Gertrude I. Johnson and Mary T. Wales | Johnson and Wales University Library; taken about 1914

Many women have played prominent roles in Rhode Island education, from teaching to founding what has now become a prominent university with campuses in Providence and North Carolina.

As WUN celebrates National Women’s History Month, we’ll introduce several women who have played significant roles in our area, from the sports field to politics and government, from the courtroom to the board room. They are focused, tenacious, smart, and courageous.

Today, meet Miss Johnson and Miss Wales – Gertrude I. Johnson and Mary T. Wales. And, if that sounds a bit familiar, they were the founders of what is now Johnson & Wales University.

Gertrude I. Johnson and Mary T. Wales | Johnson and Wales University Library; taken about 1914

Johnson was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania and Wales in Wilmington, Delaware. They met as students at the Pennsylvania State Normal School (now Millersville University of Pennsylvania). Johnson graduated in 1895 and went on for a master’s degree. Wales graduated two years earlier.

Wales went on to teach in public schools in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts for 17 years, before moving to Providence to teach at the Rhode Island Commercial School (now Bryant University). After receiving her master’s degree, Johnson taught at public schools and then worked in banking for five years. 

Johnson returned to teaching at Bryant and Stratton Business School, where she was reunited with Wales. In 1914, they opened their own business school, Johnson & Wales Business School.

According to Johnson & Wales website, “the school opened with one student and one typewriter on Hope Street in Providence. The school soon moved to a larger site on Olney Street, and later moved downtown to 36 Exchange Street to better serve returning soldiers after World War I.”

The school admitted both men and women, and its curriculum included bookkeeping, typing, shorthand, English, and Mathematics.

After operating the school for 33 years, Johnson and Wales sold the for-profit to Edward Triangelo and Morris Gaebe, two old navy friends. At the time, the school had 100 students.

In time, it was accredited as a junior college (1960), became a registered non-profit in 1963, and officially became Johnson & Wales University in 1988, with a renowned culinary and hospitality program, adding degree programs in arts and sciences, engineering, design, education and more.

The school currently has nearly 13,000 students at its Providence and Charlotte, North Carolina campuses.

This story was originally published on March 8, 2021.