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Miss Helen Temple Cooke, Dana Hall Head and, Surprise, Collector of Persian Art

The date is April 12, 1955, both the eve of Helen Temple Cooke’s 90th birthday and the day on which she died. When Miss Cooke passed, she left behind a legacy that has been preserved for years to follow. Growing up in Rutland, Vermont, she received a basic public education, and not much beyond that. In 1882, she began teaching at a small private school in her hometown, which after a series of events, led her to Wellesley, Massachusetts. Once here, Miss Cooke enrolled in classes at Wellesley College, and despite financial difficulties, continued classes until the year of 1899. When the Eastman sisters, the first headmistresses of Dana Hall, retired, Helen Temple Cooke purchased the school with the help of her former student’s father, Marcellus Wheeler. Miss Julia Eastman, one of the previous heads of school, wrote in an 1899 letter,” Miss Cooke is changing things all about and superintending all details in the most vigorous manner and with the greatest apparent ease. I have never seen the man or woman who could carry so much care with so little fuss or worry … and she looks as fresh and exquisite in her white shirtwaist at sunset as she did at breakfast time in precisely the same dress.”

In her 56 years associated with Dana Hall, Miss Cooke built, bought, and renovated many building and furnished them with antiques, art and oriental carpets. Although many of these buildings, artworks, and furnishings are gone, a few remain. More important, Miss Cooke’s believed that surrounding students with beautiful objects from the past and from different cultures would be inspiring. In this way, Helen Temple Cooke created a legacy that has carried on well past her time.

Miss Cooke had an enigmatic interest in Persian and Islamic art, perhaps stemming from an unknown source in her childhood. In a memorial chapel talk in 1959, E. B. Hinckley, a Dana Hall administrator, spoke about a time in Miss Cooke’s childhood where her love of Persian art could clearly be reflected. When Helen Temple Cooke was 14 or 15 years old, she collected the pennies her father had given her for candy. After she had enough, instead of buying candy, she bought a small Persian rug.

In the 1959 auction catalogue of Helen Temple Cooke’s collection of antiques and art, Eric Schroeder, the Keeper of Islamic Art at Harvard University, writes a notably interesting description of her pieces: “Miss Cooke’s collection of Persian Art was unique as a private collection in this country… her examples could be matched by only one or two museums in this country.”

Dana Hall students may soon get a chance to see these pieces of Miss Cooke’s Islamic art.  Several of them have, in fact, ended up in Harvard’s collection. Ms. Siemon, teacher of Middle Eastern Area Studies, has been talking to Dr. Mary McWilliams, a curator at the Harvard Sackler Art Museum, and is excited about a small exhibit of Miss Cooke’s Iranian art that is planned at Harvard in the fall of 2019. Ms. Siemon is hoping that Dana students who are interested will be able to work with Dr. McWilliams and in the Dana Hall Archives, learning more about the artworks and the connections with Helen Temple Cooke’s ideals.