Thelma Biele Corey (1913–1994) made history at Wagner College, and again as a teaching professional on Long Island.
Thelma was part of the first group of women to enroll at Wagner College after trustees voted to admit female students in 1933. Most of those pioneers lived on Staten Island — but Thelma came from Huntington, Long Island, about 50 miles from Grymes Hill.
According to a 1994 letter from her husband, Thelma was born with hypothyroidism, which, “untreated, made her a slow learner.” After her hypothyroidism was discovered, several years after she was married, “a lifetime of medication … resulted with her becoming an excellent student.”
Before that, however, school was very difficult for Thelma. It took her five years to graduate from high school. She enrolled at the New Jersey College for Women in 1932 but could not make passing grades. She enrolled at Wagner for her second year of college.
Her grades at Wagner were mostly Bs and Cs — but she just couldn’t pass English literature, a course she needed in order to graduate. Finally, she took it at Hunter College, got a C, transferred the credit, and earned her degree in June 1937.
Thelma’s father, Fred J. Biele, must have been proud of his daughter’s achievements. In 1936, he gave the college 20 sugar maple trees, planted behind Main Hall, to honor Wagner’s first female students.
In 1955, after her four children were no longer little, Thelma took a job with the Huntington chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women as the teacher for a pioneering program for children with special needs, the Playgroup for Exceptional Children. At the same time, she began taking graduate courses in special education. By 1967, Thelma was amply prepared to start an educational program for teen patients at Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in nearby Brentwood, the largest hospital in the world at the time. For the first five years of the Pilgrim program, Thelma was the only teacher on staff, responsible for the high-school equivalency education of blind and developmentally disabled residents. In 1977, at the first graduation ceremony for her students, the program was renamed the Thelma B. Corey School in her honor. She retired in 1981.
Thelma Elsa Biele Corey died in 1994 at the age of 80.
Facts about the First Women of Wagner
This year marks the 85th anniversary of Wagner College’s decision to admit women. We haven’t been able to find details about all of the first 23 female students, but we do know these facts:
- 18 lived on Staten Island
- 2 were from Brooklyn
- 1 was from Little Falls, N.Y.
- 1 was from Huntington, N.Y.
- 16 enrolled as first-year students
- 6 transferred from another college
- 8 earned degrees at Wagner — a little more than a third