Not long ago I suddenly thought of my grandmother’s friend, Sunshine Sweeny. I only knew her in passing, but I loved her name and she lived down the street from the home on Third Street to which my grandmother and aunt moved when I was 12. I wondered whether the house there had been passed down in the family or whether she purchased it later.
A couple of months later my friend Cecy came to town. I met her when she had just turned 13 and I was still 12 because my aunt knew her mother and they lived down the street We decided to take a nostalgic tour of Third Street (pictures of each of us in front of “our” houses are going up on the Scribblings blog), so I took the above shot of the house I recall as Sunshine’s — across the alley from Cecy’s old house–while we were there.
Then I started doing some poking around. I didn’t find out a lot about Sunshine but one main item was that she took over the family farm, which I thought answered the question about the house. Her sister, Mary, however, was well enough known there’s quite a bit of info and Sunshine is mentioned here and there.
Neither sister ever married and both had levels of education and held positions that were very unusual for women at the time. Their father was a doctor and I’m thinking both parents get a lot of credit for raising such independent and aspiring girls.
Sunshine shows up in the 1907 University of Kentucky yearbook as being on the “classical course”. Somewhere after she began to run the farm and I found her in a KY gov publication as being on the executive committee of the Kentucky Sheep Breeder’s Association in 1917.
In 1914, she directed a group of women conducting a campaign against illiteracy in Lexington. It was part of a movement across the state.
Also in 1917 Sunshine and Mary went to Europe to serve food in canteens for troops in WWI under the auspices of the YMCA.
Mary graduated from Transylvania University in 1899 (Transy for folks elsewhere, is a highly regarded little liberal arts school here in Lexington, founded in 1780, the oldest college west of the Alleghenies), received a Masters from University of Kentucky and then another Masters from Columbia in 1912.
She taught physics and chemistry at Campbell-Hagerman College, during which time she introduced hot school lunches to western Kentucky. Then she taught Home Economics at University of Kentucky, becoming head of the department in 1913. In 1917 she was appointed chair of the U.S. Food Administration in D.C., where she trained citizens on rationing food in wartime.
Next she became dean of Human Ecology at Michigan Agricultural College and then the Merrill Palmer School in Detroit, where she worked with the American Red Cross on nutrition in the inner city, creating a program that later became Head Start.
She also spent time in India, starting in 1939, won a citation for bravery in WWII and was a consultant in China on child welfare. In 1965 she was named to the hall of Distinguished Alumni at University of Kentucky. The citations in her Wikipedia article lead to some pretty interesting pieces about her.
Since neither of the sisters had children and I’m not sure if there were siblings, I don’t know if there’s anyone to remember their contributions so I wanted to produce this little reminiscence in honor of their pioneering lives.
Another fun aspect of the research for me was running into SO many prominent Lexington names. People who were friends with my grandparents, whose children my mom and her sister knew, whose grandchildren I met. People who owned stores downtown. Louis Hillenmeyer was in the Horticulture Society in 1917 and a couple of generations later Hillenmeyer’s is still a major name in the nursery business here. So cool to see the history.