There is one point the members of the Mary Paxton Study Class want to make perfectly clear: This is not a club.
“If we said anything about a group or a club, we’d be run out of the state,” class member Joanne Justice said.
There’s no social hour, no real outside functions. Members arrive, listen to a lecture, and maybe discuss a little afterward.
Just as they’ve been doing, more or less, for the past 125 years.
Since 1894, when a group of 16 Independence women looking for a break from the drudgery of housework formed a study group, the Mary Paxton Study Class has been a place for women to pursue intellectual interests and learn more about the area’s rich history. Last month, they celebrated the group’s 125th anniversary at the Reassembly Tea that marks the start of each new term.
One of the few club-like functions the women indulge in.
“We’re not a philanthropic group,” member JoAnn Huff said. “We do not collect money; we don’t sell anything. And that’s basically because of the way it was started.”
The Mary Paxton Study Class started with professional women, mainly teachers, who had to abandon their careers back then after they married. According to a history compiled for the class’ centennial, Paxton (Mrs. John Paxton), Mrs. William Southern, Mrs. J.H. Montague and Mrs. Henry Ott – all members of prominent early Independence families – invited 16 women to organize a class “to seriously study the world’s great literature.”
When Paxton fell ill and could no longer participate, they decided to name the class in her honor. One of her daughters, Mary Paxton Keeley, was a childhood friend of Bess Wallace Truman and the first woman to graduate from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
“The people who lived on Delaware Street and the surrounding areas were basically the beginning of the story,” said Justice, who serves as the class historian. “To be a member of the class was very prestigious.”
From the beginning, the class has met on Monday afternoons from October to May in two nine-week sessions, like a regular school term. They first met in members’ homes. Eventually, they moved to the Truman Library, where they held class for years until it was closed this year for renovations. For now, they’re meeting at Good Shepherd Community of Christ Church in Kansas City.
The lessons in each term are centered on a theme selected the year before with the help of the professor chosen to lead the class. For 27 years that was James Seaver, a professor emeritus from the University of Kansas. After Seaver left, the class went through several other professors until Mary Beth Craddock, an adjunct professor at the University of St. Mary’s Overland Park campus, took over the program.
The theme for this term is “The Roaring 20s: Fords, Flappers and Fanatics.” Last Monday, they examined women’s suffrage and the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. In January, they’ll turn to the 1930s.
While there are lectures and discussions, there are no tests to take or papers to write.
“A lot of people take notes,” Huff said. “I don’t know how you’d listen and take notes because I’d get lost.”
Huff, 86, has been a member since 1987, longer than anyone else currently in the class. The opportunity to study and discover new knowledge, she said, is what keeps her coming back for more.
“It’s interesting,” Huff said. “Even if you don’t know the subject and you’ve probably never heard of it, there’s always something you learn.”
Justice, a member since 2014, said she has learned much she didn’t know about the area’s history.
“I was not a studier of history in school,” Justice, 87, said. “It’s brought a lot of insight in regards to the history of different things. It’s been very interesting to me.”
Although the basic idea has remained the same, the Mary Paxton Study Class has had to change some things with the times. Until recently, membership was by invitation only. Aspiring members had to be sponsored by two class members and approved by a vote of the class. Now anyone interested can come to a class and join.
The Reassembly Tea, and the end-of-the-season luncheon, used to be dress-up affairs. Now they’re more come as you are. Refreshments used to be banned during classes. Not anymore.
Most of the changes are geared toward reviving a flagging membership. In her time, Huff has seen as many as 65 in the class. Now it’s down to 36. Their average age, Justice said, was about 60.
“The interest isn’t there because there’s too many other things,” Huff said. “There wasn’t much to do when it started. It’s just like church – nobody’s here on Sunday because they’re all out at the ballgame.”
Huff and Justice both fear for the future of the Mary Paxton Study Class, but they’re hopeful that new members can be found to keep the legacy going. Anyone interested in joining can stop by their next class at 1:30 p.m. Monday at the church, which is at 4341 Blue Ridge Blvd.
“We want to keep it going,” Huff said. “We need enough money to pay our people. All our dues go toward paying our speaker.”
And certainly not toward any club-like activities.