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The first lady Pioneer

Helen Officer, the first woman to graduate from DU, attended the University in the early 1880s when it was still located at 14th and Arapahoe (pictured) in downtown Denver. Photo courtesy of DU Archives

This June, more than 1,400 women will graduate from DU — nearly 57 percent of the graduating class. Things weren’t so different 120 years ago, when women comprised exactly half of the graduating class.

The distinction was, in 1886 DU only graduated two students.

Helen Fuller Officer was one of those two and was DU’s first female graduate, receiving a bachelor of arts in 1886 alongside Abner Lucas. They joined six prior grads as the University’s entire alumni population.

Little is known of Officer beyond the basics. She was born in Kansas in 1865 at the close of the Civil War. The 1870 census found her in Kenosha, Wis., and by 1880 her family had migrated west to Leadville, Colo.

When she entered DU in the early 1880s, the University was already actively seeking female students. Of the University’s first 100 graduates, 26 were women, and women comprised more than a quarter of the graduates between the first graduating class of 1884 and the class of 1899.

DU wasn’t alone in welcoming women. In fact, the 1880s saw a number of leading institutions introduce co-education.

The University’s 1886 course catalog contained the following explanation: “The influence of the sexes upon each other is refining and wholesome. The problem of discipline is shorn of its greatest difficulties. Nature’s order is wisely followed, and with the best of results. Our experience here for five years confirms the opinions of leading educators as to the wisdom, economy, and general advantages of this system. We do not forget our duties towards inexperienced youth, or omit anything demanded by considerations of prudence. Yet, the mingling of the sexes, as in a well-ordered household, makes the work of government as light and simple as possible, and the relations of teachers and students exceptionally pleasant.”

When Officer attended the University, it was still located at 14th and Arapahoe in downtown Denver. The school had a full-time faculty of 12, and tuition was just $100 a year. Students paid about $6 per month to rent rooms in the area, or $250 a year for room and board in the school’s “Boys’ Hall” or “Girls’ Department.”

Officer would have encountered a curriculum that was much more rigid than it is today. Undergraduate students could choose between two degrees — a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science. The University also offered an advanced medical degree. Elective courses were unheard of. Every course in every quarter was required, so an entering freshman knew exactly what courses he or she would be taking through the last quarter of their senior year. Courses that Officer would have taken included The Odyssey and Greek Composition during her freshman year, Mechanics during her sophomore year, Astronomy during her junior year and Christian Evidences during her senior year.

In 1883, Officer served as secretary for the Alcyone Society, a literary and musical club started at DU in 1880.

After graduation, Officer attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, graduating in 1899. She became a piano teacher and from 1900 to 1920, she lived at 1300 Grant St. in Denver. She never married.

At some point, Officer moved to Hollywood, Calif., where she was still living in 1949. The University Archives holds a single letter from Ms. Officer addressed to Chancellor Jacobs sending her regrets that she could not attend an alumni event in Los Angeles that year due to ill health. She would have been 84 at that time. Officer died in Ventura, Calif., in 1953 at the age of 88.

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