Mary Rait: Colorado Mesa University’s pioneer educatorMay 16, 2019 10:03AM ● By Priscilla Walker
The first day of classes began at 8 a.m. on Monday, September 21, 1925 with 39 students in the former Lowell School building at Fifth Street and Rood Avenue. “We had more pigeons than students the first year,” Rait remarked years later. “The attic was full of them.” It wasn’t until 1931 that the college had more than 100 students.
Rait’s 35-year tenure at the institution now known as Colorado Mesa University was full of unprecedented achievements. Starting as an instructor of Economic History of England, Modern Europe, and U.S. History, she later became the Dean of Women and was named vice president in 1937, a position that had never been held by a woman before. She became one of the most respected educators in the state and her vision for the college was a key factor in its success. At first, the college was an extension of the state university in Boulder, but Rait advocated increasing academic standards so it could be independent and evolve into a four-year university. By 1965, there were 1,300 students, and Mesa College, as it was known then, became a four-year school in 1975. Building a legacy Rait was the youngest of Alexander Clark Rait and Charlotte Harvey Cutter’s five children. The family moved to Palisade from Junction City, Kansas in 1908, following Charlotte’s three siblings who were pioneers in the Palisade district’s fruit industry. She graduated from Mt. Lincoln School in 1912 and received a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Colorado (CU). She taught both high school and college classes until 1933, when she began working full time at the college. During the Great Depression, she found jobs for many women students who worked in exchange for room and board. Students recognized her as a superior academician who influenced the career decisions for generations of Mesa College students. She advised the International Relations Club and inspired students to travel the world. She retired in 1960 and became a world traveler herself, visiting Europe five times and spending one year in England. She helped organize the World Friendship Council in 1961 to develop worldwide friendships and foster awareness of world conditions. Her thesis, “Development of Grand Junction and the Colorado River Valley to Palisade from 1881 to 1931,” is a widely used resource for Western Slope history. It was also published in two issues of Mesa State College’s 1988 “Journal of the Western Slope.” She took additional coursework at CU and the University of Michigan following her MA, and was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters in May 1983 by Mesa College.
Her name lives on Though she died in 1988, Rait’s name lives on in many ways at Colorado Mesa University, which continues to be a major influence and asset to Grand Junction with more than 11,000 students. The first women’s residence hall was named after her in 1948. She was still on the faculty then, and later said the college board made an exception to the usual rule of naming buildings for “the wealthy, retired, or dead.” The structure was razed in 1985 to make room for the $8 million, 68,793-square foot library, but the college dedicated another residence hall in her honor in February 1986. Rait was given a teacher award by the Colorado Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1939, and received the Mesa College student body’s annual recognition award. Since 1923, she was an active member of the Grand Junction branch of the American Association of University Women, and in March 1981, the chapter began awarding scholarships to Mesa College in her name. Recently, on April 16, the Mount Garfield Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution honored her for its 2019 Woman in American History Award.
Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame nomination Rait’s legacy is one of determination and hard work. Her passion from the beginning was teaching and education, and she was a woman making advances in education at a time when equal rights wasn’t even a household term. She proved that highly responsible positions were not out of reach for women.
These are reasons why the Palisade Historical Society is nominating her for the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame (CWHF) class of 2020. The CWHF recognizes extraordinary women with significant ties to Colorado who have made enduring and exemplary contributions to their fields, elevated the status of women, and helped open new frontiers for women and society. Six contemporary and four historical women are inducted every other year. So far, 162 women have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
For more information and videos about past inductees, visit www.cogreatwomen.org.