Corinne Fonde, educator, social worker, and municipal recreation director, was born on April 27, 1883, in Mobile, Alabama, to parents Henry and Louisa Anderson (Redwood) Fonde. Although Fonde studied as a young woman to become a concert pianist, she attended Louisiana State University with the intent of entering the field of kindergarten education. She taught in Mobile at the Jefferson Street Kindergarten and in the Whistler public schools. In 1909 Fonde moved to New Orleans where she was principal of the Michael Heymann Kindergarten and an affiliated instructor in kindergarten at the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College. In 1914 she was employed as a welfare worker at the New Orleans Cotton Mills.
Fonde became a resident of Houston in 1916 when she was hired by the Houston Settlement Association, an organization founded in 1907 to provide assistance to the large number of immigrant families living in Houston’s Second Ward, where they faced crowded living conditions, language barriers, and exposure to disease. In her position as head social worker for Rusk Settlement, Fonde was responsible for supervising playground activities, the settlement’s health clinic, and a variety of educational programs, including the city’s first free kindergarten and a sub-station of the city’s public library. In her previous teaching career, Fonde had been a strong proponent of recreation as a means of building citizenship, providing social interaction, filling leisure hours in a healthy way, and serving as a natural preventative for crime. Her proficiency in developing recreational programs for Rusk Settlement led to the city of Houston offering her the position of director for the newly-created Department of Recreation in 1919.
Although Fonde was the sole employee the first year, she had a staff of forty persons by 1925. She created neighborhood-oriented programs by incorporating activities for children, youth, and adults. To increase the number of playgrounds across the city, she forged a relationship with the public school system to use their playgrounds during the summer months. Athletic teams were organized city-wide by encouraging businesses, churches, and organizations to sponsor teams. Craft classes, pet shows, nature studies, and kite-flying contests were ever-popular activities. Musical programming included conducting instrument classes and forming choral groups, as well as sponsoring band concerts and dance festivals. Drama activities ranged from puppet shows to full theater productions. To provide a place for the department’s community players to perform, Fonde transformed an outdated incinerator building into a small theater. She never tired of developing new programs, adding sites, and searching for funding that allowed Houstonians to spend their leisure time in a healthy and enjoyable environment. When the Recreation Department was combined with the Parks Department in 1943, Fonde was named assistant director, a position she held until her retirement in 1946.
As Girl Scouting spread across the country in 1921, three troops organized individually in Houston. When these scouts approached Fonde about service opportunities, she and Frances Law, volunteer chair of the Recreation Department’s Playground Committee, quickly organized six more troops. On April 17, 1922, Houston became the third city in Texas to receive a Scout charter, the Houston Scouts. Within a year there were twenty-four active troops with more than 500 members. The local troops remained under the supervision of the Recreation Department until the San Jacinto Council was formed in 1925. Portraits of Corinne Fonde and Frances Law hold a place of honor in the board room of the San Jacinto Council headquarters in recognition of their role in establishing Girl Scouting in Houston.
A long-standing holiday tradition was started by Fonde in 1919 when the Recreation Department placed a lighted Christmas tree at the downtown intersection of Main and McKinney near the Victory Flag Pole honoring Houston’s World War I soldiers. The tree lighting was repeated year after year, although the location frequently changed. In 1960 the grounds surrounding city hall became the permanent site for the Tree of Light. Each year this lighting is considered the official beginning of the city’s holiday season and attracts crowds of Houstonians for the event.
Corinne Fonde, an Episcopalian, died in Houston on April 8, 1950, and was buried at Pine Crest Cemetery in Mobile, Alabama. Shortly after her death, Fonde Park was established by the city of Houston. A rededication of the 12.7-acre park in southeast Houston was held on November 4, 2006. Fonde Recreation Center was built near downtown on Memorial Drive in 1960. Designed by MacKie and Kamrath, a Houston architectural firm, the center is a popular place for Houstonians to gather and test their skills on the playing courts and in the exercise gym. Major renovations were made to Fonde Recreation Center in 1988.
See also Settlement Houses and Alice Graham Baker.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.