Estelle McMillan Blake (1861–1950)

Estelle McMillan Blake was a respected and beloved Arkansas college educator whose career teaching English and history spanned five decades. Blake served on the first faculty at what is now Ouachita Baptist University (OBU) when the school opened in 1886. She taught there for fifty-three years, interrupted only by a sabbatical and a short stint teaching at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). She is remembered for rigorous academic standards and her generosity, quietly furnishing funds for many students who otherwise would have been unable to continue their education at Ouachita.

Estelle McMillan was born in Columbia County on May 16, 1861. She was the first of six children born to Henry William McMillan and Frances Williams McMillan. The McMillans were originally from North Carolina but had come separately to Arkansas in the 1850s to teach in Columbia County.

Following the Civil War, the McMillan family moved to Arkadelphia (Clark County), where H. W. McMillan established a law practice. In Arkadelphia, Estelle McMillan attended Miss Mary Connelly’s School for Young Females beginning at age seven. She left school in Arkadelphia around 1877 to attend the Methodist Female College in Little Rock (Pulaski County). The college did not reopen in the fall, however, and she returned to Arkadelphia to the Red River Baptist Academy.

After completing her education, McMillan taught at the Red River Academy during the 1878–79 school year. While teaching, she met Theodore Blake, from Nevada County, who came to enroll his sister in the academy. They married in 1880, and Estelle Blake resigned her teaching position to reside in Nevada County for the next five years. In 1883, the couple welcomed daughter Leila Blake. Theodore died in 1885, leaving Estelle to care for two-year old Leila, whose name she changed to Theodora in memory of her late husband.

With a need to support herself and her daughter, Blake enrolled at Sam Houston Normal (now Sam Houston State University) in Huntsville, Texas, to finish her degrees in English and history. When Ouachita Baptist College opened in 1886, Blake became a member of its first faculty, serving in the school’s primary department teaching English and history.

In 1903, Blake received the first leave of absence in Ouachita’s history to continue her education at Columbia University in New York City, while her daughter finished her training as an art teacher there. The two returned to Arkansas in late 1904, both having been hired by UA for the 1905 spring semester—her as a professor of English and her daughter as a professor of art. When her daughter died in 1911 of tuberculosis, Blake moved back to Arkadelphia and resumed teaching at Ouachita College.

Blake taught English and history at Ouachita Baptist College for another thirty-five years. She was an active supporter of the college’s library and sponsored the Corinnean Literary Society, which she founded. In the community, Blake was a charter member of the Woman’s Library Association and a member of the Arkadelphia First Baptist Church for more than seventy years.

In 1930, Ouachita granted Blake an honorary Master of Arts degree for her outstanding service to the college. Three years later, Ouachita commissioned artist Charles Richardson to paint Blake’s portrait for the college library, to which she often donated funds. The portrait still hangs in the university library in the twenty-first century.

When Blake retired from Ouachita in 1946 at age eighty-four, Ouachita had no retirement plan. Blake’s salary was continued at $50 a month in appreciation of her years of service. This action caused the college’s administration to initiate plans for the first retirement plan for all faculty and staff. For many years, Blake held the record for the longest-serving staff member at Ouachita.

Blake died on January 23, 1950, and is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Arkadelphia near her parents and her daughter.

For additional information:
Arrington, Michael E. Ouachita Baptist University: The First 100 Years. Little Rock: August House, 1985.

McMillan Family Papers. Archives & Special Collections, Riley-Hickingbotham Library, Ouachita Baptist University.

Newberry, Farrar, and Allen B. Syler, Through the Eyes of Farrar Newberry. Arkadelphia, AR: Clark County Historical Association, 2002.

“Ouachita’s Mrs. Blake Dies at 85,” Arkansas Gazette, January 24, 1950, p. 10.

Richter, Wendy, ed. Clark County Past and Present. Arkadelphia, AR: Clark County Historical Association, 1992.

Rogers, J. S. History of Arkansas Baptists. Little Rock: Executive Board of the Arkansas State Baptist Convention, 1948.

Timmerman, Lindsey. “A Long Legacy: The McMillan Family of Arkadelphia.” Clark County Historical Journal (2004): 107–115.

Hannah Webber
Ouachita Baptist University

Last Updated: 10/22/2021

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