Mae Goes Back to School

My mother, Mae Otwell Pershall, graduated from Snyder, Oklahoma High School in 1921.  Her father demanded that if she were to go to college, she would have to live with relatives.

Mae Otwell's (my mother) 1921 High School graduating class

Mae Otwell’s (my mother) 1921 High School graduating class. An X has been drawn beneath Mae’s feet.

Mae had a strong desire for additional education, so at the age of nineteen, she took a train to Cincinnati, Ohio to go to college and live with her uncle and his wife, Tom and Ida Otwell.  Mae lived with them in the parsonage provided by the Methodist Church for its pastor.  Mae spent one semester at Cincinnati University, then enrolled in Northern Ohio University in Ada, Ohio, where Uncle Tom had been transferred by the church. At the end of the school year, she returned home.

Mae's Senior High School Photo

Mae’s Senior High School Photo


That fall, she was allowed to enter Oklahoma A & M College in Stillwater. She had fun telling us the address of her boarding house.  The address was 123 Duck.  1 –  2  – 3 DUCK was a warning used before throwing something at another person.  Believe me, if you didn’t duck in time, you were apt to get hit by the object in the hand of the person uttering the declaration.

At that time, upon the successful completion of two years in the School of Education, a life certificate was awarded to teach in the Oklahoma schools.  Mae finished the required work and was immediately hired as a primary teacher in the rural oil country school of Mound Valley near the town of Hominy located in Osage County, Oklahoma.

Her school year was interrupted because of an appendectomy.  The surgeon found that her appendix had ruptured and he said that if he had known of the rupture, he would not have operated. That could have very well been the end of our family before it got started.  She lay flat of her back for one month in the hospital. Thank God for the medical advances since the 1920’s.

Soon after Mae arrived in the Hominy area, she met Floyd Pershall.  In time they fell in love and were married in her parent’s home in Snyder on March 8, 1925.  Seventeen months later, I was born.  Mae said that it was customary at that time, for the first child to be born no earlier than a year and a half after the wedding.  By those standards, I was born a month early but I don’t believe that my legitimacy was ever questioned.

In 1930, when I was four years old, we moved ten miles north to Wynona.  Four years later my little sister, Alice Melinda, was born on Halloween night.  By this time, the big depression was going strong in our community and Floyd lost his job.  We moved to Snyder to live with Mae’s parents.

Floyd helped Granddad Otwell in his insurance and real estate business as well with his farming.  Granddad was blind so Floyd’s help was really appreciated and he was paid twenty-eight dollars as month plus room and board.

Happy go-lucky Floyd was satisfied with this arrangement.  Immediately he had many buddies and he delighted in taking Granddad and his friends on fishing weekends.  Granddad was too blind to fish but he enjoyed getting away from home and drinking beer with friends.

Mae wanted an independent life free from her parents.  She applied for a job teaching in the Snyder schools but was told by that her education was outdated.  Also, the school board now required that teachers have a degree or that they be working on one.  There were no other jobs for women in our small town except as a waitress.

Mae’s solution was to go back to school and get her degree.  In January1937, a small uncovered cattle trailer was hitched to Granddad’s 1935 Ford sedan and the four of us took off for Stillwater, 200 miles away.  Grandmother packed a lot of home canned foods and other goodies into the trailer with our clothes and a wringer washing machine and tubs.

I remember that Floyd skirted the most of Oklahoma City by taking May Avenue west of the city.  Now May Avenue is in the center of town.

In Stillwater, we stayed for a couple of days with Floyd’s brother Roscoe and his wife Cassie and their daughter Bettesue.  For 28 dollars a month, a duplex was rented a block from the campus.  It was around the corner from Swim’s Drug Store and student hangout where Uncle Jay had worked a few years earlier.

Floyd returned to Snyder and we got settled in our new home.  I slept on a bed that was rolled out of a closet at night into the living room.  Everything was working out fine except I missed not having a radio.  I sometimes would place an ear against the wall and try and hear the neighborhood radio. This did not work.

