“Dear Herman, Last fall I said I wished you had a wife — and I think I startled you.”
So begins Orah Cole Briscoe in a 1941 letterto a young Indiana University President Herman Wells.
When I read that first letter, I was so taken by her frankness and the vivacity that came across loud and clear through her words that I ended up reading through the entire file of correspondence and then searching to see what else I could find out about her.
Born Orah Elberta Cole in 1907 in Liberty Center, Indiana, Orah entered IU in September 1925. In 1928, she married IU faculty member Herman Briscoe, who was 14 years her senior. By the next year, they had begun their family with the birth of daughter Catherine and Orah had earned her BA in Latin. Their family grew as Orah continued to pursue her education, earning a MA in English in 1934. Together the couple had 4 children, though they tragically lost son James Frederick in 1944.
In reading through her letters to Herman Wells, Orah clearly had opinions about the happenings of the University and was an active member of the university community, oftentimes serving in a role as University hostess to lighten the entertainment responsibilities of President Wells. In 1953, she wrote to Wells, expressing her support for his backing of Alfred Kinsey and his research, saying,
“Do you want to know how come I was a Kinseyan before Kinsey? It came ultimately from me being a passionate feminist. They ain’t gonna classify ME along with wine and song as one of the corrupters of men; they ain’t gonna make a sin outa ME. I’m a human (and how!) being, same as a man is…”
Orah also kept up regular correspondence with President Emeritus William Lowe Bryan, though her letters took a decidedly less casual tone. This did not mean, however, that she tempered her opinions in her letters to him, and Bryan clearly liked Orah. In 1948, he wrote to her, “I wish you had known Mrs. Bryan. You would have known how to value each other.”
I encourage you to spend some time reading through her letters, they really are delightful. We have digitized all of her letters to both Wells and Bryan and they can be found attached to the finding aids for their respective collections: Herman Wells papers ; William Lowe Bryan papers. Additionally, we have a small collection of Orah’s papers, which consists primarily of her work on her Master’s thesis on Indiana authors but also includes some of her poetry, and a smattering of correspondence received upon Dr. Briscoe’s death.