Remembering Georgia Neese Clark Gray
The signature of a Topeka area woman used to appear on every single piece of U.S. currency. Her name is Georgia Neese Clark Gray. And on this last day of Women's History Month, Commentator Katie Keckeisen tells us about the aspiring actress who became a top official in the U.S. government.
Georgia Neese Gray seems to have entered the world needing to prove herself. Born January 27, 1898, in Richland, KS, she was the youngest of two daughters and she later recalled her father often wishing he’d had a son. So Georgia set about proving that she could be everything her father wanted from a son and more.
Albert Neese, Georgia’s father, owned and operated the Richland State Bank, as well as a store, an insurance agency, and the local lumber yard and grain elevator. Instead of sending his daughters to boarding school, Albert bought a second home in Topeka so that the girls and his wife, Ellen, could live there during the school year. Georgia later attended Washburn College, graduating in 1921.
Georgia had been bitten by the acting bug earlier in life and wished to attend drama school. Her father insisted that she finish her college education before pursuing a life on the stage. After Washburn, Georgia attended the Franklin Sargent School of Dramatic Art in New York City. She had a moderately successful stage career before the stock market crash of 1929 derailed her plans. With acting jobs scarce, Georgia moved back home to Richland to work in her father’s bank.
Upon her return to Kansas, Georgia became active in state politics. In 1934 she became the youngest national committeewoman in the United States for the Democratic Party. When the current United States Treasurer, William Julian, was killed in an accident, President Harry Truman began looking for a woman to fill the position. Georgia’s name was proposed, and President Truman requested a meeting. According to Georgia, President Truman said the position didn’t pay much and asked if she could afford to take it, to which she replied, “Can I afford not to?” In 1949, Georgia was named the first female Treasurer of the United States, a position she held until 1953. While she was the first, she was most certainly not the last; since then, all Treasurers of the United States have been women.
Following her term as Treasurer, Georgia returned home to Kansas, where she continued to work at the family bank, where she served as president until 1964. After her hometown of Richland was cleared to make way for the Clinton Reservoir, the bank relocated to Topeka, where it was named the Capital City Bank. Georgia continued her role as president at the new bank until 1974. She was named the Distinguished Kansan of the Year in 1982 by the Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas and was also listed in Who’s Who in America. Both the Georgia Neese Gray performance hall at the Topeka Performing Arts Center, and the Andrew J. and Georgia Gray Theatre at Washburn University were named in her honor.
In a profile she wrote for KS Magazine in 1986, Georgia recalled that “I learned you had to prove yourself, prove that you had […] guts. That you had something.” With a resume that spanned from Broadway to the United States Treasury, it can’t be denied that Georgia Neese Gray certainly proved herself to both her father and the country.
Commentator Katie Keckeisen is a collections archivist for the Kansas Historical Society. She lives in Topeka.
Learn more about fascinating Kansas women and men online at KSHS.org.