Grand Rapids Public Library, History and Special Collections

Emily Clagett Deming: Housekeeping Pioneer

By Ruth VanStee, 2017

Life Dates: b. June 18, 1906, d. January 21, 1998

Full Name: Emily Clagett Deming

Birthplace: Carlton County, MN

Tags: Education, Volunteerism, Oral History

In 1971, at the age of 65, Emily Deming was told by her doctor that if she was “cooperative and lived in supportive care,” she could live “a year and possibly 18 months.” Her Aunt Cora had always said she was “the stubbornest brat that ever lived…I think maybe stubborn has had something to do with staying around when I wasn’t really supposed to,” concluded Deming.

Emily was born to Charles Eugene Deming and Emily Maud Claggett Deming in 1906. Her early education was spotty, as she attended many different grade schools, but her mother who read books with her and played the violin, cultivated Deming’s life-long love of learning and music. “We read the classics, the myths, the fairy tales. . . and a great deal of history and biography.” Her father died when she was seven, so Emily and her mother moved to Chicago to live with Arthur Clagett, her mother’s brother, and his wife, Cora.

Being a medical doctor, Uncle Arthur performed procedures on her, such as “suturing her uterus where it didn’t belong.” He went on to other “dreadful things”—conducting experiments with radium inserts, for example. As a result, Deming had health problems the rest of her life requiring many surgeries. “This, that, and the other thing I’ve had tried on me, and I guess I’m pretty lucky because this June, I’ll be 84.” “I think probably he was one of those people who was a true Jekyll and Hyde. His greatest joy was to send each one of us from the dining room table in tears and finish dinner alone. Yet when he had guests….he was the most charming, gracious, the most delightful host and everybody thought he was marvelous.”

After four years in Wilmette Illinois, where Emily earned a high school education, they moved to the West Michigan area in 1923. Her first job was with the Powers Theater assisting actress Selena Royal, in the same troupe as Spencer Tracy. Emily’s duties included dressing Miss Royal, making scripted sounds offstage, and occasionally performing walk-on parts.

In 1926 when she started at Butterworth Hospital, Deming worked first as a night switchboard operator six nights a week, then the patient information phone line, still on the night shift, then the admissions office, and after a six-week internship in a Chicago hospital, she was appointed housekeeping director.

In addition to her daily responsibilities, Deming was involved in professional organizations, planning and presenting at the Tri-State Hospital Association conference in Chicago and had over 80 published articles in professional journals. Deming “invented the first classes for housekeeping employees” and in 1954 put all her training ideas into a book, Lessons in Good Housekeeping. During those years she was “having my normal quota of surgery and medical problems and pneumonia and stuff, and it was decided that I should probably do something a little less strenuous. . . .”

After a stint at the Morton House, she began her work as a resident director at Welcome Home for the Blind. She teamed up with Dr. Stanley Larsen, board president, planning for what was needed in a new building, raising funds for it, and continued as resident director of that building on north Monroe.
After retiring in 1971, Emily remained active: working to prevent the eviction of the residents from the bankrupt Olds Manor; working with the Grand Rapids Public Library to start a large-print book exchange among all the area homes for the aging; attending OLLI classes at Aquinas College, a “godsend that has given me such joy.”
Deming lived out the rest her years in Porter Hills Retirement Village where in 1990 she was taking classes, volunteering in the reception office, and filling in as she was needed. She concluded, “I have the best of all worlds.” Deming died on January 22, 1998, at the age of 91. She lived a long, full life far beyond expectations and despite all her medical problems.

Related Links:

This biography is a summary of a transcript of an oral history interview with Emily Claggett Deming. Learn more about Grand Rapids women’s oral histories here. See the full transcript summary of Deming’s oral history interview here.

This biography is also available in the Fall 2017 issue of the GGRWHC newsletter.