Toast To Olde Tymes – Carolyn Oechsli Doughty
Two of the most significant events in Carolyn Oechsli Doughty’s life occurred during a very short span of time in 1918. That August, she was widowed after nearly 14 years of marriage. Within weeks, she had accepted the position of executive secretary of the Women’s City Club.
Carolyn was exactly the right person for the job. She seems to have been noted from her girlhood for her charm and ease in social situations. Following a holiday party in December 1897, the Kansas City Star recorded, “In a contest where musical and artistic ability were tested, the prize was awarded [to] Miss Carolyn Oechsli.”
In November 1904, Carolyn wed William James Doughty at the home of her mother, Margaret Oechsli (Mrs. John Oechsli). The Independent in those days focused on business, so we must turn to the Kansas City Star for a description: “The bride wore a lace gown made over taffeta veiled with chiffon. Her toilette was completed by a full length tulle veil and she carried a shower bouquet of lilies of the valley.” The ceremony was performed by the Reverend Robert Talbot of Trinity Episcopal Church. In later years, Carolyn would be a devoted member of Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral.
William was a longtime resident of Leavenworth, Kansas, prior to moving to Kansas City, where he worked for the First National Bank for 18 years. He was the assistant cashier when he died of a teranoma in 1918. He was only 37 years old. The couple had no children.
The first president of the Women’s City Club was Mary Lewis Coburn (Mrs. James M. Coburn). She must be credited for hiring Carolyn, who would serve a total of 23 club presidents. The club, which was located on the sixth floor of 1111 Grand Avenue for decades, was the site of a variety of activities, including luncheons, lectures, committee meetings, movie nights, and festivals. Carolyn loved parties. She collected autographs as a hobby and decorated her office with photographs of famous visitors. In the evenings, she put together scrapbooks of club events. Above all, she excelled at making connections with people. When an opera singer decided to skip a luncheon in her honor because her trunks hadn’t arrived, Carolyn persuaded her to attend.
Prior to William’s death, the couple had lived at 3905 Tracy Avenue. In the spring of 1919, Carolyn and her sister Florence, who was employed with the Western Newspaper Union, moved to 4200 Walnut. That same year, Martha Biggarstaff, a bookkeeper who worked part-time for the First Mortgage Savings & Loan Association, became treasurer of the Women’s City Club. Many people, including club members and even waitresses at the club, sought her assistance with investments. Martha lived for some years with Carolyn and Florence, first on Walnut Street and later at 3916 Wyandotte Street.
During the early months of 1934, it became clear that Martha was in considerable pain. One day in April, she finally decided to go to the hospital. Her plans were briefly postponed: Gerald Parker from the Commerce Trust required her presence at the club to explain some discrepancies. In less than 48 hours, it became clear that Martha had been an embezzler on a grand scale – for possibly as long as a dozen years – and that she was now suffering from terminal cancer. Simply stated, her passion was speculating in wheat, she always knew in advance when the auditor’s annual visit to the club was scheduled, and she was remarkably adept at check kiting.
Shock waves ran through the Women’s City Club. The club’s treasury had been looted of $41,000. According to the newspapers, Martha’s deceit had cost Carolyn her life savings of $26,000. Florence’s name was also on the long list of people who had lost money.
The Kansas City Times, in reporting Martha’s recounting of her acts, stated, “An almost imperceptible note of bitterness was in Miss Biggarstaff’s voice when she added, ‘Caroline [sic; Carolyn] Doughty got the money by hard work, unfortunately, by hard work and saving.’” For the most part, Martha showed very little emotion, much less regret, during her last months. The one exception was a statement she made to Carolyn in April that was quoted in the Star: “‘The hardest time[s],’ she said to Mrs. Doughty, ‘were when grace was said at your table. It seemed sometimes that I could not stand it all another minute. It would bring home to me what I had done.’”
Martha died at 57 in October 1934, without standing trial for any of the 17 indictments against her. She had $50,000 worth of life insurance, which was to be distributed to her victims, whose losses were estimated as totaling $100,000 to $115,000.
1938 was marked with both sadness and joy. Florence died of a heart ailment in August at the age of 65. The following month, Carolyn’s 20th anniversary with the club was celebrated at a surprise luncheon, where she received a diamond-studded wristwatch. “These have been 20 happy years,” Carolyn said. At that time, the club had 2,300 members. As our scribe stated, “To her capable and energetic management, the club in a very large measure owes its success. This highly efficient small person goes about her duties so quietly, greeting all so cordially… .” A tea in her honor was held a week later, to ensure that as many members as possible could congratulate her.
In honor of her 25th anniversary with the club, the Carolyn Doughty Fund for Children was created in 1943. By 1973, the fund had received more than $250,000 in donations. Among the organizations that benefited were Spofford and Gillis (both now part of Cornerstones of Care), Children’s Mercy, and The University of Kansas Medical Center. When the Children’s Center Campus was in the planning stages during the mid-1990s, the trustees of the fund decided to make it the beneficiary of the fund’s final gift: $465,000.
Carolyn often traveled in the summers, frequently spending several weeks with friends in Wisconsin, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, or Canada. By the mid-1950s, La Jolla, California, had caught her attention. She would eventually decide to live there. In 1964, as Carolyn, who had recently retired, prepared to move from the Locarno on the Plaza to the White Sands in La Jolla, the Star noted that 47 parties were planned in her honor.
Carolyn died in California in January 1975. As The Independent stated in her obituary, “when she visited here in recent years, her room at the Alameda Plaza was filled with flowers from devoted friends made during the more than 45 years she was the Club’s executive secretary.”
Featured in the January 7, 2023 issue of The Independent.
By Heather N. Paxton
Mrs. William J. Doughty, executive secretary of the Women’s City Club, is the inspiration for the Carolyn Doughty Fund for Children inaugurated by the club as a mark of honor upon the occasion of Mrs. Doughty’s silver anniversary as its charge-d’affaires.
Reprinted from the November 13, 1943 issue of The Independent.
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