“I thought that if we had a national character and a national genius, these people, who were beginning to be called Okies, were it.” – John Steinbeck, America and Americans
We ain’t Okies anymore.
My great-aunt Fern was the last member of our California family born in Oklahoma. But she never cared for John Steinbeck’s portrayals of Okies as the epitome of American working-class struggle. We Okies, she said, were ordinary people — no better than the other California migrants who sent their kids to the public schools where she taught.
She was right, with a caveat. Okie families sometimes had an extraordinary person who changed everyone’s trajectory. On my mother’s side, that was Fern. Before her, we were uneducated eastern Oklahoma cotton-pickers. Today, we’re middle-class Californians, some with college degrees.
On Thanksgiving, I liked to thank her for that. This year I can’t. She died in October at 84.
Fern was the fifth of Bull and Linnie Humphrey’s five children. Her birth was good news in Okemah, Woody Guthrie’s hometown, at a time of Depression and dust that forced our family to move to California. Fern arrived at age 6. The family found work in the fruit packing houses of East Highland, next to Redlands, in San Bernardino County.
Fern didn’t feel welcomed. When I asked why she taught, she talked about a teacher who had told her she was a dumb Okie. Fern never wanted another student to feel like that.
A profound faith, which did not come from her unchurched family, also fueled her. At 7, she convinced neighbors to take her to church. Soon, Fern was carrying a Bible, witnessing to San Bernardino’s homeless and joining Temple Baptist, which became the family congregation.
Fern graduated from Redlands High in 1956 and attended San Bernardino Valley College, where she met Donald Dewees Jr., a Pennsylvania kid, on the student council. They married in 1960.
Bull Humphrey hadn’t wanted his youngest daughter to go to university. But her brother Dale, a truck driver, was hauling sand to Cal State L.A. and suggested she check it out. Fern became the first in our family to get a degree.
After a few years in Covina, Fern and Don — and their two young boys, Donnie and Michael — returned to Redlands and bought a three-bedroom house in 1967. It would be their home for the next 51 years.
Over the next half-century, Fern became as familiar a part of the Redlands landscape as the orange groves. She was the teacher whose classes parents tried to get their children into. She was the wife of a well-known high school football and baseball coach. She organized the Easter pageants at the Redlands Bowl. She volunteered in community organizations, supporting education, women, and faith.
She applied her missionary zeal in the classroom. She kept her students constantly moving around and embraced project-based learning, well before such approaches were conventional wisdom. She was especially adept at supporting struggling kids. She even tutored particularly hard cases at home.
“Mom knew what it was like to be an outcast,” says her son Michael. “Her whole life, she was very protective of outcast kids.”
She inspired some students to be educators. Today at Mariposa Elementary, the teacher in Fern’s classroom is Mara Comadena, who was her student in the 1970s. As colleagues, Fern advised Comadena that “being a kindergarten teacher is not just about learning.”
I recall her saying often, “You want kids to love coming to school.”
Fern loved school, too. There were no limits to her ambitions — to inaugurate elementary school curriculum on weather, she convinced TV meteorologist “Dr. George” Fischbeck to visit Redlands. She taped construction paper on the bottom of students’ desks and had them lie down beneath and paint facing upward — to show how Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Fern retired in 2004, after 41 years of teaching, and became a missionary, traveling to South Africa with members of her church to work with HIV-positive children.
Fern, who never quite lost her Okie twang, got along well with people. If she had any enemies, they were probably the cardiologists of friends and relatives for whom she cooked delicious meals from old family recipes.
Her signature dish was Aunt Fern’s Chocolate Pie, made with four eggs and two sticks of butter.
It tasted good enough to make you believe in God almost as much as Fern did.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.