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More Pluck Than Luck

Her story would make an Alger hero look like a sissy

Original Editor’s Note: One hears much about the fact that the younger generation has had it too easy and doesn’t know the meaning of work. Perhaps there are some students in this category, but we thought you should know about this 32-year-old housewife and mother of two children, 11 and 6, who for 15 years has struggled to realize her life-long dream — getting a college degree. It has been a struggle against odds that would have stopped most girls long ago, but at Baylor’s August commencement she was scheduled to receive the bachelor of arts degree. Her story begins at the age of 3 when, the unwanted child of divorced parents, she went to live with her elderly grandparents on a farm, 80 miles northeast of Denver. Awarded two four-year scholarships when she graduated as valedictorian of her class in the consolidated high school, she decided to use a teacher’s scholarship effective the summer after graduation. Her grandparents were apathetic toward her ambitions for a higher education, but her high school principal encouraged her to think for herself. During the past year, she has been a frequent visitor in THE BAYLOR LINE office in carrying out her work on the Lariat; incidentally, she has served as editor of the campus newspaper this summer. We became interested in her, noting her hard work and persistence and requested her to write an article for the magazine, to tell alumni how a person with no money can get a college education. Here is her story in her own words:

MY SCHOOL TEACHERS have been my parents. One of the reasons I want to graduate is to become a teacher. I want to say “thank you” to the teaching profession and perhaps justify their faith in me.

The scholarship to teachers’ college represented many hours of studying during high school years — many nights until 3 a.m. I couldn’t concentrate on studying until after my grandparents went to bed — around 9 or 10 at night.

Now that I’d won the scholarship, I still had problems. Although tuition was covered, there remained room and board to pay, plus fees and clothes.

I decided upon Colorado State Teachers College of Education at Greeley and worked in the library to cover the cost of the dormitory room. Work in the dining hall provided board. I managed to get by on what clothes I had from high school days.

Working interfered with getting enough time to study, but by studying in the basement after dormitory lights were out, I began repeating those sessions of studying into the wee hours, barely making the C average required to hold the scholarship.

The college had a list of homes where college girls could work as maids and baby sitters in return for room and board. Following the summer session, I decided to try for one of these jobs.

I must have looked like a typical hayseed from the country when I went to apply. All I can remember is that here was one of the most beautiful homes imaginable. I know I must have stared at the carpeting, the big fireplace, the lovely furniture — all a picture stepping out of a magazine.

Maybe it was first come, first served. Anyway, I got the job. I had a room of my own off the kitchen. I was given a list of duties that occupied four hours every afternoon during school days, suppertime help and cleanup, all day Saturday, mealtime help on Sunday, and babysitting for their three children every night of the week except occasional Monday nights.

It was good to have the experience of living and working there just to see how people of culture lived. They didn’t seem to lack one comfort. I enjoyed working with real silver, real china, and real crystal — and getting to play a piano.

Back on the farm I had taken music lessons one year. I walked a mile to my teacher’s house and paid her one dozen eggs and a pound of butter for each lesson. After a year I could play for our little church. It made me very happy.

I learned a lesson in humility at this Greeley home. I shall never forget scrubbing other people’s floors, cleaning other people’s bathrooms, serving other people’s guests. “The Doctor” and his wife were wonderful employers, but I knew my place was not on their social level.

The children and I learned to love each other, and when their parents were gone for the evening, I became “big sister” to them. Those were the days before TV, and my hands were full until the trio was asleep.

I always felt sorry for their parents because they were missing so many bedtimes, stories, baths — all the little, wonderful incidents only children at evening have a talent for creating.

Toward spring, I began desiring the experience of a religious college and investigated several Texas colleges. I remember praying for guidance. I had no money, and I worked too much to be a part of the college crowd. I decided upon Abilene Christian College for the summer — a decision based purely on faith in the word, “Christian.” I didn’t realize that the decision presented financial problems too difficult for me to solve. The decision permanently alienated me from my grandparents and other relatives.

Somehow I earned the $18 for train fare, and when exams ended in June, I packed all I owned in a cardboard box, tied it with a string, and left Colorado without a goodbye to my tangled family, never to return to live.

I had never bought a train ticket, never cashed a check, and had never been more than 100 miles from home. It was easy getting from Greeley to Denver, but in Denver I ran into trouble at the station when I tried to cash a check on a Greeley bank to buy a ticket to Abilene. I tried again at a nearby bank and was refused by a kind-looking bank teller. I couldn’t help it, but I started to cry.

I’ll never forget what he did and said: “It’s the honest ones who get in trouble.” With that, he cashed the check and told me if it bounced, he’d take the money out of his own paycheck.

Sunday night I reached Abilene and spent part of my remaining $3 on taxi fare to the campus. That’s when I found out that Texas colleges run a week ahead of those in Colorado and I’d already lost a week of classes. The next day I learned that Christian schools are also private schools, and I had to find a way to meet the tuition costs.

I decided not to tell anyone that I didn’t have enough money for board. The administration gave me work in the library for room and tuition, which at the rate of 33 1/3 cents an hour added up to plenty of hours.

The remaining couple of dollars and few cents took on even greater importance. I realized it represented board for an indefinite length of time. I already was a day behind in eating; now I had to ration the money to go as far as possible. I didn’t have a roommate, so I could be sure no one would find out about my state of affairs.

I bought a loaf of bread, some cheese, and a quart of milk. I was so hungry at first that I drank all the milk the first day. It would have soured anyway, I reasoned. Then began a routine that tested my self-discipline and faith to the limit. I’ll never forget those days.

