Long before the term "displaced homemaker" entered the lexicon of American sociology, a prosperous Washington businessman took it upon himself to set up a school for "worthy women dependent upon their own efforts for their livelihood."
That was in the days when philanthropy provided what governments now legislate and Julius Garfinckel, inspired by his own widowed mother, set aside $3 million for a career school to train needy women, such as widows and divorcees.
His 1936 endowment was generous enough to build the Hannah Harrison Career School on a wooded 7-acre lot off MacArthur Boulevard, and to insure that the students would never pay a penny for their schooling or their shelter.
"There's nothing like this in the country and it's hard to say exactly why Julius Garfinckel had such foresight. It's possibly because of his mother, who was a young widow who raised five children on her own, and because of all the women he met in his store," said Ann Milkes, the current director of the school.
The 1,150 women who have earned degrees from the school might owe their good fortune to the nameless women who once beseeched Garfinckel for jobs during the Depression.
There were never enough positions behind the Garfinckel department store counters for them, and, generally, the women weren't qualified for work. So Garfinckel's school was mandated to provide "proper training in useful arts and industries, and, at the same time, while fitting (the students) for such vacations, (provide) the comforts of a good home, healthful meals and requisite medical attentions."
The comforts include a well appointed sitting room with a grandpiano, littered today with Jim Croce song sheets as well as Beethoven compositions. One third of the 50-member student body live in the three-story brick school, in modest dormitory rooms.
The others commute to the classrooms, a necessary concession to the modern "worthy woman" who cannot leave her home and children.
"We had to go to court in August last year and have the trust altered to expand the scope of the school," said Milkes. "Women can't drop everything and move in here like in his day."
Administered by the YWCA, the school has changed the curriculum substantially in the past 25 years to reflect changes in the job market. Executive housekeeping for hotels, colleges and hospital staffs is the only course that remains from the original program.
Practical nursing now has the lowest number of students and they have maintained a 90 per cent pass rate for accreditation.
The third program is 10-week accounting course. The school has been able to find jobs for all of the students. And in a recent 10-year follow up, the school discovered that 80 per cent of its graduates still hold positions in their field.
Our target is the 35-to-55-year-old woman who has to support herself and family. We want to find her before she is destitute, though, not after, said Milkes.
Consequently, women from Baltimore's Center for Displaced Homemakers have applied to the Harrison School for intensive training after they have decided on a career. Hundreds of other women from across the country also apply each year, some offering to pay tuition, and the school becomes caught in the dilemma of being too unique and forced to turn many away.
"We are trying to reach out to more women in this area, working with local government programs and inreasing our student body. At the top, though, we could only train 75 women a year. We'll never be able to train them all," said Milkes.