Lest We Forget . . .
Dora McFarland, Crusading Mathematician
Dora McFarland was born in April 1895, in the little town of Aledo, Illinois. After high school, she attended nearby Monmouth College, a Presbyterian school of around 250 students. She majored in mathematics and, after graduating in 1916, started teaching math (and coaching girls’ basketball) in nearby towns.
Then, in 1919, she decided to take some graduate courses during summer break. A fellow teacher at her high school mentioned a sister living in Norman, and McFarland thought it might be a lark to apply at the University of Oklahoma. Besides, she later joked, Norman was a long way from Aledo, and if she failed in graduate school, it would take a long while for word to get back home.
Instead of failing, she excelled. She devoured courses from Samuel Reaves, Edgar Meacham and Nathan Court and liked it enough to return the following year. In the middle of that second summer, Reaves asked her if she would consider staying on as an instructor.
“I had not asked for the position,” said McFarland. “In fact, I had not even thought of such a thing, but I quickly accepted.”
She resigned her high school job and began teaching at the University in September 1920. She taught until retiring in 1965, introducing, with consummate skill, nearly 10,000 students to the world of basic mathematics. Among her students were Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Carl Albert, U.S. Sen. Mike Monroney and two freshmen, Eugene Springer and John Brixey, who not only would become stars in the math department, but also her longtime and affectionate colleagues.
McFarland became an assistant professor in 1927, an associate in 1938, and a full professor in 1948. She earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1936 and, in retirement, authored a textbook with her colleague and friend Eunice Lewis.
Halfway through her career, Reaves wrote an evaluation of her work, “Success as a teacher: Excellent. Cooperation: Perfect. Temperament: Cheerful, cordial, sympathetic, helpful, interested in students (apart from their studies) . . . Highly efficient on committees and as adviser to students . . . Is not interested in mathematical research so much as in doing a thoroughly good job as teacher and adviser. Rating: Superior.”
She made dozens of friends and became a figure of admiration and influence on the campus. Her special role was to advocate on behalf of women students, Oklahoma women teachers of arithmetic, and women colleagues at the University. She pursued that work in a dozen different ways: as a sympathetic counselor to young women on the campus, as a leading activist and national officer of the YWCA, a sponsor of Mortar Board, the founder and president of the state branch of Delta Kappa Gamma (the honorary women’s teacher organization), the adviser of a sorority, the organizer of summer institutes for math teachers, and an energetic member and officer of numerous professional organizations. She usually served as the treasurer, she said, “since I could add and subtract.”
Her activism was not limited to helping women. She was one of the founders of the Oklahoma Civil Liberties Union, a member of Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and many other citizens’ groups. In connection with her YWCA efforts, she had opportunities to work with African American delegates, fellow activists and speakers.
On several occasions, she defied Norman public opinion and invited Black officials and students to the campus, guided them around town, and several times put them up at her house at 620 East Boyd Street. After one such venture, a furious neighbor rang her doorbell, denounced her for ignoring Norman’s longstanding racial practice as a sundown town, and told her that if she continued in her ways, he would call the sheriff. McFarland replied that she would immediately call the sheriff herself if he did not get off her porch. The two never spoke again.
She never married. But she was a watchful mentor of her nieces and nephews, luring some of them to Norman for their higher education, housing them, taking them on trips, worrying about their studies, their courtships, their futures, their happiness. Dora McFarland died on Nov. 26, 1987, at the age of 92.
Editor’s Note: This issue of Sooner Magazine marks the debut of “Lest We Forget . . .” a column by David W. Levy, OU Professor Emeritus of the Department of History. Levy has chosen to celebrate those individuals who have not been memorialized with their names on buildings or other features on the campus, but who—in more modest, but no less admirable ways—helped make the University what it is.
To comment on this story, click here.