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Bertha C. Knemeyer

At a glance:

Born: October 30, 1885
Died: Unknown at this time
Race/nationality/ethnic background: Caucasian (German)
Primary city and county of residence: Elko (Elko County)
Major fields of work: education, (teacher, principal, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction)
Other role identities: civic leader, lecturer

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Biography: Knemeyer image

Bertha C. Knemeyer (known affectionately as B.C.K.) belongs to Nevada and to the West. Born in Carson City on October 30, 1885, during a brief visit by her family to the area, Ms. Knemeyer was the daughter of one of that sturdy group of German immigrants who settled in Carson and Mason Valleys from the 1870s through the1890s. Her father, Franz H. Knemeyer, and her mother, nee Marie Heidlage Springmeyer, came to the fertile Carson Valley in 1882 at the instigation of relatives and friends who had preceded them. The family settled permanently in Mason Valley after spending a few years in "Old Empire" on the Carson River, where Bertha's brother, Edward, and sister, Erma, were born, and Carson City.

Bertha received her early education in a little country school. Quiet and shy, but very bright, she displayed a definite talent for and interest in mathematics. She was determined to make something of herself in spite of hard times and difficulties. Bertha recalled two outstanding teachers who inspired her with the will to learn and with an interest in the world about her. Defying all obstacles, Bertha earned the equivalent of a high school diploma by being tutored by Dr. G. E. Leavitt, who took it upon himself to teach the girl everything he knew-mathematics, Latin, science, and German.

In 1902, after completing her education with Dr. Leavitt, Bertha applied in person to the University of Nevada in Reno without a single actual high school credit. At first they turned her down--how could she presume to ask to be admitted? But, again, her determination, and the intelligent charm that made others want to help, led her to one who recognized her potential and was willing to give her a chance. Dr. Thurtell, professor of mathematics, agreed to be responsible for the girl while she was at the University. Dr. Stubbs, the president of the University, proved to be kind and understanding, and there were others whom Bertha remembered with gratitude. One was Dr. J.E. Church, a long-time professor of classical languages, and later famous for his snow surveys. These men became her personal friends and advisors.

During her campus years, she was also active in Delta Rho, a local sorority later to become a chapter of Pi Beta Phi, and was a member of Phi Kappa Phi, a scholastic honor fraternity.

Following her graduation in 1906 as the youngest member of her class, Bertha began a thirty year professional career in Elko County. She became a teacher in the local high school. Not only did she teach her beloved mathematics, she taught German, Latin, science, and physical education. It became evident that the new young teacher was one of those rare individuals who inspired others to learn.

By the time she was thirty, she was appointed Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction for northeastern Nevada, the first woman in the state to hold that position. During these years as Deputy Superintendent, she traveled to every town in her district. She told many tales of the rides about the countryside, in all sorts of weather, and over miles and miles of terrible roads, in her old Model T Ford, and of her encounters with the various problems that arose in the tiny schools of those early days. She felt her adventures were exciting as well as satisfying; through it all she left a trail of wonderful, loyal friends whose kindness and hospitality helped her over rough spots, and whose friendships she cherished for years.

During these years, which coincided with World War I, Bertha became the target of discrimination by those who were resentful of her German origins. A younger brother was still in Germany--he had been too young to travel to America--and many bigots felt Knemeyer's ties to Germany were too strong. For Bertha, this period of her life represented a time of sheer endurance.

In 1919, Knemeyer resigned her Deputy Superintendent position to become teacher and principal at Metropolis High School; a year later, she accepted the opportunity to become principal of the new high school in Elko, a position she held for fifteen years. During that time, the student population expanded from eighty in 1920 to two hundred in 1936. Although Bertha's duties expanded proportionately, she continued to reserve for herself the privilege of teaching the classes in higher mathematics.

Knemeyer was loved by faculty and students alike. She was as equally concerned over her finest, most promising students as she was those who was somewhat more recalcitrant. A wrong-doing by one of her students was a personal blow to B.C.K.; she was known to spend hours of patient effort to make the culprit see his/her weakness and mend his/her ways.

Not content to confine herself entirely to the improvement of her school and her pupils, Ms. Knemeyer worked zealously with the community as a whole. She was instrumental in bringing Chautauquas and, later, other lecture series to Elko.

Bertha acquired a master's degree by attending several universities during summer sessions, including Harvard, University of Chicago, University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Berlin. She was elected a delegate to the Convention of the World Federation of Education Associations in Geneva, Switzerland, and in 1934, was elected one of the twelve national vice-presidents of the National Education Association.

Bertha was an active citizen in Elko, her adopted home. She was a charter member, in 1912, of the Elko Twentieth Century Club, a member of Chapter A, the first P.E.O. Chapter in the state of Nevada, and a member and Past Matron of the Elko Chapter No. 17 of the Order of Eastern Star. She was also an excellent bridge player and entertained frequently at small gatherings in her home.

An outspoken person, Bertha faced a major crisis in 1935; she was asked to resign her position of twenty-nine years because she took a strong stand in favor of scholastic standings over athletics. Heartbroken by the request to resign, she rallied when most of the community called a mass meeting and submitted a petition with over 1,000 signatures demanding she keep her job. She stayed for another year, then retired with full pension to which completion of thirty years of teaching service entitled her.

Following her retirement in 1936, she traveled throughout the world, pursued a Ph.D. program at Columbia University, taught once again at the Chadwick School in Rolling Hills, California, the Montezuma School for Boys in Los Gatos, and finally at the Sarah Dix Hamlin School for Girls in San Francisco. She was convinced that girls were as bright at mathematics as boys, when given the chance, and found them to be the best workers. She retired again in 1950, but became a speaker on the methods for teaching mathematics.

Once "truly" retired, she traveled to Europe again and to Asia for the first time. She was gone for over six years before returning to the United States. She settled in San Francisco, and traveled less often although she attended a reception in her honor in Carson City in 1961.

Although Bertha never married, never had biological children to carry on, her mathematical mind has without a doubt found immortality, first through her nephews and grand-nephews, and also through her "intellectual descendants," mathematicians and scientists of the next generation, totally unrelated by blood, but in whom the germ of genius was planted, perhaps years before, by B.C.K. Above all, she left a legacy of hundreds, perhaps thousands of students, whose intellectual as well as moral attitudes will be on a much higher plane than they would have been, had not Bertha C. Knemeyer exerted her influence on some intellectual or biological ancestor.

Biographical sketch by Sally Wilkins from published article by Gertrude Badt

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Sources of Information:

Geuder, Dr. Patricia. Pioneer Women of Nevada, Carson City: American Association of University Women-Delta Kappa Gamma Publication, 1976.

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