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The Very First: Leila May Child


Meet Leila May


Each day you walk across campus, it becomes easier and easier to imagine yourself walking across the stage at graduation, donned in either cap or cowboy hat. Since Stetson’s founding in 1883, thousands of students just like you studied hard and graduated with a college degree. But you may find yourself wondering, who was the first? Leila May Child, one fascinating and thoughtful young woman, made history by becoming the very first Stetson collegiate graduate in 1893. Stetson has undergone many changes since Leila May attended, but current students can still find value in her story.


John B. Stetson University at a Snapshot


1893 was an eventful year for the United States as a whole. Grover Cleveland was beginning his first year of presidency, the fanciful Gilded Age was winding down and Progressive Era activists were beginning to sweep the nation with social and political reforms. The year also saw the Chicago World’s Fair, which introduced innovations like the electric dishwasher, cream of wheat, fluorescent light bulbs and the first official Ferris wheel. Despite its marvels, however, 1893 is most remembered for its devastating stock market crash, which resulted in a four-year-long economic depression. 

As if that was not enough excitement to manage, Leila May was wrapping up her last year at John B. Stetson University. And no, that title isn’t a mistake; the university had not yet shortened its name in 1893. Still in its early years of development, the campus Leila May roamed was much different than the one we see in 2023. She got to climb the steps of a brand new, breathtaking Elizabeth Hall, but the iconic Holler fountain and many of the school buildings had not been imagined yet. Aside from the scenery, her academic experience would have been much different than the one Stetson offers today. Because of the university’s official association with the Baptist Church, extracurriculars and degree requirements were often aligned with Baptist messaging. Leila May would have started her mornings by attending chapel service, in which students were penalized if not in attendance. Her degree requirements would have been similar to those today, but attending Bible Study courses was mandatory to receive her diploma. Months after Leila May’s graduation in 1893, the Department of Bible Study was replaced with the Department of Biblical Literature. 

Along with these requirements, the university prided itself on offering a substantial education for young Christian men and women. John F. Forbes, the first president of the university, wrote of the college in 1890, “The central and controlling idea, involved in its foundation is to give in Florida. . . a Christian education as broad, as liberal, and as thorough as can be obtained in any part of our country. . .” meaning Leila May would also be required to complete science, higher English, and commercial business courses to earn her degree. Though the physical and educational landscapes of John B. Stetson University underwent quite a lot of change in the past 130 years, Leila May’s experiences at the university were not entirely unfamiliar to what students experience in 2023. 


The College Years


Flash forward to Betty Carol and David Mann, descendants of Leila May. They have graciously provided Stetson with many of the physical relics we now have of her time here, most notably, her actual 1893 diploma. When Betty recalled the first time learning about her grandmother’s connection to Stetson, she said “I looked up Stetson online, like, okay, I just called the registrar you guys exist?” Once getting in contact with Stetson University, though, both sides were thrilled to have more information. David and Betty even personally traveled to Stetson to gift Leila May’s physical diploma to the university, where it still currently resides in the Stetson archives. 

Once learning more about Stetson and Leila May’s connection to the university, David and Betty, with the help of Stetson archivists and historical experts, expanded their limited knowledge of their grandmother. Some of this information outlined what Leila May spent her time at Stetson doing. “She taught in the local elementary academy that was associated with the Stetson Academysaid David with admiration. 


One of the more faded histories is the love story of Leila May and James Mann, who attended Stetson at overlapping times and eventually went on to be married.“Yeah. We don’t know. We don’t know when they got romantic because it really developed after graduation for her,” comments Mann as he reflects on some of the missing puzzle pieces in his grandmother’s Stetson story. While we don’t know whether Leila May and James Mann were romantically involved during their undergraduate studies, we do know that these early Hatters went on to become Stetson Sweethearts. 


Leila in Retrospect: Life After College


After receiving her diploma, Leila May Child packed up and “moved away from DeLand,” and in 1900, “got married en route to this new new life in Arizona,” recalls David. This was the Leila May that Betty and David grew up knowing and hearing stories about. Even though they didn’t know Leila May in her college years, Betty fondly remembers James, Leila May and the time that they “lived on a kind of a dirt Ranch outside of Tucson to raise the three boys.” It seems that Leila May’s later life was characterized by her devotion to her children, and later on, her grandchildren. However, Betty and David agreed that elements of her educational background shone through in the way that she raised her children and lived her life. 


Parting Wisdom from Leila


At her graduation in 1893, Leila May Child delivered a commencement speech using her essay, “Philosophy in Common Life.” On the topic of change, she says:


  • “Time is only the mind’s interpretation of change. The length of time between events is the amount of change realities have undergone. Change is not in time, but founds time.” 


Over 100 years later, these words still resonate with Stetson students today. When Leila May started her education at John B. Stetson University, she probably could not imagine the person she would be while delivering the commencement speech. All she could see was a span of time, but she understood that change would not happen on its own. As you navigate Stetson University and imagine your own triumphant walk across the graduation stage, remember Leila May’s words of wisdom and think about the changes you want to make before receiving your degree.

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About the Contributors
Reagan Shivers
Reagan Shivers, News Editor
Carlye Mahler
Carlye Mahler, Managing Editor

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