Millie Arthrell


Growing up in Wellington I had heard for years of the Oberlin Business College without really knowing anything about it--except that quite a few Wellington High School graduates attended the school and it was said that they obtained good jobs as a result.

But that was not for me--it was to college to become a teacher or nothing. Of course the iron will of my mother hadn't been taken into consideration and without any input on my part, she signed me up for the six-month secretarial course--the shortest course offered. It was 1931, the time of the Great Depression and that was her choice. Besides, there was no money for college.

The summer evaporated, with me earning enough as a waitress at the White Front Restaurant to pay for books and the 50 cents a week for riding back and forth with some returning students. I still remember the dark, creaky stairs leading to the second floor of the Beckwith Building. We bought our books at the old bank counter at the back of the big accounting room and headed through the typing room and across the walkway to the far end of the Hobbs Building (also on the second floor) where shorthand classes would be held.

Miss Ethel M. Burns, our shorthand and typing teacher, wasted no time getting started--nor did she ever. She was all business and immediately set us up to fingering a-s-d-f on the tables at which we sat. She explained that we would spend as long as necessary mastering the keyboard before we went to the type writers. She showed us the "tiger stroke" popularized by a champion typist whose name was something like Albert Tangora. We used our typing books as guides and under Miss Burns's directions we learned the keyboard by about the end of the first week. Then we began on Gregg shorthand. She showed us how to make the beginning letters and then dictated them over and over. Then it was into the large accounting room for handwriting and spelling practice with Mr. Kutscher. Every day there was a spelling lesson which included vocabulary study plus penmanship practice with what I remember as the Palmer method of endless o's and vertical lines. He never wasted a minute either. After those first three hours of solid practice there was a lunch break. After lunch Miss Burns asked if we could all stay until 4:00 p.m. the next day (one hour past the usual dismissal time). No one objected- by then, too tired to do so! And so, for the balance of the course we stayed until 4:00 p.m. According to Miss Burns this would give us a study period so that we could finish the shorthand book more quickly and thus have more time to review.

Photo above: Students doing business with the offices

From the Prospectus of the Oberlin Business College, date unknown

Courtesy of the Oberlin Historical and Improvement Organization


Miss Burns kept strictly to business, but rumor had it that she had attended the school twenty years earlier and then had worked for ten years each as commercial teacher and secretary. We all said, "She certainly knows her stuff!" She was both brisk and brusque--rather stocky and full of energy. She wrote shorthand beautifully and was a whiz at the typewriter. She was a subtle motivator--she asked a lot-- but you not only did what was assigned but took pride in doing more just to show her you could, I guess.

Once we could finger the alphabet perfectly on our study table she proceeded to show us exactly how to clean and oil a typewriter properly, how to roll in the paper, how to center it accurately, how to set the margins, and more than anything--to begin by taking pride in our work.

Now with our typing books open to the drill pages, we began the whole drill process over again. To help us overcome spotty fingering she played John Philip Sousa mar ches on an old wind-up Victrola. Such tunes as "Stars and Stripes Forever", "Washington Post March", and "On Wisconsin" made good warm-up exercises and helped us develop a steady, even beat. Once we finished the drills (with minimum errors, of course), we spent mornings working on so-called speed tests of 15 minutes in length after the Sousa march. Usually, Miss Burns would walk around the typing room carrying a bottle of hand lotion labeled "Italian Balm." She would give us each a couple of drops which we would massage into our hands and fingers for what she assured us would be even better typing results. On the board were the names of those who made perfect 15-minute scores and the speed at which they typed. She stressed accuracy over speed, but in the end, got both. (My first was 11 wpm, then 16 wpm, 18 wpm, 22 wpm and on and on throughout the year until we reached the speed of at least 50 words per minute and it had to be perfect or it didn't count!)

The pattern at school remained much the same throughout the year: an hour of short hand dictation and reading back, an hour of speed-test typing, an hour of spelling/handwriting with Mr. Kutscher for all students. After lunch there was a sleepy one-hour shorthand assignment to study, an hour of shorthand drill, and we finished off the day working on our typing assignments--which consisted of so-called "budgets" of various types of business letters, envelopes, office forms, tabulations, invoices, etc. Each "budget" consisted of 10 or 12 different forms of whatever type of office work was being emphasized--and each letter/envelope/invoice form, etc. must be perfect--no errors allowed! And no erasures. In fact, if just one erasure were perceived--the whole assignment (all the letters or whatever) had to be done over. If the amount of perfect speed tests fell off, the whole class would be assigned to a week of nothing but typing drills (6 or 12 lines each) and of course those assign ments had to be perfect. The following week there always seemed to be an amazing amount of perfect speed tests. (The highest perfect speed I remember was 93 wpm for 15 minutes (perfect, of course) by a Miss Vera Crawford).


(Photo at left: Shorthand Class. From the Prospectus of the Oberlin Business College, date unknown. Courtesy of the Oberlin Historical and Improvement Organization.)

