When TMI went coedー and why
March is Women’s History Month…and TMI is part of it!
For nearly eight decades, TMI was an all-boys school. In fact, its first name at its founding in 1893 was the West Texas School for Boys (later West Texas Military Academy). It was also an all-military school for all those years. During the late 1960s and ‘70s, military schools became less popular, and more than 50 nationwide closed or dropped their military programs.
At the same time, the women’s movement was promoting inclusion, and formerly all-male schools and colleges went coed, including Texas A&M University, and Allen Academy, as well as Ivy League universities and New England prep schools. Meanwhile, TMI rival Peacock Academy, which stayed all-male and all-military, closed its doors for good in May 1972, a casualty of dwindling enrollment.
Meanwhile at TMI, the student editors of the 1971 yearbook included ‘an imaginative picture of the future” that included civilian clothes, “young teachers” and even girls. According to the Editor’s Note, the headmaster called it “an impossibility.” In fact, this imaginative picture was about to become a reality.
Less than a year later, TMI’s board announced in March 1972 that the school would extend the opportunity for an excellent education to girls as well as boys, starting in the fall of 1972 with its first 38 female students across class years, including new coed seventh- and eighth-grade classes in cooperation with St. Luke’s Episcopal School. Girls had attended TMI summer-school classes, and girls from area high schools had served as TMI cheerleaders, but these were the first full-time, diploma-bound female students.
The late Robert M. Ayres Jr. ‘44, then chairman of TMI’s board, said in a 2008 oral-history interview that, “On the subject of the admission of girls, (the board) began to consider that if TMI was the fine school we thought it was, that this school should be available to the women in our diocese as well as to young men. Also, we felt it would do a great deal for our enrollment, and it would be more appealing for the young men as well. (Coeducation) was a more balanced program for the future for our students (because it is) good preparation for the young men and young women to have the opportunity to work together in an academic setting. We also knew that Saint Mary’s Hall was going to admit young men, which would mean even more competition for TMI, so going coeducational was a smart move for us at that time.”
The first day of school at a coeducational TMI was Aug. 27, 1972. Unlike their male counterparts ー all cadets and all dressed in starched khakis ー the first TMI girls didn’t wear uniforms because their newly designed outfits weren’t ready yet, according to a report in the San Antonio Light, headlined “New face of TMI,” Aug. 28, 1972. Connie McCombs (later Connie McCombs McNab ’74) was optimistic: “It’s easier just to get up in the morning and put (a uniform) on than to have to decide what to wear,” she told the reporter.
When interviewed in 2008 for a TMI oral-history project, Connie said her family sent her to TMI to get the best education available in San Antonio. Another original coed, Katie Wright ’73, also focused on academics: “Some of the cadets are OK, some are nice ー I haven’t paid much attention to them,” she told the Light reporter. “I plan on just going to school.” From the boys’ perspective, Don Stewart ’73 commented that the newcomers to campus “will sure improve the social life” of the school, and Bob Boerner ’73 “was optimistic about the improvement of the dating situation.”
More female students were added slowly over the next few years, and girls would be allowed to join the Corps of Cadets in the second year of coeducation. Susan Mengden ‘76 became the first female cadet officer; her parents sent her and her sister Cathy Mengden Dohnalek ’79 to TMI to follow in the footsteps of their brother Michael Mengden ‘74. “They believed in TMI and wanted to give us all the best education they could,” Cathy told an earlier version of TMI Today, Winter 2010.
“The population of young women grew gradually,” Mr. Ayres said. “They entered as civilians, but we were going to open (the military program) for young women to be in the Corps if they wanted. As the number of women increased, there was additional income coming into the school.”
Dru Van Steenberg ‘78 was one of the first female four-year graduates of TMI. For high school, she said in a 2008 interview, “My choices were Saint Mary’s Hall, Incarnate Word or TMI.” Her brother Nicholas N. Van Steenberg II ‘78 ー now the parent of Nicholas A. Van Steenberg ‘20 ー was already a TMI student “and he would come home with the most fun stories. He loved TMI so much, the professors and the military and everything about it.” Before school started in 1974, Amy Waller Hill ‘77 “came over to my house and spent an afternoon with me, asking me to be in the military,” and Lisa Donovan Halfmann ‘77 invited her to a party at her house for the incoming freshman girls, “so I felt I knew people and I knew what I was getting into.” It was a comfortable situation, even though there were only 13 girls in her class year, and Dru was sometimes the only female student in some of her classes.
In 1974, the school made the decision to go military-optional, so that all TMI students were able to choose whether to attend as cadets. The all-volunteer Corps of Cadets has earned the Honor Unit with Distinction designation ー the highest awarded by Army JROTC ー every year since 1994. Last year’s BC, Mary Warder ‘20, is a first-year student at West Point.
Since the early years of coeducation, female students have earned every honor TMI bestows ー Battalion Commander, graduation class speaker, student government offices, dorm prefects and recipients of merit awards such as the Alkek and Taylor scholarships. Currently, 188 girls attend TMI; among them are cadet officers, members of Student Parliament, National Honor Society members, outstanding athletes and peer mentors. Their presence helps keep TMI thriving.