How Aunt Fern’s Dust Bowl Migration Uplifted My Family and California – GV Wire – Update Cali

“They had qualities of humor and courage and resourcefulness and energy that appealed to me. I thought that if we had a national character and a national genius, it was these people who came to be called Okies.” – John Steinbeck,”America and Americans”

We’re not Okies anymore.

portrait of columnist Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews


My great aunt Fern was the last member of our large California family to be born in Oklahoma. But she never really cared for author John Steinbeck’s portrayal of her fellow Okies Grapes of Wrath and other books, as a noble embodiment of the struggle of the American working class.

She said that we Okies are just people – no better than all the other people who migrated to California and who sent their children to the public schools where she taught for over 40 years.

She was right about that, with one big caveat. Migrant families sometimes have one person who is more than ordinary and thus changes the trajectory of the family. On my mother’s side of the family, that person was Fern. Before her, we were a family of poorly educated migrant cotton pickers in eastern Oklahoma. Today we are mostly middle-class Californians, some of us with fancy college degrees.

Whenever I saw her—usually at Thanksgiving or at other family gatherings in Redlands—I tried to thank her in person. But I can’t do that anymore.

Fern Humphrey Dewees, a force of faith and family who taught two generations of kindergartners to love school, died Oct. 28 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 84.

He was born in the hometown of Woody Guthrie

Fern was the fifth of five children born to William and Linnie Humphrey in Okemah, Oklahoma, best known as Woody Guthrie’s hometown. Her mother wanted to call her Lothera, which was an unusual name, but when her father, known as Bull, went to register the birth, he couldn’t spell it. So he named her Fern.

Her birth was good news at a terrible time, amid the deepening Great Depression, the coming war, and the dust storms that plagued migrant farm workers like the Humphreys. Bull left first along with Fern’s big brother Dale; other siblings (including my grandmother) would follow. Fern and Linnie went to California in 1944 when Fern was 6. They wandered around a bit, living briefly in Kern County before finding work in fruit packing plants in East Highland, next to San Bernardino and Redlands.

At first, Fern didn’t feel welcome. When I asked years later why she became a teacher, she talked about an elementary school teacher who told her she was a stupid Okie. Fern said she never wanted another student to feel that way.

This little thing would make her stronger. Likewise, a deep sense of faith that did not come from her unchurched family, but from within her. She dreamed of becoming a missionary.

She was maybe 7 and living in “Green Row” of the East Highland packers’ lodgings when she convinced a neighbor to take her to worship at the Assembly of God. Soon Fern was carrying a Bible, volunteering as a Salvation Army bell ringer and witnessing to the homeless on the streets of San Bernardino. She eventually joined Temple Baptist Church (now Pathway) and convinced her mother and others to come with her, that it would be her congregation for the rest of her life.

Life was hard for migrating Oklahomans. (Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress)

She was the first in her family to earn a college degree

Fern graduated from Redlands High in 1956 and attended Valley College in San Bernardino where she was homecoming princess. At the Valley College student council, she met Donald Thomas Dewees Jr., a boy from Pennsylvania who goes to school on the GI Bill. They married in 1960.

She enjoyed acting in college theater productions so much that she talked about becoming an actress at the Pasadena Playhouse. But then she took an aptitude test that confirmed her earlier instinct: She should be a teacher.

Bull Humphrey did not want his youngest daughter to go to university. But her brother Dale, a truck driver, was hauling sand to build the campus now known as Cal State LA when he suggested she get her bachelor’s degree there. Fern became the first member of our family to earn a college degree.

She enjoyed acting in college theater productions so much that she talked about becoming an actress at the Pasadena Playhouse. But then she took an aptitude test that confirmed her earlier instinct: She should be a teacher.

After several years of living and teaching in the Covina area, Fern and Don—and their two young boys, Donnie and Michael—moved back to Redlands. In 1967, they bought a three-year-old house in an unincorporated county neighborhood on the Redlands border.

It will be their home for the next 51 years.

Just as much a part of the Redlands landscape as the Orange Groves

Over the next half century, Fern became a part of the Redlands landscape as well known as the orange groves. She was a teacher whose classes parents tried to get their children into. She was the wife of one of the high school football and baseball coaches. She was a faithful member of the church choir who organized the annual Easter animal parades at the Redlands Bowl. She has volunteered with dozens of community organizations, especially those that support education, women, and faith.

And she was the mainstay of a huge family that spanned the deserts and valleys of California, convincing my cousins ​​from Modesto to the Mojave to make the long drive home to Redlands for the holidays.

She applied her missionary zeal in the classroom. She kept her students constantly moving and embraced project-based learning, long before such approaches were conventional wisdom. She was particularly adept at supporting struggling children; she even tutored particularly difficult cases at home.

“Mom knew what it was like to be an outcast,” says her son Michael. “She was very protective of outcast children her whole life.

Educating California’s Future Teachers

She has inspired more than a few of her students to work on their own in the classroom. Today at Mariposa Elementary School, the teacher in K1, Fern’s old class, is Mara Comadena, who was Fern’s student in the 1970s. When they became colleagues. Comadena was struck by “the way Fern talked to the students—she was very matter-of-fact, very matter-of-fact, firm and fair. She wanted them to learn, but being a kindergarten teacher is not all about learning. I remember her often saying, ‘You want the kids to enjoy going to school.'”

Fern also loved going to school. Her ambitions knew no bounds—after writing a new elementary school curriculum about weather, she dubbed LA TV meteorologist “Dr. George” Fischbeck and convinced him to return to Redlands and teach a lesson. She taped construction paper to the bottom of the students’ desks and then had them lie down and paint upwards—to show them how Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Fern retired in 2004, after 41 years of teaching. In 2006, she became a true missionary, traveling to South Africa with members of her church to work with children, many of whom were HIV positive.

Throughout her life, Fern, who never quite lost her Okie twang, was adept at getting along with people. If she had any enemies, they were probably cardiologists of friends and relatives for whom she cooked delicious meals based on old family recipes.

Her signature dish was dessert—Aunt Fern’s chocolate cake, made with four eggs and two sticks of butter.

The cake was not healthy. But it tasted good enough to make you believe in God almost as much as Fern did.

About autor

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for the Zócalo Public Square.


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