The most obvious legacies from the past at Hockaday are the Memorial Rooms — the Great Hall, the Memorial Dining Room, and a small library room — antique-furnished shrines from the Greenville Avenue campus now encased in the ultra-modem Welch Road structure. The rooms were not used much by students when I was there. Teas were held in the Great Hall, and the student council was allowed lunch in the dining room once a week, but the rooms had an off-limits museum quality that discouraged curling up in a wing chair to finish reading Anna Karenina. And to me, who at 25 was not untouched by the iconoclasm of the '60s and who knew so little of Hockaday’s tradition, they seemed an enormous waste of money and space.
Eight years later, I now know that there are several things about Hockaday that you can’t understand if you are still, despite being warned, washing your grandmother’s hollow handle silver knives in the dishwasher; or letting the baby take Great Uncle Harry’s silver rattle to Six Flags; or yawning when your mother-in-law tries to explain her latest find in the genealogy charts. Part of Hockaday’s story presupposes that you know the importance of beautiful things and care about continuity from one generation to the next.
To learn about Hockaday from those who have known it the longest, you have to go to what is, by Texas standards, "the old money." Their homes have warm, gracious living rooms or libraries where, despite your intention to be an objective journalist, you cannot resist becoming a relaxed guest. Tea is served in cups that, like grandmother’s knives, must be hand-washed, and the cookies are crisp homemade almond tuiles. There is an assumption that everything should be as lovely as possible — not ostentatious or extravagant, but simply harmonious and elegant. And in the homes of these early alumnae and benefactors, it is.
In the memories of some of these alumnae, and even in the Hockaday history, a somewhat flowery tome published in 1938 to commemorate the school’s 25th anniversary, Miss Ela Hockaday looms larger than life. "To this day," one alum of the '20s recalled, "I still remember Miss Hockaday chiding me about being on time. Once when I came downstairs late for dinner once again, Miss Hockaday actually cried. I’m very punctual these days." Over and over again, I heard women say, "She was my mother’s very best friend," or "She was such a lady." That she was the consummate lady, I have no doubt. That she was anyone’s closest chum is debatable.
Ela Hockaday was a native Texan, daughter of a rigid scholarly schoolmaster who had an academy in Ladonia. Her mother died when she was a child, and her older sister aided their stern father in caring for her. Except for a brief stint at Columbia University, her formal education was obtained in Texas teachers’ colleges. She gained some prominence as a teacher by taming ruffians in the Sherman schools and went on to teach in Durant Normal School before coming to Dallas. I assume her unerring taste and sense of decorum were inherent. On the recommendation of M.B. Terrill, whose Terrill School for boys was a forerunner of St. Mark's, Miss Hockaday was summoned in 1913 by Dallas citizens H.H. Adams, Ruth Bower Lindsley, and "others" to establish a college preparatory school for girls.
Noted for her quick, incisive mind. Miss Hockaday must also have been a capable politician. "The perfect casting for the Virgin Queen" is the way Stanley Marcus remembers her. In no time at all, she had assembled a privy council of Dallas’ most powerful civic leaders that included names like Charles Huff, R.W. Higginbotham, Charles Kribs, and Herbert Marcus. (Later Hockaday boards would include Karl Hoblitzelle, Jake Hamon, Eugene McDermott, and Erik Jonsson.) Stories abound about these men leaving conference rooms to do Miss Hockaday’s bidding. Some of these men provided legal advice, others had financial connections and business sense to offer. Most of them also had daughters. Herbert Marcus had only sons, but it is easy to see why Miss Hockaday sought his counsel. At a testimonial for Herbert Marcus in 1937, she said, "Mr. Marcus has carried artistic value into whatever he has done." In a sense, Miss Hockaday and Neiman-Marcus were in similar businesses. In that same testimonial speech, she went on to say, "The women of Dallas have always felt grateful to Mr. Marcus for giving them utter confidence that their clothing was appropriate and tasteful wherever they were, whether in Dallas or in a city that was a world capital." Miss Hockaday’s job was to see that the confidence Dallas women had about their appearances would not be undermined when they opened their mouths.
Miss Hockaday's job was to see that the confidence Dallas women had about their appearances would not be undermined when they opened their mouths.
