The Day – Local story: Celeste Bush has put East Lyme schools on the right track
This is the second in a two-part series about a key figure in East Lyme history.
Celeste Bush, an East Lyme native who spent three years in Virginia building an educational facility during the post-Civil War era, spent much of the rest of her life in her hometown, originally moving to Niantic in 1889 to care for his aging parents.
She soon became active in church service and investigated the condition of schools in East Lyme. For the 1895–96 school year, she was appointed by the East Lyme Board of School Visitors (all male) as Acting School Visitor. Its mission was to evaluate the curriculum for all students and report on the condition of school buildings.
Celeste was unimpressed and produced a scathing report for the board. The schools in general were “…badly kept and ill-furnished and supplied…none of them has the books and apparatus necessary for good instruction…most have nothing but bare walls, desks, seats and a stove… the outbuildings are generally filthy and obscene… (there is) no uniform system in the city.
There is “no reason our schools shouldn’t be as good as any in the country.”
She called for sweeping reforms.
In 1896, Celeste was appointed East Lyme’s first school superintendent and to this day, the town’s only female superintendent.
During her first year as head of schools in East Lyme, Celeste championed the idea of a new two-year high school that would extend compulsory schooling from eight to 10 years. His proposal was the subject of much media coverage and table conversations across East Lyme.
Costs would be the deciding factor, and when the formal debate opened at the town hall on October 5, 1896, the temperature quickly rose in the hall.
First Selectman CS Davis led the assault on the idea: “(I) have a strong argument against the resolution…the city has already spent over $4,000 on schools…on a budget of $9,000. Officers (and teachers) could create a (high school) in the larger Niantic school” (without additional compensation).
Superintendent Bush retaliated by drawing attention to the fact that resources from the city’s “Miller Fund,” a longstanding educational endowment, had been diverted to other uses by the city fathers. She added that “…a high school wouldn’t cost the town more than six or eight hundred dollars a year.”
Before the vote on the high school resolution, Superintendent Bush introduced an unusual but strategic House motion for “divisions.” This rule changed the normal vote-counting procedure by causing supporters of the resolution to leave their chairs and literally walk to one side of the room while those opposing it walk to the other. Then the votes were counted.
Celeste probably knew she had the votes to pass the resolution, but wasn’t taking any chances with the blurring that might result from a manual vote count with nearly 200 people in the room. The resolution carried by a count of 104 to 84, and the new high school opened the following year.
Throughout her tenure as superintendent and in the face of strong opposition from East Lyme’s fiscally conservative town fathers, Celeste’s public statements highlighted the positive benefits of modernization.
“The best is not too good for every student in the country, boys and girls” and “superior schools make superior citizens”.
She introduced and adopted many programs which helped to modernize the schools of East Lyme. An elected school board replaced the former appointed board of school visitors in 1897.
The nine district schools were consolidated into six and a new modern school building was constructed. A uniform curriculum was developed for all students who would be assessed each year. New class equipment has been purchased and evenly distributed throughout the system.
Professional teachers were recruited and Celeste advocated for higher salaries to attract top educators. After 10 years of trying, Superintendent Bush finally persuaded the school board to buy and loan textbooks to students rather than insisting that families buy books for their children every year.
Despite Superintendent Bush’s repeated assertions to the council that costs would come down when his reforms came into full effect, his support gradually eroded and there were attempts to roll back some of his programs.
She was finally discharged for the last time in 1907, but not before most of her most important work had been completed.
Other leadership roles
In 1897, the year after Celeste was appointed superintendent of the school, she joined two others in founding the East Lyme Historical Society and was elected the organization’s secretary. She would hold this position for 33 years.
His carefully written minutes of meetings of the Historical Society for the period 1897-1930 can be found today in the city archives.
She also recruited guest speakers to present “historical documents” at meetings and led the society to adopt the task of cleaning up and maintaining the old Nehantic Indian cemetery which had been neglected for decades.
The Historical Society also gave Celeste the opportunity to leave her greatest tangible legacy in East Lyme.
In 1914, Niantic’s Lee House, believed to have been built around 1660 and occupied exclusively by descendants of the Lee family for over 200 years, was scheduled to be demolished by its owner. The house was one of the oldest and best preserved examples of early colonial-era architecture in the state of Connecticut.
It would be an exceptional acquisition for the East Lyme Historical Society, but the price was high and the owner was eager to sell. He agreed to a price, but only gave the company 90 days to complete the purchase or the house would fall.
Working with a local benefactress, Ms Alice Hunt, Celeste immediately got to work on the project. She has personally written over 500 letters soliciting donations from people interested in historic preservation.
She partnered with state and national historical organizations and solicited donations from dozens of Lee family descendants who had settled in many parts of the country.
Success soon followed. Well within the 90-day deadline, Celeste and her colleagues raised more than double the asking price for the Lee House. These additional resources will be used to retain renowned colonial architecture specialist Norman Isham and complete recommended restorations to the house.
An official dedication of the Lee House took place the following year. Over 500 people showed up on a beautiful spring day to hear the Honorable William Howard Taft speak about the importance of remembering the past. Celeste followed the former US president on the program.
The New London Day of June 10, 1915 reported: “Miss Celeste Bush of Niantic, to whose tireless efforts the success of the occasion was largely due, delivered the historic speech of the day. After summarizing the history of the Lee House, Celeste explained to the audience that “We had not the slightest thought of buying the house. Our society only had 15 members and $12 in treasury. But when we saw that venerable, austere interior… (we thought) that if something was really worth doing and someone would make an honest effort to do it, help would come.
Today, the Lee House is the flagship artifact of the East Lyme Historical Society and has been open to the public since 1915.
In the years following the inauguration of Lee House, Celeste continued her service with the East Lyme Historical Society and she volunteered for numerous religious and civic organizations, including the Eastern Teachers’ Association and the Connecticut State Federation of Women’s Clubs. She also wrote historical articles for local publications and knew more about the history of the East Lyme area than any other individual.
Her final days were spent at her home which she had built on her father’s property in the shadow of her beloved “Toad Rock” since childhood. In fact, she designed her own toad-shaped house as a testament to the warm memories of her own school years. His home has been a residence at Niantic since 1898.
Celeste died in her sleep at her home in 1930 and is buried next to her parents in Niantic’s Union Cemetery today.
Celeste Bush was not a radical feminist in the mold of her most famous contemporaries like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Nation and others. But like the Suffragette and Temperance fighters, she understood that changing the status quo was necessary and possible with persistent, patient and forceful action.
She wasn’t shy about putting herself in the center of the arena and challenging accepted practices with better ideas. She often found herself on the other side of an issue supported by a room full of respected men. But she stood firm, picked her battles, and made lasting changes that improved education, her city, and American life.
LAST WEEK: Celeste Bush’s early life included a three-year assignment in Virginia to help establish a teachers’ college.
Ted Welsh is a board member of the East Lyme Historical Society. He wishes to acknowledge the kind assistance of Liz Kuchta, East Lyme Town Historian.