During her final year as the University of Hawaiʻi’s first lady, Wendie McClain added sleuth to her role as community liaison. It’s a role she plans to continue even after husband David McClain concludes his appointment as UH System president July 31.
You might call it a missing persons case—brought to her attention as she read up on university history.
“What struck me was just how little information there was out there about the presidents’ wives. In some cases, it seemed they didn’t exist or were invisible,” she explains.
As hostess for the university’s Rubber Slipper Tours, Wendie McClain sought out interesting and historical facts to share with guests during their visits to the various campuses. She often turned to the book Malamalama: A History of the University of Hawaiʻi by Robert M. Kamins and Robert E. Potter and The Hawaiʻi Collegian, first published in June 1910 and reprinted for the UH Centennial by the Women’s Campus Club and Hawaiian Electric Company.
In 1917, she read, Leona Crawford started a men’s glee club in the UH Mānoa Music Department. Crawford was involved until 1921 when her husband, David L. Crawford, became president and “she became busy with her duties as wife of the president.”
Wendie McClain became curious about the other presidents’ wives and the roles they played in the life of the university. In The Collegian chapter Ladies’ Club, she found a reference to the first first lady, Mrs. J. W. Gilmore, but her first name (later discovered to be Elizabeth), along with biographical information on other first ladies, remained a mystery.
Inspired to fill the void, Wendie McClain and her assistant, Courtney Baum, worked with Hamilton Library archivist Jim Cartwright to locate old photos and identify the library’s limited offerings. She wrote to Amy Matsuda, Carole Simone and Kit Dobelle; corresponded with the daughter of Lois Cleveland; and contacted former President Kenneth Mortimer, husband of the late Lorrie Mortimer, to tell them about the project, gather more information and request photos.
In June, she shared a limited edition draft book, The First Ladies of the University of Hawaiʻi, with the former first ladies, UH Alumni Association Executive Director Janet Bullard and UH Foundation President Donna Vuchinich. It represents the launching pad for the historical adventure she has embraced and will continue to spearhead.
She knows that President Sinclair’s wife was a writer and that a scholarship carries Mrs. Dean’s name. But there remains much to learn about this important group of women who shared their husbands’ love for and commitment to the university, she says.
She invites family, friends and colleagues of former first ladies to contribute. Email Wendie at firstname.lastname@example.org with anecdotes, photographs or information about the first ladies and their work.