Six Women, Three Generations, 70 Years

Although the address of the school may have changed in the 70 years since Nancy and Barbara GILLIES first came to Ellis in 1947, followed by cousin Molly RUST Montgomery in 1952, the heart of Ellis has not.
Just ask their cousins and great-nieces Rebecca “Becca” Rust, Class of 2019, and her sister Hannah, Class of 2021; or Michelle Rust, Head of the Middle School and mother of Becca and Hannah. “It’s wonderful to have my daughters and aunts tell Ellis stories to each other, and to hear the common experience of feeling supported as individuals,” says Michelle. “Our family is very close, so watching my daughters have the same opportunities their great-aunts did to receive a rigorous education and develop lifelong friendships is meaningful to all of us. Ellis is a community of students, parents, colleagues, and alumnae that has become part of our family—it’s a real gift. For us, Ellis is our shared and common background.”

To explore the family legacy stretching back over 70 years, Becca interviewed her great-aunts in-depth about their time at Ellis, and asked her mother about her choice to both work here and send her daughters here. A fascinating portrait emerges of family history interwoven with Pittsburgh history. Becca's aunts’ stories are rich with references to Pittsburgh landmarks, local schools, and the names of Ellis teachers and alumnae. The oral histories reveal common themes: respect, academic excellence, and joyful lifelong relationships built in and out of classrooms and on the playing field. Nancy (and sister Barbara, who passed in 2000) started kindergarten in the 1940s and has many fond memories of playing field hockey in the 50s—the same sport that her cousin Hannah plays today. “I remember field hockey and Latin class most vividly,” says Nancy. “My field hockey teammates and I helped and supported each other throughout our classes—they were quite rigorous—and I continued to play at Sweet Briar College.” she recalls. “In the fall, I went to field hockey home games at the University of Virginia. Once, during halftime entertainment at UVA, I had an opportunity to hit a hockey ball. I sent it flying into a pizza box!” Nancy’s cousin Molly remembers sports at Ellis in the 60s fondly, as well. “We were on sports teams with older students, which was also really fun because the classes were small so all of the girls could participate. I remember friendly competition with Ligonier, Sewickley, and Winchester,” Molly continues, “and we had tons of school spirit.” Becca also carries on the athletic tradition, participating in soccer, basketball, and the track and field teams at Ellis.
The engaging academic environment and committed, inspiring teachers at Ellis are referred to frequently in Becca’s interviews. “Latin still comes back to me after all of these years!” Nancy says, laughing. “I remember my sixth grade teacher was exceptional, and I still remember questions from my tenth grade history test.”

Molly’s experiences ten years later were the same. “I remember the names of every single one of my teachers—really, really good teachers who inspired us and taught us critical thinking,” Molly says. “Most people can’t say that. Thanks to Ms. Hickman (her seventh grade teacher at Ellis), I developed a love for memorizing poetry and majored in English at the University of North Carolina.”

At a time when only 12 percent of women attended college in Nancy’s era and 35 percent in Molly’s, both were college graduates and Nancy completed a second degree in nursing. “Ellis really prepared us for college,” both women agree. “The tests, the field trips, and the teachers’ investment in us as individuals made all of the difference,” Molly says.

Ellis’s academic and athletic environment compelled Michelle Rust and her husband Mark to tour The Ellis School when they relocated from Baltimore to Pittsburgh. Michelle says they knew right away that Ellis was the one. “Rebecca was entering kindergarten, and as she skipped down the stone path to Arbuthnot, I knew it was the school for her—I could see her here,” Michelle says. She was impressed by the poise of the Ellis senior who spoke to parents at the open house, and knew this was something she wanted for her daughter. For her husband, the fact that the school looked at each student as an individual, measuring all of their strengths, was important. An athletic family, the rock climbing wall in the gym was not only an added bonus, but a symbol—the Rusts felt Ellis encouraged each girl to try new things, to be a better person as part of a larger community and world, and to have integrity—just as their aunts had experienced.

Ellis ultimately became the school for Michelle to continue her passion: teaching. Michelle is an alumna of the all-girls Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, D.C. and a graduate of Vanderbilt. When a part-time position teaching history opened up, Michelle took it because, she says, “I love the faculty’s engagement with each other and with the students—the environment is really alive with curiosity and inquiry, and the students are a joy to teach because they love to learn.” She later extended to full time, and in 2013, she became Head of the Middle School. Michelle enjoys seeing friendships develop in classes and activities centered on learning. “Academics here are very hands-on, with real-world applications for science, math, and history. I love hearing laughter from the students as they work in science lab together, or ask questions in history class,” she continues. “Fostering an environment where girls love to learn and enjoy being at school is very rewarding. The faculty nurture and encourage each individual, and we are privileged to witness girls developing confidence and leadership.”

