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Mary White

Posted by Megan Rohleder on May 10, 2021

By: Sarah Parsons - Reference Archivist

Being a child in a well-known family can be difficult in spite of the benefits it brings. As the daughter of famous Kansas newspaper editor and author William Allen White and the “kid sister” of Bill White, Mary Katherine White once complained that she “got it double.” Her father, already famous for his 1896 editorial “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” was involved with politics on a national scale; her mother, Sallie Lindsay White, was a partner with her husband on the Emporia Gazette as well as a leader in the equal suffrage movement and the education of women. Mary’s older brother, already at Harvard, was on a path that would lead him to the successful editorship of his father’s newspaper and a lifelong career in journalism.

Her parents were friends with many of the leading literary and political lights of the early 20th century, and Mary surely appreciated the vibrant and intelligent conversations that took place when famous visitors came to their home. At the same time, she disliked the special privileges she received and the reputation she had to live up to; like the teenagers of today, she was eager to find her own identity and prove her own worth. “I’m so tired, so darn tired, of being William Allen White’s little girl!” she once said tearfully to one of her teachers.

However, Mary knew that with maturity would come extra burdens. At 16, with her five-foot-three height and her preference for pigtails and khakis, she was still reluctant to wear dresses, to put her hair up, or to focus her interest on any one single boy; in short, she was in no hurry to grow up. She had already been accepted at Wellesley College (Class of 1926), but in the meantime, she was happy to be a young girl nearing the close of her junior year in high school. Her fun-loving nature, expressed in practical jokes and witty banter, existed alongside her strong thirst for justice in the world, a passion that she was able to extend to many in her immediate sphere.

On a Tuesday evening in the spring of 1921, about five weeks shy of her 17th birthday, Mary came home from a hard day’s work at school and changed into her khakis for a refreshing horseback ride. Her father later wrote that “the last hour of her life was typical of its happiness.” As she rode through her hometown, waving to the many friends and acquaintances she encountered, her horse changed course and passed under a tree, where a branch struck Mary’s head.  She slipped off the horse and lost consciousness; later it was shown that the accident had fractured her skull. Mary was brought home; family members were hastily notified; traffic was rerouted away from their neighborhood and telephone calls cut from their home. She died at 5:30 Friday morning, May 13, 1921.

The official death notice from the Associated Press appeared quietly in that week’s Emporia Gazette, but the eulogy on the front page, written by her father and mother, touched the hearts of the nation. It was reprinted in newspapers and magazines across the United States, included in anthologies, and read on radio programs, bringing to life the vivid personality of the youngest member of the White family.

You can read her father’s famous eulogy here: Mary White obituary - Kansapedia - Kansas Historical Society (kshs.org)

A detailed article on Mary’s life can be found on Kansapedia:  Mary Katherine White - Kansapedia - Kansas Historical Society (kshs.org)


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