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Dr. Helen Barnes: BHS alumnus and International Secretary of the YWCA

By Fred Steiner

This is the second in a series of features on famous Bluffton High School alumni.

Dr. Helen Barnes, the first woman to receive a Bluffton High School diploma, rose to the top of her profession, eventually becoming international secretary of the Young Woman’s Christian Association (YWCA).

Given the barriers women faced during her lifetime, her accomplishments, views expressed and worldwide friendships she made paint a picture of a very strong, impressive and successful woman.

Dr. Barnes may be Bluffton’s most traveled woman of all time. She crossed the Atlantic by boat 13 times and traveled three times around the world during her Y.W.C.A. years.


Yet, in her mind, she never left Bluffton. A 1944 Bluffton News article states: “Miss Helen Barnes of Findlay…who will preside at the alumni reunion here on Wednesday night of next week will be an overnight guest of Mrs. Fred Zehrbach, as usual. She is well remembered by older Bluffton residents and frequently attends high school reunions.”

A 1946 Bluffton News article reports: “Although Dr. Helen F. Barnes is a university graduate and bears the title of doctor, a Bluffton High School diploma is the only one that hangs in her study, and she is probably the most noted woman ever to claim residence in Bluffton.”

That decades-old claim remains accurate today.

As a member of the first-ever Bluffton High School graduating class–the year was 188 –she is also no doubt the first-ever Bluffton High School graduate to receive a diploma, if diplomas were handed out alphabetically.

And the Bluffton News stated that at the time of her death at age 90 in 1953, she was the only Bluffton woman whose name has appeared in “Who’s Who.”

Here’s her story:

Helen F. Barnes was born March 9, 1863, in Ottawa, Ohio, to Rev. Adam Clark and Harriet Barnes. The family moved across northwest Ohio, and for a time lived in Bluffton where Rev. Barnes pastored what is today First United Methodist Church. The Barnes family eventually settled at 432 W Sandusky St., Findlay, around 1905.

In 1885, Helen attended Ada Normal College, now Ohio Northern University, where she obtained a 12-month teaching certificate. Then, in 1889 she received a degree from Ohio Wesleyan University. In 1892, she completed a master’s degree there. 

Enrolling in Columbia University in 1907, she took a special course in sociology. She received an L.L.D. degree in 1920. Among her Columbia classmates was Jane Addams of Hull House.

Dr. Barnes began her teaching career in Napoleon, Ohio, before teaching Latin and Greek in Mansfield, Ohio. In 1891 she joined the Ada Normal College, teaching literature and rhetoric.

While in Ada, she was offered a position by a Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) representative, which she accepted, and her career blossomed. 

Her world expanded through the Y.W.C.A. as did that organization under her direction, where she counted among her greatest achievements as organization of Y.W.C.A’s in New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania.

She traveled all over the world over the next several decades. Among her duties included raising funds for World War I, and again for National Relief during the Depression of the 1930s. 

Her acquaintances extended to noted world figures, including the former Queen Mary of England, the three Chinese Soong Sisters when they were students in Southern Methodist College at Macon, Georgia, one of whom later became Madam Chiang Kai Sek, wife of the Chinese generalissimo and nationalist leader.

Read rest of the story HERE.

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