Mae would leave for her morning classes and later I would escort Alice Melinda about three blocks to the college nursery school.  Mae would pick her up later.  I walked back past our home and several more blocks to Jefferson Grade School for fifth grade classes.  I was late the first day.  I walked past the school to downtown Stillwater to buy my books.  I understood that I could buy the books at a store called the “Farmacy”.  I looked and looked in the drizzling rain but could not find such a store.

I finally gave up and went to Uncle Roscoe who was a butcher in a nearby grocery store.  He led me to a place called the“Pharmacy” where I bought books.  At home, we bought our books at the drug store.  Roscoe accompanied me to near the school.  I tried to keep up with him but I had to avoid the puddles since the cardboard patches covering the holes in my shoe soles were getting wet.

I was overwhelmed by the large new school.  Since it was the second semester, the other students were well into the programs set by our teacher, Miss Donart.  Seats were assigned by the student’s grade average with the top students sitting in the front rows.  Since I had no grade average, I sat in the very back of the room and remained there the whole semester.  One of the students was the popular Sarah Jane Berry, the daughter of the Lieutenant Governor of the state.  I felt as if I was the dunce in a class of royalty.

Soon after I joined the class, another new student arrived.  He was Jewish and his family had fled Hitler’s Germany.  This was my first indication of the turmoil in Germany but in a few years, the whole world became aware when war broke out in Europe.  As I remember, the new student was assigned a seat somewhere in the middle of the room.  Evidently the teacher could easily tell the difference between his Jewish intelligence and that of a slow country boy.

I was required to attend summer school and this experience was enjoyable for me.  Whatever happened to me in the Stillwater schools must have been good for me because thereafter my grades were very good.   Previously my grades were mediocre.

When Mae returned to college, she changed her major from elementary education to the home economics program.  She found new recipes in her cooking classes which she cooked for us.  I particularly remember the cheese soufflés, which required several eggs.  We had plenty of eggs since Grandmother would send a two-gallon bucket full of them packed in oats along with other food when Floyd came to visit.  With the realization that there was only one home economics teacher in a small school system opposed to several elementary teachers, she switched her major back to the grade school program.

My sister and I were startled one day when Mae came home with a bandage on her forehead immediately above her left eye.  The bandage covered a gash that she received when a windowpane fell from the second floor of Old Central Building and landed on her head.  I think that it was the oldest building on the campus.  The wound soon healed but left an insignificant scar.

Another day, I was outside playing when Mae dashed by me holding Alice Melinda in her arms.  Alice Melinda appeared to be as stiff as a board and to be unconscious.  I followed her as she rushed into the house of our older, white haired neighbor, Mrs. Cline.  Mrs. Cline grabbed my sister and said “She is having a spasm”.   She filled her bathtub with cold water and gradually lowered Alice Melinda into the water.  Soon she started moving and regained consciousness.  I felt that the lady was some kind of a God.  I never knew what caused the problem but it never happened again.

At the end of the summer semester, we returned to Snyder and Mae taught grades 1 through 8 in the one-room Otter Creek School about six miles from town.  We lived in the two-room teacherage complete with an outhouse.  There was no electricity, gas or running water in the building but we made it okay and had our weekly baths at Grandmother’s on Saturday.

During that schoolyear, Floyd, Alice Melinda and I survived light cases of small pox.  Mae spent a month flat of her back at Grandmother’s because of an infection resulting from an imbedded wisdom tooth.  A substitute teacher finished the school year for her.

The next year, Mae was hired by Snyder schools to teach the second grade where she remained until she was forced to retire at the age of sixty-seven.  Floyd held several different jobs and spent two terms as mayor of the town.

Mae’s example of love, determination, strength and discipline was no doubt instrumental in her children’s obtaining their college degrees and with the help of God they have had abundant lives.


Jim Pershall

September 2011