• Mon. Nov 28th, 2022

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

ByPatricia S. Stevens

Nov 24, 2022

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

We’re not okay 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 paid much attention to author John Steinbeck’s portrayals of her fellow Okies in Grapes of Wrath and other books as the noble epitome of the struggle of the American working class.

We Okies were only human, she said – no better than all the other people who had migrated to California and sent their children to the public schools where she taught for more than 40 years.

She was right about that, with one big caveat. Migrant families sometimes have one person who is more than ordinary, thus changing the course of the family. On my mother’s side, that person was Fern. Before her, we were a family of low-educated 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 other family gatherings in Redlands—I tried to thank her personally. But I can’t do that anymore.

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

Born in Woody Guthrie’s hometown

Fern was the fifth of five children born to William and Linnie Humphrey in Okemah, Oklahoma, better known as Woody Guthrie’s hometown. Her mother wanted to name her Lothera, 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, impending war, and dust storms that plagued migrant workers like the Humphreys. Bull went 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 years old. They moved around a bit and lived briefly in Kern County before finding work in the East Highland fruit packing houses adjacent to San Bernardino and Redlands.

At first, Fern didn’t feel welcome. Years later, when I asked her why she became a teacher, she recounted an elementary school teacher who told her she was a stupid okie. Fern said she never wanted another student to feel this way.

That weakness would drive her. As well as a deep feeling of faith that did not come from her church family, but from herself. She dreamed of becoming a missionary.

She was perhaps 7 years old and living in the “Green Row” of packhouse corporate housing in East Highland when she convinced a neighbor to take her to services at the Assembly of God. Fern soon carried a Bible, volunteered to ring the bells of the Salvation Army, and witnessed 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, it would be her church for the rest of her life.

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

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 a homecoming princess. She met Donald Thomas Dewees Jr., a Pennsylvania kid who went to school on the GI bill, on the Valley College student council. They married in 1960.

She enjoyed acting in college theater productions so much that she spoke of 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 hadn’t wanted his youngest daughter to go to college. But her brother Dale, a truck driver, was hauling sand to build the campus now known as Cal State LA when he suggested she do her bachelor’s degree there. Fern was the first member of our family to earn a college degree.

She enjoyed acting in college theater productions so much that she spoke of 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 living and teaching in the Covina area for a few years, Fern and Don – and their two 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 would be her home for the next 51 years.

As much a part of the Redlands landscape as the orange groves

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 kids into. She was the wife of a high school football and baseball coach. She was a faithful church choir member who organized the annual animal-filled Easter procession at the Redlands Bowl. She has volunteered with dozens of community organizations, particularly those supporting education, women and faith.

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

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

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

California’s future teachers teach

She inspired quite a few of her students to work in the classroom themselves. Today, the teacher in K1, Fern’s old classroom, at Mariposa Elementary School is Mara Comadena, who was a student of Fern’s in the 1970’s. When they became colleagues. Comadena was impressed with “the way Fern spoke to the students – she was very matter-of-fact, very to the point, assertive and fair. She wanted them to learn, but being a kindergarten teacher isn’t just about learning. I remember she often said, ‘You want kids to enjoy coming to school.’”

Fern also liked coming to school. Her ambitions knew no bounds — after writing a new elementary school curriculum on the subject of weather, she called LA TV’s meteorologist “Dr. George” Fischbeck and convinced him to return to Redlands and teach him a lesson. She taped construction paper to the underside of the students’ desks and then had them lie underneath and paint face up – 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 and traveled 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, has been adept at getting along with people. If she had enemies, they were probably the cardiologists of friends and relatives for whom she cooked delicious meals using old family recipes.

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

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

About the author

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