“She was loved and respected by everyone in the Yaqui community.”
— John Fahr, “New building to Honor Selfless Pioneer Teacher of Yaquis,”
Tucson Star (November 7, 1954)
It was mid-October 1937 when the bad news spread through the small Pascua Yaqui Village northwest of Tucson. Despite their prayers for her, the doctor confirmed the Yaquis’ fears that Richey would not recover. Within a week, the frail 79-year-old teacher was dead. Her death ended a remarkable career in social service through education. Working with and among Native Americans from the 1890s through the 1930s, Thamar Richey taught youngsters in places as widely scattered as Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, California, and Arizona. Thamar’s contributions in Arizona began in 1923 when at age sixty-five, a time when most people today are considering retirement, she almost single-handedly established an elementary school for the Pascua Yaqui children. Laboring selflessly among the Indians there, Thamar Richey strove to teach them enough English and other skills to enable them to cope with the demands of a changing American society.
One of nine children, Thamar Richey was born on August 8, 1858, at Saltsburg, Indian County, Pennsylvania. Her parents soon moved to Illinois and then to Missouri. There at age sixteen, she graduated from Maryvale High School, an unusual accomplishment for a young woman of that time. Entering one of the few professions open to her, in 1874 she took a job teaching in a small rural school in nearby Ottawa County.
During the next five years, she taught in several other county schools. Then, in 1879, the Richey family moved to Kansas where Thamar continued to teach for the next thirteen years.
Little else is known about her life until 1892 when she took a position offered by the federal Indian Service. Thamar Richey was assigned to a school on the Fort Mohave reservation in Needles, California. From there, she moved back to Kansas and became the head matron at the Haskell Institute at Lawrence, one of the major Indian boarding schools of the day. Later, she became the principal at the Genoa, Nebraska Indian School and for a short time, worked at an Indian school in Minnesota. These years with young Indian students, on reservations and at boarding schools, increased her commitment to educate the tribal peoples of the West. Although she certainly held some popular stereotypes about Indian culture, she came to recognize that children needed the individual help that only dedicated teachers could provide.
In 1901, her parents’ illness brought an abrupt shift in her career. To be with them, Thamar returned to Holton, Kansas and taught there for the next eighteen years. During that time she served on the faculty of Emporia Normal School, the teachers’ college, and also taught part-time at a small local college in Holton. She apparently had no involvement with the federal Indian school system while at Holton, but her interest in Indian education remained strong.
In 1919, Thamar Richey came to Arizona to be near her brother Harlan who lived in Tucson. Learning that the teacher at the Empire Ranch was not returning after the Thanksgiving holidays, Miss Richey applied for the position. She taught near Greaterville, Arizona for the next four years.
In August of 1923, at age sixty-five, she moved to Tucson, but she could not find a teaching job. She approached Superintendent C. E. Rose and proposed to start a school for the Yaqui youngsters of Pascua Village. Before the startled man could respond, she asserted, “I don’t have a teaching job, and the Indians have no school. If I get a school started, may I teach it?” Mr. Rose’s reply has been lost, but it seems he gave her request little thought until the determined Thamar Richey invited him to visit her “school.” To his surprise, he found Miss Richey and twelve Indian children sitting under a partially enclosed ramada holding class. The school lacked everything. It had three tin and cardboard walls, but the fourth side was open to the weather. The children sat on a couple of railroad ties while the teacher used an upended wooden box for a desk. The sand of the floor served as a blackboard. Mr. Rose was so impressed that he persuaded the school board to build a one-room school nearby.
By January 1924, the Yaqui children had a 30 x 30 foot adobe school with windows filled with flowering plants, colorful pictures on the walls, desks, a work table, teacher’s desk, an organ, a phonograph, and even shelves. The new building had room for forty students and filled quickly when the Yaquis realized that Miss Richey was willing and able to help. She did not know the Yaqui language and, at first, had to use two interpreters – one to translate English into Spanish, and the other, Spanish into Yaqui. Once the children began to learn some English, her teaching became easier.
In the winter of 1924 to 1925, Miss Richey began preparing lunches and providing milk for the children. As a result, the Yaqui school was offering an early-day version of the free school lunch, now a regular part of school offerings for low-income students.
Thamar Richey became much more than just a local teacher for the small Indian community. She not only taught the children but also offered health and dietary suggestions to their parents. During the desperate days of the Great Depression, she became a virtual one-person relief service. Through cooperation with the nearby Roosevelt School P.T.A. and with help from officers of the YWCA, she gathered clothing for both youngsters and adults.
She had good relations with the local newspapers, and by the careful use of interviews with reporters looking for feature stories, she managed to make the public aware of Yaqui poverty. This notoriety helped her to raise funds and get food and clothing for distribution in the village. Throughout the years when she ran the one-room school, Thamar Richey hoped that her efforts would help some of the children escape the grinding poverty of the Indian community. In September 1937, Miss Richey realized that her health was failing, and she applied for retirement. Within a month, the energy vanished that had kept her in motion as a teacher and helper for so many years, and on October 20, 1937, Thamar Richey died at her home in Tucson.
After Miss Richey’s death, continuing problems with the Depression, then World War II swept her name and humanitarian efforts from local view for a time. But in early 1955, the Tucson Board of Education built a new $193,312 building in Pascua Village. With a 235-student capacity, the eight modern classrooms and multi-purpose room were a boon to Yaqui education. And in honor of Thamar Richey’s selfless service for the last fourteen years of her life, the school was named the Richey Elementary School.