In the fall of 1945, when she was not yet sixteen, my dad’s second sister left home. Irene had worked as a babysitter for a family in Idaho; when they moved to Albany, Oregon, Irene went with them to continue babysitting and complete her high school education.
Dorothy Irene Montgomery (known by her middle name) had been born 11 November 1929 in Winner, South Dakota, the daughter of Lawrence Theodore (or Conklin) Montgomery and his first wife, Antonia Marie Jelinek. Irene was four months old, and the elder sister, Flo, only two years older, when their mother died in Yankton, South Dakota. Later that year Grandpa married Blanche Agnes Wilson (my grandmother); Grandpa and Grandma would eventually have ten more children. Aunt Irene’s letters home provide a glimpse into the life she was living far away from her family as well as her pride in her older sister back home.
Albany, Oregon April 2, 1946
Dear Mom, Dad & kiddies,
Received your letter yesterday and was I tickled to get it. Yes, Mom, I am feeling fine now. Am so glad. We have 2 days of Spring Vacation.
Flo ought to be proud of that because it really [is] a great honor. We had an initiation of the “National Honor Society” last Fri. You have to have real good grades, you have to have some qualities of a leader, and you have to be quite popular, I mean you should [know] most of the kids in school. No, she didn’t write me about it, yet.
Those pictures were awful, but I just sent them.
I don’t have to wear my glasses only when I read they are for close up work now, Mom.
I will find out when [I] get out of school because I want to be there so bad for her graduation.
This coming Saturday the Band is going to Salem for our contest. We compete against all of the cities around here.
I am glad the kids can have some fun like that. Have they learned to skate real well. I can waltz with skates now, but I can’t skate backwards.
I would write to Myrt, but I have so many notebooks, speeches and etc., to get in this week and the next. We have been rehearsing for the concert at nights. Tell Myrt to excuse me this time if she will.
We have had pretty fair weather lately. We are voting for Carnival Princesses & Queen for our big All School Carnival which they have every year. We vote 3 princesses out of each class and a Queen from the Senior. I was a candidate for princess in two rooms, but didn’t get it. Must close.
Eighty years ago, on June 2, 1933, Velma Swing gave the valedictory speech at the Forrest Township High School commencement ceremonies at the Methodist Church in Forrest, Illinois. She was sixteen years old. In high school she had taken classes in Latin despite the school’s usual insistence that only boys study Latin while girls studied home economics. She would later say that she would have loved to go on to college but knew it was something she would never be able to afford.
AFTER HIGH SCHOOL –WHAT?
The subject I want to talk about tonight is “After High School, What?” and since these times make it impossible for many graduates to go on to school, I wish to discuss that side of the subject.
Seniors suddenly find themselves graduated from high school and wonder with a panicky feeling, “What will I do now?” Some are hoping to go on to school to gain a higher education. Others feel that for lack of funds or some other reason they must remain at home while the others go on. These feel they are accomplishing nothing. But if they would look around them they would realize that most of the influential men of the community merely graduated from high school. The people who go on to college fit themselves for positions higher up in the world and leave the old home town. However, someone must stay behind and take the places of the present community leaders.
The question here is, “What can I do for service in the community?” Naturally one has to work his way up. There are many vocations in any local community that will broaden one’s life and that of the people around him. There is, for instance, farming. Some people say, “You don’t need a high school education to be a farmer.” Possibly not, but high school does help because from association with teachers and classmates you learn the lesson of fair play and to tolerate the views of others. A college graduate, unless he is a graduate of an agricultural college, would never be satisfied to live his life on the farm. He would feel that he was fitted for bigger things.
The girls can not all become business women. Some must stay at home and become the future housewives and mothers. The greatest service to the community is rendered by the homemakers because the foundation of American happiness is the home.
Then, too, just because the student has graduated and can not go on to school, why must he stop learning? If you look at it in the one sense, you can still study and learn. Going to college is not necessary for that. And, in the other sense, you will always be learning because life is a study and each incident a lesson. There is no need for a person to sit down and give up hopes for the future just because he can not go through college.
The seniors who go on are considered more fortunate. But I think college is just a continuation of high school on a larger scale. Seniors will become freshmen once more, then sophomores, juniors, and seniors again. There will be another graduation and then the student will have to go out and break his way into the business world. True, he will have his college diploma to aid him but he must show his worth just as much as the high school graduate or there will not be a place for him. Of course, if he is really good he will eventually succeed and be well-known in his world. But is it not just as good to be well-known in a small community as in a large one, if you are rendering a service to your fellow man?
Altogether, whether the high school graduate goes on to school or goes into the business world immediately, I think it is all very much like a jig saw puzzle and each person is a piece asking, “Where do I fit in?”
Many years after that June evening, when I was asking Grandma for “more stories,” she pulled a brightly-colored cardboard box out of her bedroom closet. Tucked inside were Grandma’s high school mementos – favors from dances, graduation cards, her royal blue velvet-covered high school diploma – and, folded carefully away, her original graduation speech, typed but marked with her penciled amendments. Grandma told me the story of how, in spite of having the highest grades in her class, she was nearly ousted as valedictorian by the eventual salutatorian, whose mother raised a protest because Grandma had spent six weeks of her high school career in Texas. She also told how a businessman well-known in the community was also present that commencement evening as a special guest. When Grandma finished her speech, he was the first to leap to his feet and applaud.
I like to think that Grandma lived out the remaining 74 years of her life finding where her jigsaw puzzle piece fit and answering the question she posed that night: But is it not just as good to be well-known in a small community as in a large one, if you are rendering a service to your fellow man?