First Woman

Today’s story is about the first woman to study law at Notre Dame. While she did not receive a degree, she passed the bar examination while still a student and actively practiced law for several years. It is a tale of love, intrigue, and – keeping with our recent theme – possible murder. I hope you enjoy it.

Maxine Evelyn Ryer was born on December 1, 1899 in South Bend, the second child of Lester and Violet (Hartman) Ryer. Lester was an executive with the Birdsell Manufacturing Co., a large manufacturer of farming equipment with headquarters along the St. Joseph River. (You may remember their catchy jingle, “When you buy a Birdsell you are practicing Economy.”)

In March 1907 the family moved to Kansas City, Kansas. Although the Ryers were not Catholic, Maxine attended St. Agnes Academy, a Catholic school in the northeast part of the city. The family’s move was prompted by Lester’s decision to resign from Birdsell and join a firm that manufactured lamps – for the home – that were fueled by gasoline.

Economy Gas Lamp, model unknown

Whether it was related to the collapse of the gasoline-fired reading lamp craze or for another reason, the family returned to South Bend in 1911 and built a large home they dubbed “Castlewood.” The home was in the country at the time; today the spot is occupied by a Wendy’s just east of South Bend International Airport. Maxine enrolled in South Bend High School, where she was very active in theater, and where she met Ora “Everett” Miller, a slightly older boy with whom she fell in love. Upon graduation in 1916 she enrolled in Nazareth Academy in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she continued her study of “violin and dramatics.” Everett stayed in South Bend where he worked at the Singer Sewing Machine factory. 

Mrs. Miller the elder

Everett also enlisted in the Army as the U.S. entered World War I. Perhaps because of that enlistment, he and Maxine decided to get married as soon as possible. On March 20, 1917 they were married at the courthouse in St. Joseph, Michigan. If you have paid attention to the dates then you will realize that Maxine was not yet 18 years of age at the time of her marriage, as was required by Michigan law. She provided a false date on the marriage license. If the kids thought that mom and dad would not find out, they were wrong. The marriage was annulled immediately, but passion endures. In September 1917 Maxine visited Everett at Fort Benjamin Harrison (near Indianapolis) where he was training. On this trip, she was accompanied by Everett’s mother. No funny business.

Everett was assigned to the 321st Machine Gun Battalion, 82nd Division. The Army noted in an article entitled “Suiciders All” that was published in Recruiting News that the “mortality rate in the machine gun battalions … was unusually high.” Everett was stationed in the trenches on the front line; fortunately for him, the armistice was signed only two days after he arrived. In March 1919 he returned home safely to South Bend and to Maxine.

Machine Gunner, U.S. Army, World War I

By then, Maxine had graduated from Nazareth Academy and was offering violin lessons in South Bend. In July 1919 Maxine and Everett announced their engagement – again, sort of. They did not get married, and it is not clear why, although the fact that they announced their engagement without any input or support from their parents might shed some light on their relationship. Maxine’s father was very wealthy; Everett was … keep reading.

In 1921 Maxine began working in the office of attorney Frank Dunnahoo. Frank was married and had graduated from the University of Michigan Law School five years before Maxine was born. But his wife lived in Oregon, and Frank and Maxine began working very closely together.

Around the same time, Maxine entered Notre Dame as a law student. In September 1922 she was admitted to the St. Joseph County bar following an examination before a committee including the mayor, local judges, and the head of the bar association. (Prior to 1931 attorneys in Indiana were admitted to the bar on a county-level basis, and a law degree was not required.) She was not the first woman admitted to the bar in St. Joseph County, but she was the first who actively practiced in court. Sponsors in support of her application included Notre Dame law professor John P. Tiernan, among many others. Newspaper reports were partly condescending (e.g., “Recognized Despite Her Sex”) but generally congratulatory. Maxine and Frank operated a law firm with the name “Ryer & Dunnahoo” in Suite 420 of the J.M.S. Building downtown. The building still exists; the suite is now a condominium.

Everett was keeping busy too. In March 1924 he married Clementine Wozniak, a co-worker at Singer Sewing Machine. Clementine happened to be five months pregnant at the time, and one gets the distinct impression that Everett was not too excited about the marriage. He filed for divorce just a few months later. Clementine had a baby boy in July and, despite the fact that she named him “Ora Everett Miller, Jr.” he failed to provide any support. The boy died of tuberculosis at age 3; there is no evidence that Everett attended the funeral.

There is evidence, however, that Everett remained interested in Maxine – including the fact that he asked her to represent him in his divorce and child support proceedings. By this time, Maxine and Frank Dunnahoo were married (or so she claimed – no public records of the fact have been discovered and nobody but Maxine ever identified them as husband and wife). Then, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in October 1924, as Frank Dunnahoo was crossing an alleyway on Main Street near the courthouse, a car sped out of the alleyway and struck him. Frank did a somersault and landed on his head. A few hours later, he was dead. The car did not stop and it did not have license plates; the driver was never apprehended. The coroner’s report does not make any mention of the whereabouts of Everett Miller, or the type of car that he drove, but a few months later Everett and Maxine were married. Draw your own conclusions.

With Frank’s death, Maxine’s law practice slowed considerably. She began offering violin lessons to supplement their income. Unfortunately, she also developed some sort of heart condition. On June 12, 1930 she died in South Bend. She and Everett did not have any children. Maxine’s obituary heralded her as “the first woman in the county to be admitted to practice before the supreme court of the United States.” I have not discovered any evidence to support that claim, but it’s a nice thought. 

What happened to Everett? He married again, remained in South Bend throughout his life, and died in 1968.

As for the first woman to receive a law degree from Notre Dame, you may have noticed the picture of Graciela Olivarez along the first floor hallway of Biolchini Hall. She led an extraordinary life: Based purely on her leadership skills and desire to serve others Fr. Hesburgh awarded her a full scholarship to attend the Law School when she was nearly 40, despite the fact that she had not completed a high school education. She enrolled in 1967 and in 1970 she became the first woman to receive a J.D. from Notre Dame.

The facts and dates may be dry, but the story between the lines is fascinating. I am always open to feedback and suggestions for new stories. Until then, sleep tight.


For sources and additional reading see p. 2

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