Katherine B. McMahon
Essay by Caroline Wilkie Wordell
Katherine B. McMahon was born on March 14th. Although I know the year, I am not going to tell you because Miss McMahon never wanted anyone to know how old she was!! Even her obituary did not list her age. She was born in Fall River, MA, the only child of Joseph McMahon, a janitor, who was born in Prince Edward Island, and Mary A. Barry from Massachusetts.
She attended Fall River public schools and graduated from Durfee High School, followed by studies at Fitchburg State Teacher’s College and Rhode Island College.
Miss McMahon came to Little Compton to teach at the Stone Schoolhouse on Long Highway, and also taught at the one room school on the Commons. She is quoted in the Providence Journal-Bulletin on August 6, 1985, “I thought I was in the middle of nowhere,” she says. “I was convinced it was the last place on earth God made. I was sure he wanted to forget about it as soon as he made it. I had never been in a school with more than one grade. I couldn’t get the fire to burn right. I went home that night and prayed, ‘Lord, get me out of here.’ Then I came back and stayed 43 years. I guess the Lord didn’t listen to me.”
In 1930 she became a classroom teacher at the new Josephine F. Wilbur School, and then returned to Fall River to teach there for two years. During her career she taught every grade. She left Fall River “temporarily” in November of 1948 to become acting superintendent when Charles B. Leonard took a leave of absence. In 1949, she was appointed to the position on a permanent basis and remained there until her retirement in 1973.
Miss McMahon held membership and offices in many organizations, such as The Rhode Island Education Association, R.I. Association of School Superintendents, the American Association of School Administrators, the New England Association of School Superintendents, the Newport County Mental Health Group, New Visions for Anti-Poverty, the Red Cross, the Catholic Club of Fall River, and Gamma Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma Society of Rhode Island.
She was active in 4-H for many years, being a 4-H All Star. She held life certificates as a superintendent and as a teacher for the state of Rhode Island.
Miss McMahon was treasurer of Little Compton’s Tricentennial/Bicentennial Committee. I remember going to her home on Brownell Road one morning and she was drying the money from the beer concession in her oven!
Her interests outside education were reading, swimming, and travelling.
The Little Compton School Committee annually presents the Katherine B. McMahon Award to a student who is caring and supportive of others.
To quote her, “We are kind of a school family, and you are always part of the family no matter where you go or what you do. We take a great deal of pleasure in seeing our students become successful adults. We like to think that we had a least a small part in their success.”
Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition
Miss McMahon never revealed the year she was born, even in her obituary, and so neither will we. Originally from Fall River, she began teaching in Little Compton’s one-room schoolhouses in the 1920s. Her first day at the stone schoolhouse on Long Highway was a disaster. She once told a reporter, “I went home that night and prayed, ‘Lord, get me out of here.’ Then I came back and stayed 43 years. I guess the Lord didn’t listen to me.” Miss McMahon retired as Little Compton’s School Superintendent in 1973.
Always impeccably dressed, always in high heels, always addressed as “Miss McMahon,” Katherine B. McMahon ran a tight ship at the Josephine F. Wilbur School. She began there as a classroom teacher the year after it replaced the town’s one-room school system in 1929, became acting superintendent in 1948, and was permanently appointed in 1949.
A natural leader, Miss McMahon held offices in numerous regional organizations focused on education, public health, and social justice. She also became an integral part of the local community. When a new middle school was opened in 1973, the town named it in her honor.