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Mary F. Wagley, former headmistress of St. Paul’s School for Girls and first woman to join MIT Corp., dies

Mary Frances Penney Wagley broke ground as the first woman to join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Corp., one of a series of achievements in education, science and public service during her long career.
Mary Frances Penney Wagley broke ground as the first woman to join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Corp., one of a series of achievements in education, science and public service during her long career. (Handout / HANDOUT)

Mary F. Wagley, a seasoned educator who was headmistress of St. Paul’s School for more than a decade and the first woman to join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Corp., died Nov. 1 at her Broadmead Retirement Community home in Cockeysville. The former longtime resident of the Woodbrook section of Baltimore County was 94.

“Mary Frances Wagley was a force for a better world and a pioneer for women in science and technology,” wrote MIT Corporation chairperson Diane Greene, the first woman to serve in this role, in an email. “She set an example both with her intellect and her leadership across an inspiring and impactful life. Everyone at MIT is fortunate to be benefitting from her path-breaking footsteps.”

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The former Mary Frances Penney, daughter of James Cash Penney Jr., founder of the J.C. Penney stores, and his wife, Caroline Marie Autenrieth Penney, a philanthropist who supported the Metropolitan Opera Co,. and the New York City Ballet, was born in New York City, and spent her early years in Rye, New York.

She later moved with her family to a farm in White Plains, New York, and s a young woman, became an accomplished equestrian, and competed nationally in the National Horse Show in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

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“Mrs. Wagley has left a lasting legacy at St. Paul’s School for Girls and one of the most amazing person I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know in my life,” said Elise Abell Butler, of Bare Hills, who is a trustee of the school, and a member of the Class of 1983.

Mrs. Wagley was a 1944 graduate of the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia, and earned a bachelor’s degree three years later in chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was one of 12 female students in her class, and a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1950 from England’s Oxford University.

When Mrs. Wagley applied to MIT, a dean tried to talk her out of it, thinking she’d be unhappy there.

“Well, I proved him wrong,” she told an interviewer in 2009 from MIT Infinite History, an MIT website. “I was happy from the moment I stepped foot in the Institute . . . I was just ready to soak up all I could learn and from the day I walked in those doors at 77 Mass. Avenue, it just seemed to me this is the place I belong.”

During her student days at MIT, she and her roommate were forced to live off campus because there were no dormitories, dining or sports facilities for women.

In 1963, she studied Spanish at Middlebury language School in Middlebury, Vermont, and educational psychology at Towson University in 1970. She also studied ethics and religious education at St. Mary’s Seminary Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Roland Park.

She was married in 1953 to Dr. Philip Franklin Wagley, an internist, and joined her husband in Baltimore, where he was on the faculty at Hopkins.

He died in 2000. Amongst his patients were H.L. Mencken and poet Ogden Nash.

From 1950 to 1953, Mrs. Wagley was an instructor and associate professor in the chemistry department at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. After coming to Baltimore she worked for a year as a research associate in chemistry at Hopkins, and then taught chemistry at Goucher College from 1956 to 1957. She was also a part-time instructor from 1958 to 1960 at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.

She and her husband had three children, and by 1960, Mrs. Wagley explained in a 1984 interview with The Baltimore Sun, “when the third child arrived, I realized I couldn’t keep working and keep the family going too,” so she became a full-time homemaker. When her last child started school, she felt the urge to go back to work.

“I was looking at getting retooled but then I heard that Rosalind Levering, who had founded St. Paul’s School for Girls was retiring. I thought, ‘I think I might apply for that job,’” she said in the news article. In 1966, she began her 12-year tenure as headmistress of the Brooklandville private girls' school.

“They were wonderful years,” she recalled in The Sun interview. “I did use my scientific training. As a school administrator you’re constantly moving back and forth between the theoretical and the practical."

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Ms. Butler, a trustee at the school, was encouraged by Mrs. Wagley to attend St. Paul’s.

“She gave me the opportunity to come to St. Paul’s even though she knew it would be academically challenging for me. But she mentored me, and made a lasting impression on my life,” Ms. Butler said. “She was incredibly gracious and patient, however, she also knew a student’s potential and she made sure that they met that potential by challenging them.”

Mrs. Wagley left St. Paul’s in 1978, and the next year was appointed executive director of Episcopal Social Services, now Episcopal Social Ministries, which she headed until 1984.

“I didn’t look for the job with the church. It came to me. A lot in life is like that --- the result of happenstance,” she told The Sun. "Now, just when I was wide open, a priest asked me if I would serve on the board of Episcopal Social Services. I answered I wasn’t much for boards, that I preferred rolling up my sleeves and getting into things.

“He said, ‘Oh, would you consider serving as executive director?’ Deep down , I welcomed the chance to work in the inner city.”

In 1970, Mrs. Wagley was the first woman to join the MIT Corporation which governs the institution, a position she led for a decade, and in 1984 became the first female president of the MIT Alumni Association.

During her tenure with the MIT Corporation, she had served on visiting committees that sponsored research, nuclear engineering, chemistry, biology, the humanities and libraries.

“I’ve tried to do a good job thinking that that paved the way for women who came after me,” Mrs. Wagley said in the MIT Infinite History interview.

Mrs. Wagley had been a trustee of Foxcroft School, Bryn Mawr School, Goucher College, and then American University of Beirut. She was the first woman member of the board of the old Maryland National Bank, where she served from 1983 to 1988. She was vice president and treasurer of the James C. Penny Foundation from 1985 to 1998, and had been a member of the women’s advisory committee of the America3 Foundation.

She was a longtime active member of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, serving on its vestry. After moving to Broadmead in 2006, she joined Immanuel Episcopal Church in Glencoe, where she was a member of its vestry.

Reflecting on her life, Mrs. Wagley told The Sun, “I have have thought about the road I’ve traveled. It has been kind of unpredictable and torturous. I guess it goes back to the way I grew up. Nowhere in my childhood did I ever get the feeling there were things I could not do because I was a girl.”

Because of the pandemic, plans for a virtual memorial service to be held in the next few months are incomplete, and those wishing to attend are asked to email mfpservice@gmail.com

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Wagley is survived by a son, James “Jay” Franklin Penney Wagley of Dallas; two daughters, Anne Paxton Wagley of Berkeley, California, Mary Frances Kemper Wagley Copp of Fisherville, Massachusetts; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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