Mystery in the Garden
by Catherine Pyke '79
Every day a fresh flower appears in the clasped hands of the Madonna, the Della Robbia-style sculpture that graces the wall outside the oratory of the Margaret Fowler Garden. For years, Judy Harvey Sahak ’64, the Sally Preston Swan Librarian at Denison Library, tried to solve the mystery of who replenishes the flower that has appeared in photos of the garden taken from 1934 to the present. No one has ever claimed responsibility for the job, nor has anyone been spotted in the act.
“At this point,” she says,”I would like for this custom to be shrouded in mystery indefinitely.”
The Italian Renaissance was Margaret Fowler’s favorite period. It seems fitting that in the garden created to memorialize her, the Madonna and Bambino, peacefully centered on a cerulean blue background ringed by a garland of richly colored fruits, has become closely identified with this beloved community leader. Since 1923, Boys Republic in Chino, an organization that Fowler founded in 1907 to help troubled youth, has raised funds by selling Della Robbia-style holiday wreathes.
Who was the woman behind the garden? Margaret Brewer Fowler was born on September 23, 1863, in San Francisco, one of three daughters of prominent lawyer John Brewer. Her mother, Margaret Abernathy Brewer, was the daughter of an Oregon pioneer. Margaret and three of her closest girlhood friends—Anna Head (founder of Head-Royce School), Mary McLean, and Mattie Belcher—seniors at Oakland High School, became wellknown educators.
Fowler was the godmother of Beverly Hard, wife of Dr. Frederick Hard, an early president of Scripps College (1944-64). Beverly recalled the kindness of Fowler to her father, who had been worried about the expense of educating his daughters.”Won’t you please share your daughters with me?” she asked, whereupon she became their beloved “Aunt Margaret,” paying for college expenses and thoughtful kindnesses throughout their college years. She provided college scholarships for many other young people, including students in China and Japan.
Fowler confided to the Hards a tragic episode from her early life. She and her friends had taught classes for children in the front parlor of Anna Head’s home in Oakland.The young women were thrilled with the news of Margaret’s engagement to a young doctor who was serving his internship under his physician uncle in Hawaii.They were busily engaged in crocheting and embroidering for Margaret’s hope chest when terrible news arrived. One day an ailing father of a large family had come to the young doctor’s office. Upon examination, the man was found to be a leper and it was John’s painful duty to tell the patient that he would have to be sent to the Island of Molokai to live out his life. Later that day, the man returned to the office. Hoping to prevent being reported as a leper, he shot and killed the young physician.
The crushing blow so numbed Margaret with grief that even her mother and close friends could not comfort her. Slowly, her pain turned outward into a yearning to help young people. She accepted a teaching position at Punahou, a missionary school in Hawaii where she served on the faculty for over a decade. Afterward, she studied at New York University, receiving her Master of Arts in 1899.
In 1903, after taking up residence in Detroit and later in Pasadena, she married Eldridge M. Fowler, a widower with a young daughter named Kate. Fowler was a businessman, with interests in mines, railroads, and lumber from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest. The largest stockholder in the Electric Railway between Detroit and Toledo, he was vice president of the McCormick Harvester Company. He also served as a director of the International Harvester Company, founded by the father of his brother’s wife, Cyrus McCormick, who had invented the binder and reaper.
Margaret and Eldridge had been married for less than a year when he died, shortly after they took up residence in Pasadena. For the remainder of her life, Margaret concentrated on raising her late husband’s daughter and on furthering the philanthropic interests they had begun as a couple, as well as those that compelled her in later life. She was an associate of the California Institute of Technology, a long-time contributor to Pasadena’s All Saints Church and a benefactor of the Pasadena Hospital, where she and her step-daughter donated the administration building.