Integrity and development of girls’ potential has always been a part of Ellis’s “heart,” as Molly calls it in her interview. “The wonderful thing about Ellis was we knew the teachers respected us,” Molly reflects. “And if a teacher that you look up to respects you, you learn to respect yourself. They taught us that hard work pays off; perseverance pays off; and the importance of good values and honesty. The honor system in the School meant a lot to me. There was a strong sense of integrity at Ellis. Teachers could walk out of the room; we were trusted during tests, and we were trusted to be honest if we were struggling or needed support.” The values Molly developed during her Ellis years carried on throughout her life and career. Molly’s entrepreneurial spirit combined with her love of literature—both nurtured at Ellis—led her to open an independent bookstore with a friend in Pittsburgh. The bookstore was open for 25 years. “And to this day, I manage people using those values and expect those values. When I ran my bookstore I said to my employees, ‘we are on the honor system here—you are responsible to report if you or someone else did something wrong.’ The atmosphere of integrity at The Ellis School affected my whole life.”

The Ellis School’s location in a vibrant Pittsburgh community also connects Ellis students to the wider world. Nancy grew up in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood post World War II and attended Ellis from kindergarten through tenth grade. She told Becca stories of shopping at Schiller’s Pharmacy—still open today—on Walnut Street with friends from neighboring schools. After attending Sweet Briar College in Virginia, she returned to Pittsburgh for her nursing degree. Nancy was one of the first lay women to graduate from the Carlow College Nursing Program, known then as the Mt. Mercy Nursing Program. She credits her Ellis biology teacher with inspiring her to go into nursing. Even in retirement, the Ellis alumna remains active in the community, overseeing a church nursery every Sunday attended by about 128 children ages four and under.

In 1951, Nancy’s cousin, Molly RUST Montgomery, began pre-kindergarten at Ellis. Though she left Ellis after ninth grade for a boarding school in Virginia, she says, “Ellis was my school, Ellis is my love.” She considers it her alma mater and attends all Ellis reunions. Molly grew up on Murray Hill Avenue in Squirrel Hill, close to the School’s old location on Fifth Avenue and Negley. Molly recalled to Becca, “I remember walking down Negley with my best friends, our books carried in a sort of big trunk instead of backpacks.” Pittsburgh’s families were a huge support to Ellis then, as now: “I have enduring friendships and memories of the wonderful families in Pittsburgh who have supported Ellis, and how the Ellis community supported Pittsburgh’s economy and arts and culture in general. Lea Hillman was in my class and the Hillman family has meant so much to Pittsburgh, a wonderful example to live by. ‘Function in disaster, finish in style’ I say.”

All three generations of Rusts emphasize the relationships built at Ellis that sustain them through their lives. Molly says, “I’m still in touch with my entire class, and we have our reunion every five years. We had the best reunion ever this year,” she continues. “We have dinner at a classmate’s who lives close to the school, and other classmates stay at the homes of those of us who are local. My best friends are from Ellis. I remember in fifth grade, my teacher said that a new girl named ‘Weezie Wells’ was joining our class and could I please take care of her…and she is still one of my very best friends to this day. And another Ellis friend just called and wants to move back to Pittsburgh because this is where she feels her closest friends are. We have a very close class and the friendships have lasted almost 70 years. When we get together, it’s as if nothing has changed—everyone is completely open and honest with each other. There is really just complete welcoming and friendship. It’s wonderful.”

The family’s legacy is even more poignant in The Ellis School’s Centennial Year. Nancy was present for the 50th anniversary of The Ellis School. “I do remember when Miss Ellis came to school on the 50th Anniversary, and they brought her to the hockey field that was on the corner of Kentucky and Fifth where we had a huge picnic celebration.” All of the Rust women are proud of their family’s independent spirit, and the aunts enjoy watching Becca and Hannah develop their potential by following in their footsteps. The oldest Rust daughter, Becca, is not only an accomplished athlete, but she is also in the feminist club and enjoys photography. Hannah plays field hockey, is a talented dancer, and is excited to participate in the upcoming eighth grade operetta. All three generations celebrate their connection to community as part of The Ellis School extended family.

Many thanks to Rebecca Rust, Class of 2019, for conducting these interviews.

This article was originally printed int he Fall 2016 issue of Ellis Magazine.