Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch was a social worker at a time when that discipline was in its infancy. She was also a fraternity woman and played a role in the first gathering of what came to be the National Panhellenic Conference.
In August 1890, the Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter at Boston University invited representatives from the six other groups that had chapters on campus – Alpha Phi, Delta Delta Delta, Delta Gamma, Gamma Phi Beta, Kappa Alpha Theta, and Pi Beta Phi – to a meeting planned for April 1891. That meeting was called to order by Mary M. Kingsbury [Simkhovitch], Kappa Kappa Gamma and Chairman of the Executive Committee on Convention. Although the National Panhellenic Conference was not founded until 1902, this meeting in Boston was the first attempt at getting together the women’s organizations.
She also served as her chapter’s delegate to convention. Decades later she reflected on that trip, “I was lucky enough in my junior year to be a delegate to a convention in Minneapolis. This allowed me to stop at Akron and Wooster and other places where we had chapters. The difference of attitude and emphasis in all these places helped me to modify my New England provincialism.”
As a collegian, she and Margaret B. Dodge created a Kappa Kappa Gamma Kalendar for 1889. An announcement in the 1889 Delta Upsilon Quarterly touted it as “a new idea in fraternity publications. It consists of twelve pages, about six inches by nine in size, and is handsomely printed on fine heavy paper. A page is given to the calendar for each month, historical points of Kappa Kappa Gamma are named, and opposite each day is a quotation garnered from eminent authors, fraternity magazines and other sources.” In 1890, she graduated from Boston University where she was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She served Kappa Kappa Gamma as the Editor of Volume VI of the Key of Kappa Kappa Gamma and was Kappa’s first Historian.
In her autobiography, Simkhovitch wrote of her time as a collegiate member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, “There was the ambition inculcated into new members to make a success of themselves in any field of college life. Loafing was discouraged and there was a healthy competition to see which fraternity could secure the greatest number of honors. This may not have been the highest motive for work, but we all enjoy the warmth of fellowship and group approbation and undoubtedly standards were maintained under this stimulus that might otherwise have slipped. ‘Kappa’ honor, skill and reputation were all cherished.”
After graduate work at Radcliffe College and Columbia University, she traveled to Berlin to study. There she met a Russian student, Vladmir Simkhovitch, whom she later married. She worked at the College Settlement House and the Friendly Aid House that was supported by All Souls Unitarian Church.
In 1902, she founded and served as Director of the non-sectarian Greenwich House Settlement in New York City. It opened at 26 Jones Street on Thanksgiving Day. The goal of the settlement house was to help immigrants adjust to their lives in their new country. Classes in music, art and drama were added. In 1919, a nursery school was established.
The New York City Panhellenic was formed in October 1920. At a luncheon meeting in April, 1921 at the Hotel Astor, the program centered on the history of the Panhellenic movement. According to a fraternity magazine’s account of the meeting, “Quite by chance it happened that Mrs. Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch of [Kappa Kappa Gamma’s] Phi chapter, who was the principal officer of the first Panhellenic Conference in Boston, was present at the first meeting of the National Panhellenic.”
Simkhovitch had a hand in many of the great social reforms of the day. She was a member of the American Association of Social Workers and was awarded honorary degrees from Boston University, New York University, Columbia University, Smith College and Colby College. She retired from Greenwich House on February 1, 1946 and became its Director Emeritus. Simkhovitch died in 1951.
Today, the Greenwich House offers programs in social services including counseling, drug treatment, senior health and AIDS mental health counseling. The cultural arts education programming that began more than 100 years ago continues still.
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