Every week or two there would be an all school assembly in the large accounting room. Sometimes it would be Mr. Ernie Etoll talking sports and giving his predictions of which college team would win over which loser that week-end. Other times it would be a successful former student or motivational speaker. Once someone told us the story of Cassie Chadwick which we though was quite scandalous! Another time, a representative of Dun & Bradstreet gave us a quick course in the use of their book and the meaning of the credit ratings. Very useful later! Sometimes it would be a banker who had attended O.S.C. and he would give us hope that if we excelled and worked hard enough that we might some day hope to do the same. (In fact it was said that most of the bankers in the area had received their training at 0.S.C.)

Due to the extra assignment each day, we finished the shorthand book in record time. Then, for several weeks we spent our Thursday evenings studying for the big test on ridays. One week we would be assigned to write every shorthand word in the book, the next week to write every plate (letter) in the book, and the following week--everything (all the words and all the plates/letters) in the book. As I remember the tests were just long columns of words (about 600) to be written in shorthand. Since several of the girls in our class had had two-years of secretarial training in high school and were far ahead of the rest of us, it was a thrill to find I had won a fountain pen for the highest grade on all those tests. I still remember what a gracious little speech Mr. Henderson made when he presented it.

Near the end of our course, while we were doing the secretarial training seg ment and trying to pass the typing and shorthand dictation tests, Mr. Henderson came in to talk with our class promising us that the school would do all in their power to help qualified students find jobs. But times were bad and there were almost no jobs to be had. Several girls who had finished their work the previous year were working as maids for room and board and two orthree dollars a week.

No, it was not a good time but the staff of the school persevered. Once I had finished my work, Mr. Kutscher personally went to every office in Wellington trying to get me a job and there just weren't any. (That summer I baby sat, ironed, worked a day or so a week in a grocery store and began to think there would never be more than this ever).

My mother, still determined that I must have a job, urged me to go to Oberlin to look. I said, "What's the use, there aren't any jobs?" Nevertheless, I must go to Oberlin. Not only that, bet she told me to be sure to stop at the school to let them know I was still looking. "Why? They don't have any jobs either," was my answer. No matter, "Go!" So I did. At the top of the creaky stairs and into the receptionist's office where the walls were covered in large glass-framed galleries of former graduates I went. Hesitating at the office door, Mr. Hender son beckoned me to come in where he, Mr. Kutscher, and Mr. Etoll were at their desks.

"We were just talking about you," said one of them. "How would you like to come and work in our office, starting the day after Labor Day? The young man who helped us out this summer found a job at home and just left a few days ago. "Would I? Of course I would and thank you very much. As usual, my mother was right.

To make a long story a bit shorter, I still had a lot to learn but I did succeed in time. Mr. Henderson and Mr. Kutscher were kindly taskmasters--full of patience and forebearance. Mr. Etoll was not exactly easy to work for. Early on, just as I was perhaps beginning to learn more about office procedure, one day he said to me, "Either you do better, or it's curtains for you!" There is no doubt that he meant it--so I doubled and redoubied my efforts until even Etoll seemed to accept me as being at least adequate. Later I was asked to stay and teach typing, filing, and an advanced shorthand course (called Civil Service) at the end of the six-month course. This I did for three years--working in the office from June to January and teaching from January to the end of May or early June. The salary was low but the experience was terrific and there were some re markable students along the way. I also did typing for college students at 5 cents for a double-spaced page and lO cents for a single-spaced page plus working at Kroger' s on Saturdays. Thus, our family survived.

Later, a good job opened as a secretary to the vice-president of an Elyria factory that paid more money and so I took it although leaving O.S.C. with fond memories. After many years of work experience I went back there again in the early 1950s and again it was a most rewarding experience.

Still later, there was at last the opportunity to become a teacher through the offerings of Kent State University at Elyria High School and so I took it, too. In time I was at last the elementary teacher I'd dreamed of being (along with marrying, raising a family, teaching Sunday School, Den Mother for Cub Scouts, and more).

Thinking back, it seems to me that obeying my mother's decision to attend the Oberlin School of Commerce turned out to have been the best decision possible. The superb training received at O.S.C. has lasted a lifetime. It enabled me to get a good and satisfying job, it gave me a pattern of how to work and study that made college a success, and after all these years there is hardly a day that I don't write a bit of shorthand or type a few lines on my trusty manual typewriter!

In reading some of the Questionnaires returned, the same story is often repeated: "The training received at O.S.C. enabied me to get a good job that I couldn't have gotten without it." Or "Best thing I could have ever done."

Even though The Oberlin School of Commerce no longer exists, it is no wonder that grateful former students want to be sure that the place that gave them their training and their start in life is not forgotten.

Click here to see a short timeline of the Oberlin School of Commerce.

Click here to see a brief history of the Oberlin School of Commerce.

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