She is best known as the founder of Boys Republic, a youth facility and school that requires a young man to be responsible for his own actions, respectful of the rights of others and accountable to his peers through the system of republican government. In the early 1900s, Mrs. Fowler became interested in productive ways to reform juvenile delinquents when she was asked to join a committee by Los Angeles County Judge Curtis Wilber.This committee of concerned citizens set out to find alternatives to sending boys to jail with adult criminals. Fowler felt the key was to help boys academically, increasing their sense of self-worth through opportunities to achieve success. Committee members traveled east to research juvenile homes, where they were impressed by the pioneering work of William George at his George Junior Republic in Freeville, New York. As a result, Boys Republic was founded in 1907, with a grant of $10,000 from Mrs. Fowler, who also purchased for the fledgling non-profit corporation a 211-acre farm in Chino Hills and provided funds for the first buildings on its main campus. On the campus, she built her own gracious residence, Casa Colina, in order to be near the school and the boys. Here, Mrs. Fowler hosted countless gatherings at her home, benefiting Boys Republic and numerous other organizations.
President and Mrs. Hard recalled Fowler entertaining the first faculty of Scripps College at Casa Colina many times at annual holiday gatherings.”Parties were made especially heart-warming,” Dr. Hard observed,”because we were each made to feel special by her charming attention to our individual interests.”
Beverly particularly enjoyed Margaret’s bringing forth of objects from her theatre collections—fans and costumes, depictions of Lotta Crabtree dancing in the Gold Rush days, to the delights of lonely miners who threw bags of gold nuggets at her feet.
Upon Fowler’s death, her country villa was donated to become a physical rehabilitation center begun by Frances Eleanor Smith and Dr. Loyal Lincoln Wirt to treat victims of poliomyelitis.
At Scripps College, she was one of 10 dynamic, highly visible women on the original board of 20 trustees.The founding meeting of the board, during which the articles of incorporation were signed, was held at her Pasadena home at 363 Grove Street at 10 a.m. on Friday, June 18, 1926. Judy Harvey Sahak, closely studying Ellen Browning Scripps’ diary entries, has shown that 90-year-old Miss Scripps attended this meeting in the morning, chauffeured by Higgins, her driver, in the Pierce-Arrow given to her by her brother, E.W. She stayed through lunch, then, possibly mindful of the need not to exercise excessive influence as the founder of the College, departed shortly afterwards.
While Miss Scripps was characteristically hands-off in matters of college administration, deferring to the judgment of professionals, she was resolute in her determination to invite people of outstanding character and renowned leadership to the original board. She was intent that Mrs. Fowler, whose work on the board of the National Y.W.C.A. she admired, would be invited to serve. During World War I, Fowler had gone to France, where she oversaw a program that created opportunities for women whose fathers and husbands had been killed in the war. She accepted membership on the Board of Trustees in 1926 after Scripps’ attorney, Jacob Harper—the first board president of the College—wrote to her,”Your own life of service will be an inspiration to the students of Scripps College, which will be of inestimable value.”
Fowler served as the first chair of the Buildings and Grounds committee. She visited Mills College, Bryn Mawr,Wellesley, and many other women’s colleges in the East to research intricate details, make reasoned decisions on furniture, floorings, rugs, lamps, pianos, china, linens, and plumbing materials for the early dorms. No detail escaped her attention.To the board’s question,”How many girls may safely use one bathroom and maintain healthy and sanitary conditions?” Mrs. Fowler had the well researched answer: “Six.”
She shared Ellen Browning Scripps’ feeling that the residence halls should have the comfort and appearance of a tastefully decorated home. And to a critic’s statement that the new hall was luxurious, she replied, “Toll Hall is a very ordinary building, quietly furnished, but on account of good taste merely appears to be luxurious.”
She was selecting finishing touches for the first dorm, Eleanor Toll Hall, when she unexpectedly died in July 1931, just one month following the graduation of the College’s first class. In her honor, trustees and her step-daughter Kate (Mrs. Santvoerd Merel-Smith of New York) created the Margaret Fowler Garden of Memory, shortly after her death. Knowing that Fowler had been disappointed when the Depression required the College to drop a chapel from its architectural plan, trustees included a tiny chapel in her garden offering an ancient kneeling stool and cross.The mood of Italian Renaissance was selected by those who knew her best, and friends were invited to contribute favorite flowers and plantings from their own gardens.The cross beams of the pergola and two of the olive trees in the garden are from her Colinga home.
The mysterious flower in the hands of the Madonna outside her garden symbolizes the freshness of Margaret Fowler’s vision to create opportunities for young people.Through Boys Republic and Scripps College, her legacy will long endure.