On the anniversary of this rambunctious teenager’s death, Kansans should remember her spirit of generosity and equality

May 2, 2021 3:30 am

A century ago, Mary White sat clear-eyed for the photographer. After her death on Friday, May 13, 1921, her father, famed editor William Allen White, would write a moving editorial that described her as a girl who loved cars, horses, books — and equality. (Kansas State Historical Society)

A hundred years ago this month, 16-year-old Mary White struck her head on a low-hanging limb while riding her horse in Emporia, slid dazed from the saddle, staggered a bit and fell unconscious to the ground. The accident did not surprise anyone who knew her, for Mary was a rambunctious girl who rode horses and drove cars with the same reckless intensity; she’d already had a few mishaps that left more than her pride bruised.

On that Tuesday afternoon, Mary was riding a skittish mare named Hardtack. Having changed from school clothes to her riding khakis, she aimed as usual for the green country roads north of Emporia. But on Merchant Street — about where the parking lot of the Emporia State University library is now — she was distracted by the passing of a high school friend, a boy delivering copies of the Emporia Gazette on bicycle. Mary turned to wave, but she apparently used her bridle hand, which caused Hardtack to dart from the road and plunge beneath a catalpa tree. Still turned to wave, Mary may not have seen — or could not avoid — the collision with the fatal branch.

Mary was taken to the White family’s temporary home in Emporia, where she lay unconscious in the front room. The family’s large home (“Red Rocks,” named for Estes Park, their favorite Colorado vacation spot) was undergoing renovation. Her father, editor William Allen White, was back east on business. He was informed of the accident by telegram, and the tone suggested it was just another of Mary’s accidents — but her mother, Sallie, declared the “Horse absolutely has to go.”

When Mary’s condition did not improve, her doctor X-rayed her head, revealing a skull fracture.

She died on Friday, May 13, 1921.

William Allen White was en route back to Emporia and received the news by telegram in Chicago. Her funeral was held that Monday at the First Congregational Church at Emporia, and the next day her father sat in his office at the Gazette and hammered out on his typewriter an editorial about his late daughter. The piece is remarkable in that White describes his daughter’s life with emotion, but without resorting to much sentimentality.

Mary White, nearly 17, comes to us as a real person, “as full of faults as an old shoe.” She struggled with her grades, cared little about clothes, and joined the Congregational Church not because of any particular religious conviction but because she felt it was the best way to help people. “She hungered and thirsted for righteousness,” her father recalled, “and was the most impious creature in the world.”

She loved Twain and Dickens and Wells, was an aspiring cartoonist, worked on the high school yearbook and had a sharply mocking sense of humor. She had many friends, both white and Black, and fought to give the “colored” students at her high school a lounge so that they could study in comfort as easily as the white children. She chaired a committee to make sure the poor at the county home had a proper Christmas dinner. She delighted in giving equal opportunity rides in the family car.

She was a tomboy, her father tells us, who preferred her hair in pigtails rather than a more grown-up cut because she could get away with more mischief. On the day of her death, she had been called to the principal’s office — for lampooning, in a piece of art, the principal. Her male friends ranged from newsboys to university professors, including her Latin instructor, William L. Holt, who was among her pallbearers.

“Above every other passion of her life was her passion not to grow up, to be a child,” William Allen White said.

Newspapers across the county picked up White’s editorial (often wrongly called an obituary) and it was soon reprinted in magazines, anthologized and used in dozens of textbooks. For decades, it was required reading for many Kansas high school students. In addition to being a mostly clear-eyed tribute to a lost daughter, White’s piece is remarkable for its discussion of race in a time when the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful political machine that paraded in hoods down the main streets of many Kansas towns.

Red Rocks, the home of the William Allen White family, was undergoing remodeling at the time of Mary’s death in 1921. The property was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and is now a state historic site, with guided tours available. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

If there is a place in the editorial where White allowed his fatherly love to overcome his journalistic instincts, it may be where he claimed that Mary had no interest in boys and did not want to grow up. This is gently pointed out in a remarkable and authoritatively researched 2010 children’s book, “A Prairie Peter Pan: The Story of Mary White,” by Beverley Olson Buller.

“At 16, Mary acted much as she always had,” Buller writes. “But friends noticed small changes. One friend saw Mary with a boy from out of town. To another, Mary showed an interest in face cream. She wrote an essay in language class suggesting girls pay on dates with boys.”

Having a famous father also seems to have been a source of inner conflict for Mary.

“I’m sick and tired of being William Allen White’s daughter,” she once told a teacher, according to Buller. Her privilege was such that, at her birth, President Theodore Roosevelt telegrammed the family congratulations from the White House. At the time of her death, she had already been accepted to Wellesley. The exclusive women’s college dedicated its 1926 yearbook — the year Mary would have graduated — to her memory.

Yet, despite the good fortune to be born to a famous family, there is something about Mary White’s adventurous and sometimes rebellious nature that bridges class divisions.

Here was a generous and reckless and puckish soul who was taken, by bad luck and her own folly, on the very cusp of adulthood. Death is the great equalizer among families. We feel a tinge of panic in reading of Mary White’s death, even so long after the fact, because no amount of money or influence can claw back those we loved from the undiscovered country.

I have a slight connection to Holt — the pallbearer and Latin teacher — because I own what was his house on Constitution Street. Mary might have come here to visit Bill and his wife, Martha. The house is a rambling Princess Anne, and the intervening century has not been kind, but there is comfort in the stained glass that remains above the large square windows in the parlor and living rooms; both are art nouveau designs of torches of knowledge that are flanked by fleurs-de-lis. When the sun is low in the west and the windows illuminated by shafts of distant fire, it is difficult to walk past without pausing at their beauty.

I wonder if Bill Holt — or even his friend, young Mary White — on some long-ago evening also paused and reflected on the meaning of those blazing torches. Would she have felt the same? Books were important to her, so perhaps.

One of the best photos of Mary shows her leaning against a stone column, at the entrance of some serious building, an open book in her hands. You can see a near life-size cutout of the photo at the visitor’s center at Red Rocks, which is now a state historic site at Emporia. During tours of the home you will see a few items that belonged to Mary — riding gloves, as I recall, and a few pieces of schoolgirl art — and see the room that was being remodeled for her.

Her father described Mary White as loving books, and here she strikes a studious pose. Her crossed ankles and casual stance, however, hint at a playful and sometimes mischievous personality. (Kansas State Historical Society)

We don’t know what Mary would have become if she had survived that ill-fated ride in 1921. She may have lived up to the promise of her station and talent, or not. I’ve always suspected she was more of a hellion than has been popularly portrayed, particularly in the 1977 made-for-television movie with Kathleen Beller in the title role. But what we do know about her, from the editorial eulogy and other clues, is that — like her father — she refused to look away from the injustices of her day.

A hundred years later, we need more of that youthful activism now. The injustices that drove Mary White to help feed the poor and advocate for equality remain. As we carry her life story into a new century, we should remember what was important to this impulsive 16-year-old whose untimely death has been woven into the fabric of Kansas culture.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than twenty books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.