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Published: Sunday, 3/30/2003

Toledo's matriarchs

Even newcomers to the Toledo area know some of the names: Secor, Stranahan, Anderson, Navarre, Knight, Bentley, Ketcham, Libbey, Ford, Spitzer. They appear on streets and buildings, corporations and products.

The names, of course, belong to some of Toledo's most notable families. Many of their founding fathers came here when the town was young and helped make it a true city; others came later to solidify the area's fortunes.

But while much has been written about these men, the stories of the women who not only helped them succeed, but helped Toledo thrive, aren't so well known. Their number is too great for a complete listing here, but as Women's History Month draws to a close, we offer a brief look at a few of Toledo's many matriarchs.

JULIA RICE SENEY

When Julia Rice married Toledo Judge Joshua R. Seney, no one could know that she would someday support him and their family, the reverse of what was expected of women in the late 1800s. But when he became ill, the college-educated wife and mother took a job as a government administrator and started on the path to success outside the home.

Julia Rice Seney Julia Rice Seney
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Along the way, she worked as an editor with the Courier (later the Courier-Journal) in Toledo, and as Superintendent of the Registry Division of the U.S. Post Office in Toledo, then the only woman in America to occupy that position. During her tenure, political in-fighting led to an attempt to remove her, but she emerged from the fray unscathed.

The dauntless woman went into business with her son, George, an attorney. They sold real estate.

“The image of independence and self-reliance is what I remember as a youngster from family stories,” said her great-grandson, also named George. “She spoke her mind.”

Perhaps because of her familiarity with politics, Mrs. Seney passionately believed that women should have the right to vote, Mr. Seney said.

“She was an advocate of women's suffrage. Julia Rice Seney was very active in that movement.”

She died just five years before women won the fight for that right.

CHARLOTTE STEELE SECOR

When James Secor came to Toledo in 1854 from the Hudson valley of New York, he joined his brother, Joseph, in a thriving grocery business. He began as a clerk and quickly gained power and prestige. Thirteen years later, he married Charlotte Steele.

The two had four children, according to Mr. Secor's 1901 obituary; but only one, Jay K. Secor, survived. About two years after his birth, Mrs. Secor became active in social work. She helped found Toledo's first day nursery and the Toledo Industrial School, and later served as a trustee of Toledo Hospital.

“The welfare of the children, the worthy poor, the helpless and the unfortunate in a community is everybody's burden,” she said in a 1922 interview with The Blade.

“Work among the children always is the first essential of community betterment. We can't do too much for the children.”

CORDELIA MARTIN

Cordelia Martin was a modern matriarch; she died just a few years ago, in 1999. An advocate of the poor, Mrs. Martin worked hard to see the clinic that bears her name, the Cordelia Martin Health Center on Nebraska Avenue, open in 1971.

Cordelia Martin Cordelia Martin
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But although her name is synonymous with health care in Toledo, Mrs. Martin was a well-rounded woman. She was active in many civic groups, the NAACP, and the Lucas County Democratic Party. She and her husband, Walter, had a dozen children. Eleven survived her.

“She believed in the African proverb `It takes a village to raise a child,' ” her son, Donald, told The Blade after his mother died. “She believed in that village and was for everyone in the neighborhood.

“All the kids in the neighborhood used to call her Mom because she always had a place for them.”

A graduate of the University of Toledo, Mrs. Martin encouraged her children to go to college too. Donald Martin said his mother cashed in an insurance policy so he could attend a Wisconsin college; he later transferred to the University of Toledo.

“She always put us ahead of herself. She always put what she wanted on the back burner so we could have something. She was just a wonderful lady.”

MARGARET ANDERSON

Not all matriarchs presided over families in the beginning of the 20th century or before. Margaret Meilink Anderson may have been born in 1895, but she helped shape a family that became a modern power in the Toledo area. The Andersons, the business that her husband, the late Harold Anderson, and she founded in 1947, continues to thrive and expand.

Margaret Anderson Margaret Anderson
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Mrs. Anderson, a devout Catholic, bore seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood. She believed strongly in motherhood as a calling and did her best to set a good example.

“Roman Catholicism was very important to her and she lived it to the hilt,” said her son, Dick Anderson. “She put family above everything else temporal, other than spiritual. She devoted just about everything to her family.”

But Mrs. Anderson was not a one-note woman. Her son recalled that she had many facets.

“She was very bright and well-read, and loved the arts and the classics,” Mr. Anderson said. “She had lots of fun. She knew how to have fun - she'd laugh right from her belly.

“She was a teacher, and she didn't mind correcting you. She was extremely well-groomed, and always looked beautiful. She was doing sit-ups and walking when she was in her 80s.

“She was a great cook. And she became a community servant after we were all gone.”

Her charities and groups included the Toledo Museum of Art, the Toledo Zoo, the YWCA, St. Anthony's Villa, Maumee Valley Historical Society, Bowling Green State University, and parish causes.

Two decades after her death, her ideals remain a part of the Anderson family.

“Faith, values, and respect for others, honesty, integrity, hard work, education, self-discipline, prayer, and especially faith,” Mr. Anderson said. “My dad went through a depression, and was gone from us for a year in a sanitarium. We were on our knees saying the family rosary every night.

“She was a great mother, a great role model.”

EDNA KNIGHT

The Knight family became associated with at least two other prominent Toledo families through marriage. It linked to the Stranahan clan when Elsie Stranahan married William W. Knight, Jr., in 1931; and it joined with the Ford dynasty in 1904 when Edna Ford married William W. Knight, Sr.

The two had several sons, including Milton, William, Jr., Samuel, and Edward, and a daughter, Elizabeth. But beyond her duties as wife and mother, Mrs. Knight found time for charitable work. She helped found the Toledo Hospital Auxiliary, and the Thalians, a group whose original focus was fighting tuberculosis and later figured in the founding of the Toledo District Nurse Association. She was also active in her church, the First Congregational Church.

She loved to garden, and Walbridge Park and Toledo Zoo named gardens for her. She and her husband shared an affinity for nature; he helped create the Toledo Metropolitan Park Board, and presided over it for decades.

The current generation of Knights knows Mrs. Knight as someone who passed her strong civic-minded values to her children, said her grandson, Tony Knight. Her sons all served in World War II. “She was very proud of her boys.”

Information for this article came from Blade files, interviews with family members, and a series of booklets, “In Search of Our Past: Women of Northwest Ohio,” published by the Woman's History Committee of the Women Alive! Coalition.



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