History of Emily Griffith

We were founded by education pioneer Emily Griffith, who envisaged a school where anyone, no matter their age or background, could get the education they needed to live a more “useful” life. She wanted to call this dream school, “Opportunity.”

Emily Griffith Stained Glass Window

Inspired by the parents of the children she taught early in her career, many who couldn’t speak English or read or write, Emily came to believe that education offered a pathway out of poverty.

When she opened the Opportunity School in 1916, she did so to provide first and second chances for “all who wish to learn.” It was one of the first trade schools in the country.

Since then, her Opportunity School has become Emily Griffith Technical College, a place where more than 2 million people have benefitted from Emily’s progressive idea that education should be accessible to all.

Emily’s Early Years

Emily Griffith was born on February 10th in the 1860s, in Cincinnati, Ohio. The eldest of four children, with a frail mother and crippled father, Emily went to work at an early age to help supplement the family income.

At 14, she started teaching in a sod schoolhouse in Broken Bow, Nebraska. It was here that she first discovered that many of her students’ parents did not know how to read, write or figure their bills. Many were immigrants and did not know English. 

These realizations made a profound impression on Emily. Her dream of a school for adults was born. She envisioned a place where students could attend classes day or night and receive as much education as they wanted or needed. In 1895, the Griffith family moved to Denver, Colorado. Denver Public Schools hired Emily and she continued to work for the school district until her retirement in 1933. 

Emily’s Dream

In 1915, as Emily helped with the Denver Post’s annual distribution of clothing to the poor, she shared her dream with the Post’s feature writer, Frances “Pinky” Wayne. “I want the age limit for admission lifted and classes so organized that a boy or girl working in a bakery, store, laundry, or any kind or shop, who has an hour or two to spare, may come to my school and study what he or she wants to learn to make life more useful. The same rule goes for older folks, too. I already have a name for the school. It is ‘Opportunity’.”

Frances Wayne was excited by Emily’s idea and began to write about it in the Denver Post. Soon talk of an Opportunity School was sweeping through Denver. The Denver Board of Education gave Emily the old, condemned Longfellow School located at 13th and Welton Streets. 

One September 9th, 1916, Emily’s dream became a reality. On the first day of classes, Emily personally greeted each student from the old roll top desk by the front door. She hoped for a few students; more than 1,400 registered in the first week. The school was open 13 hours a day, five days a week. Subjects included telegraphy, industrial millinery, typing, academic subjects, and English for those not born in the U.S. Emily’s philosophy, “for all who wish to learn”, remains as alive today as when she first opened the doors of the school which bears her name. 

Serving Soup

“A bowl of soup is served in the basement from 5:30-7:30. Free. This saves you time.”

This was written on a blackboard inside the entrance to the Opportunity School. For two years the soup was prepared at home by Emiy’s mother and carried to the school in a water pail by Emily and her sister, Florence. The custom began in response to a boy fainting in class one evening. Emily felt he fainted because he was hungry, and that if he was hungry, there were probably others who were as well. 

Later on, a wealthy woman arranged for meat to be delivered daily to the school. Florence arrived at 2pm to prepare the evening’s soup. Two hundred bowls of soup were served each evening. Emily and Florence washed all the dishes themselves. Eventually, a woman was hired to do this. 

Changing Times

During World War I, the school trained soldiers in radio communications and civilians for special mathematics, drafting, tractor and ambulance driving, and gas engine work. New programs continued to be added after the war. They provided valuable assistance to Denver citizens during the depression. 

The school mobilized for a second time during World War II. Under the government’s War Production Board, the school operated around the clock, training more than 24,000 people for defense work. Separate departments in War Production training, food conservation, and victory gardening were established. 

Since then, the school has turned its efforts toward meeting technology demands of the 21st century. With new facilities and programs such as web development and cybersecurity, Emily Griffith Technical College is still preparing students for today’s workforce and tomorrow’s opportunities. 

Emily’s Death

Emily Griffith and her sister Florence were killed in their cabin in 1947. No motive or clues as to the murderer were ever proven. A former associate, Fred Lundy, was suspected of the killing. It was believed he might have been in love with Emily and performed a mercy killing. Florence, Emily’s sister, was unwell and an ever increasing burden on Emily. No one knows for sure, as Fred committed suicide a few weeks later. The crime remains unsolved. 

Emily’s Accomplishments and Legacy

  • From 1904 to 1908, Emily was deputy state superintendent of schools
  • From 1910 to 1912, Emily was deputy state superintendent of public instruction
  • In 1927, She founded # 9 Pearl Street, a residence for homeless boys; now the Emily Griffith Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • In 1976, Emily was honored at the Colorado State Capitol building for her contribution to Colorado history; she is the only woman
  • In 1985, She was inducted into Colorado Business Hall of Fame as well as the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame
  • In 2000, she was the recipient of Mayor Wellington Webb’s Millennium Award, selected as “Denver’s Most Useful Citizen”

The Denver Kiwanian gave Emily this tribute in 1946, “Under the inspiration of her spiritual vision and work, the Emily Griffith Technical College was founded ‘for all who wish to learn.’ Her heart, as large as humanity, her generous, creative spirit, quickened the soul of Denver to high achievements. Because of its power to inspire, we keep the memory of what she has done vivid. Because the way she pointed is now so clearly essential, we walk in it with increasing purpose.”

When visiting the Colorado capitol building, you will find Emily standing humbly in her stained glass window among all the men selected for their contributions to Colorado history. She was chosen for her impact upon the educational process, especially for adults. Her compassion, hard work, and vision made her a force able to change the futures of many.

Even after her death, Emily continues to earn accolades for what she accomplished. The Colorado Business Hall of Fame honored her as one of five people who “possess qualities of commitment, dedication and success to the business community and the state of Colorado”. She was the only woman in the group.

Learn more about Emily’s history