Ela Hockaday, school founder, was born in Ladonia, Texas, on March 12, 1875, to Thomas Hart Benton and Maria Elizabeth (Kerr) Hockaday. Her father was a farmer and teacher versed in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. Upon her mother's death in 1881, she went to live with her married older sister at Bonham and there attended public school. She received her B.A. from North Texas State Normal School (now the University of North Texas) and subsequently taught in Sherman, where she later became principal of Jefferson School. She did graduate study at the University of Chicago and Teachers College at Columbia University and returned home upon the death of her sister in 1905. She taught at the Presbyterian school in Durant, Oklahoma, and was science instructor and subsequently head of the biology department at Durant State Normal School (1910–12), where she became a close friend of fellow faculty member Sarah Trent. Together they bought a farm near Falfurrias, Texas, and became "farmerettes." Hockaday also worked as a member of the faculty of the Oklahoma College for Women at Chickasha.
On the recommendation of M. B. Terrill, who had headed the teachers' college in Denton that Hockaday attended, a group of Dallas residents invited her to establish a girls' preparatory school that would be the equivalent of the boys' school that Terrill was then operating. She secured the assistance of Sarah Trent and in 1913, with ten students and a faculty of five meeting in a large house, she founded and became president of the Miss Hockaday School for Girls. Soon afterward a grade school was added and in 1931 a junior college that operated until 1951. In 1941, 384 students attended this nationally known college-preparatory school. The Hockaday Music Institute was founded in 1937 and functioned through 1946. Believing a school's first duty to be the "development of fine character," Ela Hockaday offered her students an opportunity for broad scholarship and athletic excellence while emphasizing "habitual courtesy." Hers is believed to be the first school in the Southwest to institute student government (1917), and in 1928 she sent her first travel class to Europe. In 1942 she arranged for several stockholders, including herself, to cancel their stock, giving the school to its alumnae, Dallas, and the Southwest. By 1956 a board of trustees administered the nonprofit, independent, incorporated Hockaday School. Miss Hockaday retired in 1946 but continued to live in her house on the edge of campus, the Cottage, where she gave personal counsel and encouragement to students and entertained such distinguished guests as Peter Marshall, Gertrude Stein, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The Cottage also showcased her famous antique collection and housed a gift shop that sold English silver and china.
Ela Hockaday was a member of the Texas Philosophical Society, the Dallas Philological Society, the Virgilian Society of America, the Dallas Woman's Club, and the Dallas Garden Club; she was a charter member of the Standards Literary Club. She held an honorary Litt. D. from Austin College, Sherman (1940), and in 1947 was awarded the Dallas Zonta Club's Service Award. She was a Presbyterian and Democrat. She died in a Dallas hospital on March 26, 1956, and is buried at Hillcrest Memorial Park.