With meager financial backing, Ela Hockaday opened her school to 10 students on September 25, 1913, four days after she arrived in Dallas.
In those few days, she had located a house on Haskell for the school, hired her teaching colleague and friend Sarah Trent as faculty, and devised a curriculum that included mathematics, English, history, Latin, German, and French. Twenty-eight years later, the Christian Science Monitor noted:
Miss Ela Hockaday has accomplished the so-called impossible. She has made a private school pay its own way, unendowed and not tax supported ... Today [ 1941] she is president and active head of a school with a student body that numbers 450, a staff of 83, and a plant approaching a million dollars in value, still unendowed, still the complete servant of its president.
The lack of endowment and Miss Hoc-aday’s iron-clad reign over the first 30 years of the school’s life, so lauded by the press, would plague her successors. To this day, headmasters at Hockaday are regarded by some who were intimately acquainted with the school in its early years as unworthy pretenders to the throne.
Hockaday quickly outgrew the small house on Haskell and moved to a 9-acre portion of the Caruth farm on Greenville Avenue and Belmont, which then was the outskirts of Dallas. From alumnae scrapbooks, I can piece together a pleasant picture of Georgian buildings, Miss Hockaday’s antique-filled cottage, rose gardens, a swimming pool, playing fields manicured but frequently scarred by hockey sticks, and "the pergola." (I confess I had to look it up too.) In a description of the grounds at Hockaday for the 1938 history, Isabel Cranfill Campbell (’27) writes:
Way back in the beginnings of Hockaday, there was the pergola ... an inspiring place always, with its sweeping view of the campus which has twice received a civic prize for beauty. Here the yearly round means an exchange of blossoms — forsythia and redbud at winter’s end, jonquils in the new spring grass, valiant zinnia borders at midsummer, and autumnal chrysanthemums. Only the clematis vine that wreathes the pergola itself is renegade. For, constant as the Northern Star, it refuses to bloom until just after Commencement, when school is out and it must waste its sweetness on comparatively desert air. Still and all, such happy progress has been.wrought here, the school has grown so lustily and well in all its parts, that I for one, expect one day to see the clematis change its stubborn mind and send out white fragile blossoms to honor the graduates of Hockaday.
With such florid prose in my head, it was depressing to walk around the Belmont Towers on Greenville, which rise now where Hockaday stood until 1961. Only a hedge from the old school remains. However, some of the merchants in the area haven’t forgotten Miss Hockaday. Bill Clark of Clark’s Fine Foods, the market that provided Hockaday’s food on the old campus, still recalls Miss Hockaday inviting him to her cottage to meet Eleanor Roosevelt. With a sheepish grin, he also recalls, "I had a bad habit. Well, I guess I still do. When I’m making change, I lick my thumb to separate and count the dollar bills. I can still hear Miss Hockaday saying, ’Bill, don’t do that. You never know who’s had their hands on that money.’"
If Miss Hockaday felt she could inflict her standards on her grocer, you can imagine the scrutiny she gave her students. Her school was begun in an age when, at least in Texas, there was no ambivalence about moral imperatives. To understand Hockaday’s early days, you have to assume the 19th-century mentality of its founder. All things were achievable with self-discipline and hard work. M.B. Terrill of the Terrill School was widely admired in those frontier days as a headmaster who brought student transgressors to swift and terrifying justice. Although Miss Hockaday did not pounce on her girls and belabor them with blows as Terrill did his boys, she was a stern disciplinarian nonetheless. One long-time associate of Hockaday admitted that there were times when she wanted to stick her tongue out at the stiff headmistress. "She was absolutely uncompromising in her standards, and you either embraced her code or you had nothing to do with her school."
So that she might detect any student infraction of the "no smoking" rules on the Hockaday campus, even the gardeners had to comply. Maids who cleaned the resident students’ rooms and served the seated meals were to be impeccably uniformed. "After cleaning up Trent House, we were supposed to get ourselves cleaned up, put on our formal serving uniforms, and be sure our shoes were shined. Everybody ’dressed’ for dinner at Hockaday," Exie Tunson, who worked as a maid for Miss Hockaday for 30 years, proudly recalls.