Iowa mother creates schools for children

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Growing up in the state of Iowa, Laurel Hessler had no idea where life would take her. She married the love of her life, Lee Hodgden, who headed off to WWII, where he served in occupied Japan. After graduating from the University of Kansas, Laurel taught in her mother’s nursery school for munitions workers during the war. 

Returning after the war, Laurel and Lee embarked for MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lee completed his master’s in architecture, while Laurel got hers at Harvard in education, one of the two departments where women were permitted to get a degree in 1949.

From Cambridge, the couple set out for the University of North Carolina in Raleigh, where Laurel did an agriculture program with cows. Next, they headed to Chapel Hill, and during their time there, Laurel started her first nursery school for Duke University’s Psychology Department.

Next stop was San Antonio, Texas, after a three-day bus trip, where Lee joined the famous architect O’Neil Ford. O’Neil lived beside one of the many Mexican Mission Churches, and the couple lived onsite in a pecan grove. Once unpacked, Laurel started a nursery school and worked for the Housing Authority for the next two to three years.

In 1953, when Lee was selected for a Fulbright Fellowship in Finland, architect Alvar Aalto invited Lee: “Come work with me!” Lee had studied with Aalto at MIT, and so, he said yes. This was a huge honor for a young architect, who also taught and studied to fulfill the Fulbright.

After their time savoring Finland, Laurel and Lee made their way to Austin, Texas, where Lee was quickly ensconced in the University of Texas’s innovative and politically radical Texas Rangers. Laurel headed back to school and obtained her Ph.D. in psychology at the university. When a conservative department chair fired all the Texas Rangers faculty in the Architecture Department, Laurel and Lee moseyed on to the University of Oregon in Eugene. 

Laurel worked a year as a probation officer for teenagers before joining the University of Oregon’s Psychology Department. After a year, just as her summer school classes ended and she waved goodbye to her students, Kylliki was born. With the baby arriving early, Laurel had two weeks at home before her Fall classwork began.

In 1961 Lee, Laurel and Kyllikki (named after a Finnish potter friend) arrived in Ithaca, where Lee joined the Cornell faculty. As Kyllikki grew up (attending the historic and then infamous and beloved East Hill School), Laurel went on to provide education and support to young children throughout the area. Working with the early Head Start programs, she also taught child psychology at Cornell and ran the nursery school in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall.

In 1968, Lee was fired from Cornell Architecture, provoking the students to stage a sit-in under the Sibley dome to protest the loss of their favorite professor. For two years, Lee taught at Princeton. The first year, Laurel and Kyllikki commuted by bus between Ithaca and Princeton. The second year, they stayed in Princeton, and Laurel started another nursery school and teacher training program at Rutgers.

When a new dean joined Cornell’s Department of Architecture in 1972, Lee was rehired, and the family moved back to Ithaca for good.  Until retirement, Laurel played a prominent role enhancing early childhood education and family support - focusing on what kids and families need to thrive. Teachers, kids and families in Ithaca, Groton, Newfield, Dryden, Enfield and Caroline remember Laurel fondly.

Many other Ithacans spent fun times talking to Laurel at Pastimes in the Dewitt Building, where Kyllikki worked for 32 years. Now Laurel fills in at Kyllikki’s antique shop, East Hill Antiques, where she keeps up with old friends.

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