Farmingdale State College celebrates centennial with special speaker and invitees

A century ago, Kathryn Freeman was the only woman in a 15-member graduating class of 1919 at what then was known as the New York State School of Agriculture at Farmingdale.

On Tuesday, her great-great niece, Margaret Lee-Williams will be a special guest of the school that has evolved over a century to become Farmingdale State College, which is celebrating its 100-year history with a special commencement program. As part of that celebration, college officials have tracked down and invited some descendants of the first graduating class.

“It is an honor — an absolute honor we are even being invited. I was so excited to be able to share my history with them,” said Lee-Williams, of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

More than 1,000 degrees will be awarded Tuesday at Farmingdale’s Centennial Commencement — the largest number of degrees ever awarded by the school — and the ceremony includes the college’s second class of graduate students.

In addition, the commencement address will be given by SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson, and fireworks marking the occasion are in store after the ceremony at Nold Hall Athletic Complex Track.

“As Long Island’s first public college, we are celebrating our rich history and looking forward to an even brighter future,” Farmingdale State President John S. Nader said.

Farmingdale is not the only local school observing such a milestone this graduation season.

St. Joseph’s College, with campuses in Brooklyn and Patchogue, also is marking its 100th commencement. A century ago, the college awarded bachelor’s degrees to a class of 14 pioneering women. Today, it serves 5,000-plus students pursuing degrees in more than 50 academic disciplines.

The Brooklyn campus’ 100th annual commencement ceremony was held Sunday. The Long Island 100th annual commencement will be held May 29 at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum.

“We are proud of our rich history and the more than 41,000 alumni who have earned degrees at SJC,” said Donald Boomgaarden, president of St. Joseph’s.

At Farmingdale, librarian April Earle has spent hours tracking down the descendants of the original graduating class. Back then, the college was known as the New York State School of Agriculture at Farmingdale, Long Island. Sixty students had enrolled in March 1916, but only 15 graduated in the first class in 1919.

Earle reached out to Lee-Williams, who is an avid researcher of her family’s genealogy and was thrilled to learn more about her ancestor.

Freeman was from one of the families credited with founding Plymouth, Pennsylvania. Her father Leopold, who came to the United States in the 1870s, was the director of the First National Bank of Plymouth.

After Freeman graduated from the New York State School of Agriculture, she worked as a superintendent on a ranch in Dayton, Wyoming. She also worked for some time as a landscape architect in Manhattan and lived on Fifth Avenue for several years.

Eventually, she returned home to the Wilkes-Barre area of Pennsylvania. She died April 23, 1984, in Kingston, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, at the age of 85, according to the college’s biography of her.

Lee-Williams never met Freeman, who did not marry and had no children. Learning about her ancestor’s connection to Farmingdale State College “was absolutely incredible, and this has been such an honor and an amazing journey,” she said.

“I am hoping that my Freeman family is sitting on my shoulder and is proud of what I have been able to do,” she said, adding that she is looking forward to her campus visit “just to be able to celebrate what Kathryn had done in 1919.”

Another of the descendants, Jane Horowitz, of Palm Harbor, Florida, also will be on campus for the program.

Her father, Bradford Southard, was the 1919 class valedictorian. He died in Manatee, Florida, in 1991 at age 93. He often spoke highly of his time at the school, she said.

“It was a huge part of his life. He thoroughly enjoyed his time there and made friends and some he maintained throughout his life,” Horowitz said.

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