By: Ellie Kaverman, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2018, Journalism, Bloomington
Over the course of the past year, I have taken a deep dive into researching the roles women played in the early days of the School of Commerce and Finance (what is now known as the Kelley School of Business) at Indiana University. I’ve researched four women in particular, whom I wrote about in an earlier blog post.
The stories of Sarah Kirby, Lulu Westenhaver, Esther Bray, and Blanche McNeely Wean, as influential secretaries, instructors, and students in the business school of the 1920’s and 1930’s, have become meaningful anecdotes on the importance of women encouraging each other to pursue greater professional achievements.
The stories of their success is most powerful when thought of as dominoes: Sarah Kirby was a pioneering secretary critical to the founding of the business school, Lulu Westenhaver was an early instructor who promoted the establishment of all-female professional organizations, Esther Bray was one of the first female business education professors, and Blanche McNeely Wean was admitted into the business school after the insistence of none other than Sarah Kirby.
One of the most rewarding elements of this research has been conversations with those who knew the women personally. Esther Bray, named the Herald Times “Woman of the Century” in 1999, is something of a local legend in her hometown of Martinsville, Indiana.
Her husband, William G. Bray, was an eleven-term congressman; her son, Richard, represented Martinsville in state government for 38 years, and at his retirement from state politics, her grandson, Rodric Bray, was elected to serve.
Senator Rodric Bray, now the Majority Leader of the Indiana Senate, is acutely aware of his family’s political legacy, of which he says would not have existed without the persistence of his grandmother, Esther Bray. Esther was not only a leader in business education at Indiana University, but had a talent for politics.
Senator Bray attributed his family’s success in local politics to Esther’s keen political judgment.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind that both my father and my involvement in politics have to do with the example both my grandmother and grandfather set,” said Senator Bray. “Politics and policy was just an incredible passion of hers…There’s just no doubt that we’re involved in politics today because of them.”
Senator Bray spoke about what Esther was like as a grandmother, characterizing her as “someone you just couldn’t ever say no to, no matter what”. He also brought to life the tenacity of her strong nature. Esther grew up in northern Indiana and attended Indiana University for both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.
She met her husband, William G. Bray, during her time as a student at IU. William fought in World War II and was transferred to Korea to work in military government until 1946.
Senator Bray recalled, “When he came back, my grandmother was very involved in politics and was highly involved in the state party. This was never explicitly said, but I think when my grandfather got back home, she said ‘Alright, let’s go walk around the congressional district, it’s time for you to run for office.’ So he did and he won…My grandmother had built a ton of relationships during that period of time while my grandfather was away at war, which probably put him in a position that he could get into those doors and get that done.”
Aside from her work in the business school, Esther was known for her political acumen. When she passed away in 1999, a memorial resolution was written in her honor by the Bloomington Faculty Council that stated, “Much of her life was spent in a world dominated by males where her personality, character, and integrity made her a role model for women. Had the time been right, she would have been a congresswoman.”
Senator Bray concurred with that belief. “She had this amazing ability, even as she got older, to survey the political landscape and recognize the issues that were important to people,” he said. “She had something that you couldn’t simply teach, she just had this talent.”
Esther was critical to the creation of a female network in the business school, but was also influential in the American Legion Auxiliary Girls State and Girls Nation programs, which seek to educate young women about civic duty.
Whether it was taking business students to the Indiana Statehouse to refine secretarial skills or educating participants at Girls State or Girls Nation, Esther was committed to sparking ambition in young women. Senator Bray saw that firsthand growing up. “She intended to leave a mark on women,” he said. “I think she had the intention of helping women become strong and successful and understand that they can control their own fate. It was a part of who she was and was so important to her.”
Ever the assertive woman, Esther did not limit this passion for sparking ambition in young people to just women. Senator Bray recalled especially Esther’s insistence for him to get involved even while in law school. “I remember when I was in school, she was serving on the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and I went to a meeting with her,” he said. “More than anybody I’ve ever met, she knew how to work a room.
She would divvy out the people who were important in the room and go right up and introduce me. Regardless of whom they were speaking to, she had the ability to get into conversations and take it where she wanted to go. It was really fun and interesting to watch. She could do it with a lot of grace and dignity.”
Senator Bray spoke of his grandmother’s love of Indiana University, the business school, and the students she taught there. “She loved the university and it was incredibly important to her and her identity,” he said. “She was a combination of assertive and graceful, but more than that, she just had the intention to be successful. She had the intention to be successful at Indiana University and she had the intention to leave an impact on her students and the school.”
Esther Bray was many things. An associate professor emerita of business education, a grandmother, wife to an eleven-term congressman, a savvy political strategist, a volunteer for Girls State and Girls Nation, among many achievements.
However, Esther was talented in a world that was not yet accustomed to seeing such assertiveness and ambition displayed by women. Esther, through her guidance for the next generation of women and her own contributions, helped break the mold for what it meant to be a female who was both interested in politics and involved in academia. Esther was able to use her power to open doors for women to step into higher roles in politics and business.
As her grandson Senator Rodric Bray put it, “She had the intention to bring about positive change for everyone. She was a very strong woman who intended to be relevant in the world. You don’t teach someone to be like her; being a force of nature was just who she was.”
 All information, unless otherwise noted, is from the interview with Senator Bray, 7/23/18
 Herald Times, December 23, 1999 — http://ww.heraldtimesonline.com/stories/1999/12/23/news.991223_A1_JPS09096.sto
 Memorial Resolution, 1999 — http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/bfc/view?docId=B11-2001
Thank you for this post. I am the archivist with the American Legion Auxiliary National Headquarters and have recently come upon a photo of Mrs. Bray that we received in 1987. There is a tag on the photo simply saying “Gov. Instructor GN & HGS”. Now I have more information that can be passed on to our membership about her and the contributions she made. So, once again, thank you.
Comments are closed.