I rationed out the cheese and bread over a period of three weeks. I experienced the ache of true hunger, but I didn’t get sick. Meanwhile, I learned of a job — typing and card indexing for churches — that paid 25 cents an hour for one or two hours a day. With 25 cents a day for board, I felt wonderful.

Paid For Reading!

Breakfast became a cup of coffee, loaded with cream and sugar, skip lunch; soup or a hamburger for supper. On the days I made 50 cents, I had lunch.

The girl who gave me the job turned out to be a wonderful friend, the first I’d ever had in college; we soon became roommates. Later she helped me to get a job in the cafeteria, and that solved the board problem.

Life settled down to a routine of getting up at 5:30 a.m. to help prepare breakfast, serve it, wash 200 glasses, go to classes, back to the cafeteria to help serve lunch, then to work in the library until 10 p.m. After that I studied.

We weren’t allowed to have lights on after midnight, so I’d go to bed at midnight, and after everyone was asleep, I’d study in the bathroom until 3 a.m.

This routine, interspersed with dormitory fun, showed up on my grades. But having my sparkling friend for a roommate now led me to decide to continue the fall session at ACC. She and I worked between sessions and earned $30 apiece; school cafeterias were closed, and we had quite a time eating. One time we settled on a can of soybeans and split it for supper.

At my roommate’s suggestion, I went to the Abilene Reporter-News to ask for a job in the mailing room. I waited two hours in the editorial department to see the managing editor who was an acquaintance of my roommate. The longer I waited, the more my suit seemed to show its age. Everybody in the department seemed to have a self-assurance new to me.

The managing editor, at first, was rather abrupt and said there were no openings. He asked me why I was in Abilene, and I gave him a straightforward answer. He asked me a lot of questions, and when he found out I had no family it must have melted him a little. He promised to give me a job but said I’d have to wait until he called me.

I waited for six long weeks and finally he called. The job was in the editorial department, not in the mailing room. My pay was $26.40 a week, the most money I had ever made — and doing, of all things, reading proof. It seemed paradoxical to be paid for reading, something I’d always done for pure enjoyment. It was the first time I worked for just eight hours a day.

My roommate married during the Christmas holidays, and loneliness closed in on me. At the end of the spring semester, I decided not to attend summer school, paid off my $400 debt to the college, and shared a two-room cottage with a girl who was a reporter on the paper. I saved $5 a week and enrolled in Hardin-Simmons in the fall. I’d been dating a new employee, a typesetter, at the paper, and in November we became engaged. The newspaper had a strike shortly afterward, and my fiance’s job went first, then mine.

I landed a job in Fort Worth which meant I had to leave Hardin-Simmons. My mother lived in Fort Worth with her second husband. All my life I’d built up a clay-dream that some day we’d be together and I’d have a mother and could show her what a wonderful daughter I would be to her. A few moments in their home made me finally realize that this idea was only a fantasy left over from childhood. They had no place in their lives for me.

I’d always vowed to have a church wedding, so I borrowed scissors and a machine and sewed every evening for two weeks to make my wedding dress, veil, and tiara.

Three weeks after the wedding, my husband got a job in Decatur, Ill. I’d intended returning to school that summer, but 10 months after our marriage we became parents of a baby daughter.

When she was two years old, I began a correspondence course at my old Colorado college. For the next four years, cross-country moves, housing problems, financial hardships, child care, and housework blotted out everything but hope of ever getting back to college.

In 1954 our son was born. For the next two years we were plagued with illness. Winters were a nightmare of illness for our boy who was susceptible to viruses and was sick all the time in the damp, cold weather. In our dingy Illinois apartment, we received a job offer in Waco that seemed a miracle to us.

I took a half-day job teaching in a Waco kindergarten — after eight years of strict confinement to my home. Two months later, excruciating pain hit every bone in my body, and I couldn’t bend or walk. Two days later I couldn’t even get out of bed. I thought I had polio, but it turned out to be rheumatoid arthritis. After a month of taking 20 pills a day, the attack gradually subsided, to return spasmodically in succeeding years.

The doctor told me to remain as active as possible. My mind flashed back to the old desire to finish college. Everything had pushed it back, but if I was ever going to finish, it would be now — even if I could only take one course at a time.

From my teacher’s pay, I took a correspondence course from Baylor. In 1958, I began residence work, still one course at a time.

My old college roommate of years past, now teaching English at Sul Ross College, informed me of the National Defense Loan. I applied for it, enrolling at Baylor with a full-course load in the spring semester, 1959. It is hard to realize that I’ve done 43 semester hours in a year’s time — after getting only nine hours’ work done in the preceding 10 years.

An Act of Congress

Returning is not easy. Students seem immature. I feel like a misfit sometimes: too old for the students and not on an equal footing with professors of my own age. The worst part is having to take courses I have no use for but must take to fulfill degree requirements. Math and foreign language have been particularly difficult because of the lapse of time since high school.

But these negative thoughts register little importance when I dare let myself glimpse ahead. I catch myself feeling the nearness of graduation and can hardly believe it.

Moments of complete despair still do happen. Only a few weeks ago I cried longer and harder than in all the 15 years so far. I’ve had to learn that more is expected of me than of a little mascaraed coed 12 years my junior. This, with washing and ironing, house cleaning and child care, getting everybody to school and to work every day, the constant studying, and the extra hours outside of class required of a journalism major, all seems too much for me sometimes — when I least expect it.

All the same, I may be the first Baylor student who can say it took an Act of Congress to get me through. I owe Baylor much for allowing me that, and for making it possible for me to satisfy the impulse to create — the real drive that has been pushing me all these years. No discouragement can erase that, nor can I let down the girl who 14 years ago literally hungered to go to college. 

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