CWU News

First Female Student Body President at Central Leaves Legacy of Kindness, Community Service

Central's first female student body president Shirley (Dickson) Kern.

Central's first female student body president Shirley (Dickson) Kern is pictured with her male counterparts in the early 1940s.

The Ellensburg community lost one of its most beloved public servants earlier this month when Shirley (Dickson) Kern passed away at the age of 98.

The former librarian, who graduated from the Central Washington College of Education (now Central Washington University) in 1945, is best remembered for her lifelong commitment to community service and her sincere approach to everyone she met.

“People who knew her often say how classy she was all of the time,” said Lael Wright, one of Kern’s five daughters. “She was always so kind and happy to see everyone, and the people she met liked that she was genuinely happy to see them, too.” 

Wright believes Kern’s legacy, aside from being a gracious, welcoming neighbor, was her desire to serve the local community and her friends across the state.

Shirley Kern“She was very involved during her time at Central, with student government and the Women’s Auxiliary, and later with state organizations like the Jaycee Wives and the Washington Wool Growers Association,” Wright said. “Those connections were always a big deal to her, and she made sure her kids and grandkids understood the importance of giving back.”

Kern’s commitment to service began as an undergraduate at the Central Washington College of Education (CWCE) when she joined the Iyoptians Club, a women’s service honorary group on campus. She also served as secretary of the Associated Women Students and the freshman class cohort before becoming secretary of Central’s Student Government Association (SGA) during her sophomore year.

Kern, who was raised in Okanogan, went on to become the first female president of the SGA in 1944 when her predecessor and the vice president were both called upon to serve in World War II. 

“It was a real challenge, and I was nervous,” she said in a 2010 interview. “But I did it.”

She was elected to a second term prior to graduating in 1945 with a degree in education and minors in home economics, physical education, and health. As SGA president, Kern was involved in crucial discussions about student conduct issues, committees, and events like the Homecoming Ball and Colonial Ball. 

Her ascension to student body president set the stage for two more women to follow in her footsteps the next two years.

“I was a real trendsetter,” Kern joked.

Soon after graduation, she married WWII Marine veteran Phil Kern and they settled in Ellensburg. Both believed strongly in the importance of higher education, and they made sure to instill those values in their children. 

“My grandmother always encouraged her daughters to put themselves in situations that they hadn’t been in before,” said Cory Wright, one of Kern’s 10 living grandchildren who now serves on the Kittitas County Commission. “As the first woman president of the SGA, she understood how to push down barriers, and she expected that of her kids. She made them get out of their comfort zone, and I think that really helped them set high standards for themselves.”

The Kerns’ three youngest children — Lael Wright, Jann Kern, and Kerry Woods — live in Ellensburg and the two eldest — Sandy Kern Bryan and Shirley “Peggy” Brown — live in Arizona. Most of their grandchildren, along with 17 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, also reside in the area. (Phil Kern died in 1999.) 

All five of the couple’s daughters went on to graduate from college — four from CWU. Not surprisingly, each of their 11 grandchildren also earned at least one college degree.

“Education was highly important to my parents, and they took great pride in knowing that all of their daughters and most of their grandkids graduated from college,” said Lael Wright, a fifth-grade teacher at Valley View Elementary who also earned a master’s from Central.

One grandchild, R.J. Woods, not only followed in his grandparents’ footsteps as a scholar; he also ended up pursuing the same career path as Shirley Kern and became a librarian.

Woods studied at CWU for two years before earning a master’s degree out of state. He returned to Ellensburg three years ago to become a reference and adult services librarian at the Ellensburg Public Library — a place that was always close to his grandmother’s heart.

“My sister, my cousins and I were often at the library spending time with our grandma,” Woods recalled. “She taught me how to check out books when I was young, and I remember helping her set up for the summer book giveaways when I was in junior high. 

“Spending time so much time there, I learned to enjoy the library environment and the community service aspect of the job,” he added. “She definitely inspired me to get my master’s degree and become a librarian.”

Woods also remembers fondly the positive influence his grandparents had on his family and other community members. They will be deeply missed, but their legacy of service will endure.

“We all saw that ‘Gaga’ and ‘Gramps’ were good people,” he said. “The way they treated others — and, in turn, how they were treated by others — helped us understand that if you want to be respected and involved in your community, this is how it’s done.”

Shirley Kern’s family will hold a private service at a later date at their cabin on Cooper Lake. More information about her life can be found in the summer 2010 edition of the Central Alumni newsletter and on the Brookside Funeral Home website.

Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs,, 509-963-1518.