 at the age of 70.
For more information see Dorothy Burgess, Dream and Deed: The Story of Katharine Lee Bates (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952) and the entry on Katharine Lee Bates in Notable American Women : the modern period : a biographical dictionary, edited by Barbara Sicherman, Carol Hurd Green with Ilene Kantrov, Harriette Walker [Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980]
Written by Mur Wolf