By: Mary Wachacha
Mary Ann Widenhouse was born on May 13, 1933 to Wayne and Nell Burgess Tahquette. She was the great granddaughter of former Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, John Alfred and Elizabeth Tahquette. Mary Ann died at her home on April 5, 2014.
A graduate of Western Carolina University, Mary Ann was attending graduate school at Duke University when she met her future husband, Ernest Widenhouse. They were married in January 1960, and both Mary Ann and Ernest accepted positions within the Baltimore School System in Baltimore, MD. They were the parents of two children, Marian and Ernest Jr. Mary Ann was a curriculum specialist and developed curriculum for the Baltimore School system and, in addition to raising her family, she attended and graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a master’s degree.
In the fall of 1974, Mary Ann and Ernest returned to Cherokee where she became head of the History Department at Cherokee High School and eventually accepted the principal position at the Cherokee Elementary School. Mary Ann served in other positions within the Cherokee Central School system and concluded her professional career by working in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. as assistant superintendent of Indian Education. Mary Ann and Ernest retired to their home on Galbraith’s Creek.
Mary Ann served admirably as the principal of the Cherokee Elementary School steering the school and staff through Bureau politics such as constant threats of RIFs, furloughs, budget shortfalls, and various Agency Superintendents. She maintained an even keel through tribal politics and was adept at dealing with upset parents and staff. Mary Ann also worked well with school staff by sometimes saving teachers “from ourselves” by fostering a better working environment to keep everyone working together and focused on educating our students.
One of Mary Ann’s biggest accomplishments was working with teachers and staff to attain accreditation for the Cherokee Elementary School by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges (SACS). This was quite an undertaking making sure that all teachers were licensed and certified in their teaching fields. This was the first time ever that national standards were implemented ensuring that all classrooms and teachers met end of year requirements, completed lesson plans, and followed Individual Education Plans, or IEPS. Mary Ann’s curriculum development experience provided her with the tools to improve the education curriculum provided to Cherokee students.
Mary Ann also introduced the first Cherokee Heritage Week – requiring the teaching of Cherokee History and Culture – such as Cherokee Dances, Cherokee arts and crafts, traditional dress and traditional foods to elementary students.
Another first during Mary Ann Widenhouse’s tenure was the first Cherokee School Harvest Festival held in the classrooms and cafeteria in the fall of year. Surrounding schools were having these fund raisers – why not Cherokee?
Last, but not least, Mary Ann’s greatest delight was entering the classrooms and encouraging students to learn and try new things. Mary Ann fostered a new attitude in Bureau teachers – to put the child first and not the federal government. A new atmosphere was born where teachers were given credit for their persistence and diligence to help student learn and achieve; students could take pride in learning and being Cherokee Indians.
Many, many teacher aides were encouraged to return to college to become fulltime teachers. At no time before or since has the Cherokee Elementary School employed so many Cherokee Indian teachers.
Mary Ann was an avid educator and an inspiration to many staff and she was greatly missed when she accepted the promotion to the BIA Office of Indian Education in Washington, DC. Many former students have expressed appreciation of Mrs. Widenhouse and for their teachers during their elementary school years. Let us hope that somewhere out there is another great Cherokee Indian teacher who is willing to provide the leadership needed in our Cherokee Schools. Mary Ann’s accomplishments can best be summed up by a statement made by a former teacher, “Best Principal we ever had!”