Rebecca Rolfes grew up in Union County, Ky., idolizing her grandmother, Mary Willie Wight.
“She was the most remarkable woman I ever knew,” Rolfes said. “I wanted to be her. She was smart. She was warm and so sweet. She had conversations with us, she didn’t condescend to us. She’d play Scrabble with us and read to us. And she had the best lap.”
Perhaps most important, her grandmother instilled a spirit of adventure in her.
“She knew that there was a whole wide world outside Morganfield, Ky.,” Rolfes said. “I was so hoping there was.”
Rolfes found out her grandmother was right. She’s enjoyed a career in the magazine industry, and these days she lives in Savannah, Ga., while serving as executive vice president for Imagination, a Chicago-based “content marketing agency for thought leaders,” according to its website.
With the demands of her professional life easing, Rolfes decided it was time to get serious about writing a book on Mary Willie Wight, who died in the mid-1960s when Rolfes was in high school. The challenge was made greater because her grandmother left no diaries or letters.
“The denouement of the book is the 1937 flood, which they all survived,” Rolfes said. “She was living in Uniontown (Ky.). The water went over their house. The book is about how everything she learned up to that point helped her to survive.”
Rolfes knew one place she would need to start was on the grounds of the former Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Maple Mount, where Mary Willie Wight was the valedictorian in 1906.
“She came here when she was 13 or 14 and loved every single minute of it,” Rolfes said on June 17. That’s the day she visited the archives and strolled through the buildings that her grandmother walked at Maple Mount. She was joined by her mother – who is Mary Willie’s daughter – Lucy Spalding Thomason, who lives in Louisville.
Rolfes began communicating months ago with Sarah Patterson, the former archivist for the Ursuline Sisters, and what she learned confirmed that there was a story to tell. In early June she began communicating with the new community archivist, Heidi Taylor-Caudill, and scheduled a visit.
“I came here when I was 12, about 1960,” Rolfes said. “They were opening a new building.” On her visit this time, Sister Ruth Gehres and Heidi Taylor-Caudill walked with Rolfes through the former Academy, which closed in 1983 and is now the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center.
Taylor-Caudill and the sisters on the archives staff found many records to help flesh out Mary Willie Wight’s early days, much to the delight of Rolfes and her mother.
“I’m very impressed with the education that she got,” Rolfes said. “It was so ambitious for girls at that time.”
“For a while, she was the oldest living graduate,” Rolfes said. Thomason told Rolfes that Mother Aloysius Willett, the first mother superior, practically raised Mary Willie Wight. “One of mother’s brothers is named Aloysius,” Rolfes said.
Thomason was the youngest of her mother’s nine children. “Mother was really an astounding person of the day,” Thomason said. “She came to school by train and was picked up in a buggy in one of the small towns, I think Sorgho.”
Among the jewels of information Rolfes found with the help of the archives staff was that, according to the book “A Souvenir of Mount St. Joseph’s Ursuline Academy” published in 1907, her grandmother was one of the toastmistresses for the first Alumnae Day at Maple Mount in 1905. The toastmistresses were to talk about the “builders” of Mount Saint Joseph, and Mary Willie’s topic was Bishop William McCloskey.
This is how she began her toast, according to the book:
“I thank you for calling upon me to offer a ‘toast’ or eulogy to our beloved and venerable Bishop; while appreciating the dignity of the subject, and consequently, the honor conferred upon me, a certain feeling of responsibility is also mine, for woe to me, if I do not say enough in the praise of the life, work and worth of the illustrious Rt. Rev. William George McCloskey! Mt. St. Joseph’s will never forgive me! (Laughter)”
“It was something in her own words,” Rolfes said. “There was a great deal of fun in her.”
Records show Mary Willie Wight was involved in seemingly every activity offered at the Academy, Rolfes said.
“I don’t know what the school did after she graduated. She was in everything,” Rolfes said. “[Mount Saint Joseph Academy] must have just gone silent,” she said with a smile.
Wight apparently graduated in 1905, Taylor-Caudill said. But she stayed an extra year, which she called post-graduate, and was valedictorian in 1906. There were four girls in her graduating class.
The archives staff found a transcript of an oral history from the 1970s that involved Academy girls from the time when Wight was there, Taylor-Caudill said. “Sister Ruth and Sister Catherine Marie helped in talking about their Academy life,” Taylor-Caudill said. “It’s what makes working in an archive a lot of fun.”
Rolfes said the book will likely take at least a year or two to write. She’s planning to visit the archives at the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville, and may travel to Oklahoma, where her grandmother homesteaded when she first married. There’s also another woman’s story that will be involved in the book.
For now, Thomason is just pleased that her daughter is reviving the memories of her mother.
“I’m so proud of her for doing it,” Thomason said. “I hope she hurries up so I can read it.”