Elizabeth Wightman

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Elizabeth, often called "Bessie" by her family, was an American painter of some repute. She did charcoal sketches, watercolor, and oil paintings. She did not marry, and served as the head of the Dept. of Fine Arts of Central Michigan State Teachers College (aka Central Normal School; now Central Michigan University) from 1900 until her retirement in June 1937.

Elizabeth grew up primarily in Evart, Osceola Co., MI, although she likely had some early memories of life in Van Buren Co., MI as a small child. She certainly was cognizant of her father's descent into mental illness, which probably began when she was a young girl. She moved to Mt. Pleasant with her mother, brother and sister, as a young teen in 1887, a few years after her father's death.

Young Elizabeth excelled in school and began teaching in the Mt. Pleasant public schools during the 1890's. She then went to study at the Normal College in Ypsilanti, MI (just outside Ann Arbor), probably in the mid-1890's. In 1897, she returned to Mt. Pleasant and accepted a faculty position in geography and art at the Central Normal School. In 1900, she was promoted to the rank of professor and made head of the Art Department, a remarkable accomplishment for a woman at this time.

In 1905, Elizabeth was listed among the qualified teachers of Isabella County, and the sole member of the Drawing faculty at Central State Normal School.

Over her career at Central Normal/ Central Michigan State Teachers College, Elizabeth took two year-long sabbaticals to advance her work at the famed Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn, NY, from which she also received an advanced degree (perhaps an M.F.A. or its precursor). Elizabeth traveled often, studied in Europe, and worked in summer schools of painting on the eastern U.S. coast.

Elizabeth was a member of the Mt. Pleasant Presbyterian Church from 1894 until her death. She was also a member of the Women's Club (like her mother), the Tourist Club, the Faculty Women's Club, the Faculty Dames, and the Isabella County of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). In connection with the College, Elizabeth was the patroness of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority and the faculty adviser for the Art Club.

Elizabeth inherited the house at 307 E. High St. from her mother, Celestia, and is listed as the principle occupant and owner in the 1930 Mt. Pleasant Directory.

Elizabeth died in the spring of 1940 in a Detroit hospital after a sudden illness at the age of 68. The May 2, 1940 issue of the Mt. Pleasant Times ran a page 1 article about her death. Presbyterian pastor Rev. C. B. Hawkins performed the funeral service and Elizabeth was buried in Riverside Cemetery. Wightman Hall at Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, MI, is named in her honor.


1. Mary Ross Whitman, George Wightman of Quidnessett, RI and Descendants, (1939, Chicago: Edwards Brothers).

2. Michigan Death Record

3. One World Tree, "Electronic."

4. "Isabella County Enterprise," Mt. Pleasant, MI, July 23, 1926.

5. "Mt. Pleasant Times," Mt. Pleasant, MI, May 2, 1940.

6. "Daily Times News," Mt. Pleasant, MI, p 2, column 2, January 12, 1954.

7. Social Security Death Index.

© 2006, Bruce Wightman, all rights reserved.

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