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University of Missouri

Ada Belle’s Diploma

An old wrong righted.

nursing student from 1916

Ada Belle Matteson (née Cowden) at MU’s Parker Memorial Hospital, now Parker Hall, circa 1916. She graduated with a degree in nursing. Courtesy Matteson family.

This Mizzou story is a century old. But we know this: Ada Belle Cowden of Boone County studied nursing, and Erdley Stone Matteson of Grant City studied agriculture. They fell in love and got engaged.

As graduation approached, Eardley Stone finished his livestock-related coursework a few months early and left town for a temporary job in Kansas City to earn money for the couple’s start in life. The lovers must’ve missed each other, but they also had much to look forward to. They had a romantic plan wherein Erdley Stone would return to Columbia and marry Ada Belle in secret on their commencement day in June 1916.

The wedding needed to be clandestine because Ada Belle, as part of her practical education, had to work in the hospital for a few weeks past commencement on a special case she had been assigned. But in those days, married women were not allowed in such positions.

Somehow, though, the plan went awry. Notice of their nuptials appeared prematurely in the paper, and, despite having performed all the class work and the usual practicum, Ada Belle was dismissed immediately and did not receive her diploma.

She and Erdley Stone left the next day for Edina, Missouri, where he managed a farm and they started their lives together. In time, Erdley became a livestock specialist for University of Missouri Extension and organized Show-Me State cattle ranchers to pool their small herds when going to market, thereby accumulating enough stock to attract better buyers and prices. Ada Belle bore six children into the world.

Twelve years after the wedding, in 1928, a Mrs. Shannon Crews toured the then-new hospital at MU and stopped to visit Dean of Medicine Guy Noyes. Crews told Noyes about the injustice done to Ada Belle, and immediately he drafted a letter to the former nursing student. His tone was conciliatory, almost apologetic, and he promised prompt redress, offering to order a diploma dispatched to her right away.

Schudder portrait

Ada Belle’s great-granddaughter Christina Schudder. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

That happy ending was short-lived. Ada Belle died two years later at the age of 37 in the aftermath of childbirth. It appears that her child did not survive either. By then Ada Belle and Erdley Stone had started a tribe whose descendants still value Mizzou and higher education as much as their predecessors did. More than a dozen of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have attended or graduated from the university. This year, a century after the diploma incident, great-granddaughter Christina Scudder graduated from Mizzou with a doctorate in veterinary medicine. And she’s not about to forget Ada Belle’s story.