Helen’s History

In the mid-1960s, Helen Odell Dewey typed 28 pages from diaries she kept throughout her life. Helen was a student at Cheney Normal School during, and after, World War I. As we approach the 100th anniversary of WWI, Helen gives us a glimpse into life on the Cheney campus and her early years as a teacher.

Helen’s mention of “Dad” refers to Leslie Hamilton Dewey, who courted her in Cheney and she later married.


Excerpts from Helen Odell Dewey’s diary:

I was born April 2, 1896, in the farm home of my grandparents, William and Harriet Graham, about two miles from Dayton, Wash. I was the fourth child of Alec and Della Odell.

When I was about 4 years old, Father went into the sawmill business on the Two-Canyon, a stream about 30 miles from Dayton and at that mill site or another, my summers were spent – happy, happy days. It was at a little country school near the mill that my formal education began. In a brand new pinafore that Mother had made for me, I went to school to visit. In the excitement of the day, I doused my new frock with ink and I’m very sure I cried all the way home.

This is a long jump from 14 months to 14 years but that is what I have to do. Back to my last days in Dayton – 1909: I was in high school a few weeks when I became quite ill – to the point where I ended up in bed not able to attend the farewell surprise party given at our home, and from what I heard it was a fun party with Mother telling fortunes, etc. What’s more, the doctor advised that I not enroll in school till the next semester. That made me spend four and a half years in WW (Walla Walla) High School instead of the usual four.

One thing about high school graduation – for they were different back in the old days: flowers were the thing, and they were bought and presented to the girl graduates in quantities. I received my share, a bouquet of red carnations, from my dancing partner in the operetta and whom I liked very much, out shown all others. Later, when I was a graduate from Cheney, “Dad” had been told about my red carnations and had about six dozen sent to me. There were carnations all over the dorm – in the living room, dining room, housemother’s living room, etc. And I still love red carnations and they have deep meanings to me.

The time to go to Cheney came soon (too soon) for me, having never been away from home for any length of time. Going on to Cheney seemed to bode loneliness for me. To begin with, the train backed in to the town instead of approaching front end to. There was I, a stranger in a strange world. I struggled up the hill to the school building. Enroute I saw a very attractive place that looked like it might be living quarters but proved to be a funeral parlor.

Reaching the Ad(ministration) Building I entrusted my precious suitcases to someone in the office and I left with a list of possible room and board available. After many failures I came to a house with four girls living upstairs and downstairs, a very small cubicle of a room with a cot with a straw mattress. The lady hadn’t expected to rent it but she took pity on me and let me stay there.

The first term at school went very well. Thanksgiving was spent with Sis and family and Mother was there, too. That got me through, for Christmas came soon and home and family once more.

When we went back to school after Christmas vacation we had the thrill of moving into a brand new dormitory. Living in the dormitory was nice in so many ways: cost $17.50 a month for board, room and laundry of sheets, towels and pillow slips. We had turns being hostess at the tables and often had guests and special occasions. The most interesting and most unique thing about the dining room was that most of the “men” in school were waiters. This gave the girls in the dorm an advantage over the girls who lived in private homes.

Speaking of men – they were few and far between – probably one man or boy to every 15 or 20 girls. Dates were really occasions. Our dances were not waltzes, fox trots, etc., but what many laughingly called “rhythmic gamelets,” more like folk dancing, but they were better than nothing at all. We had baseball and won some games but we didn’t have enough men for football.

The spring term was given over quite fully to making our grades, doing practice teaching in the training schools, writing many applications (with photo included), and getting a job for the fall. Since things have a way of working out they did for me and I was elected to teach a one room school about five miles out of Walla Walla, so I was able to go home secure in having my first job, come September.

Time marched on and during that time we were trying out cars and on Sept. 19, I drove our Model T Ford out to school. I had good days and bad. The end of the month the ghost walked and my pay was three $20 gold pieces and one $10. There was a rich feeling about gold and that seemed like the most money I’ve ever been paid.

Since the poor farmers in the community could not afford many extras for their school it was up to the teacher to give dances and programs with which to raise money. We had a couple of dances and with $30 net we were able in 1916 to buy a very good record player. It was fun along with the work and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

Going back to 1917, 1918, the “War Years,” my time was taken up quite fully with teaching during the year and summer school – one at Bellingham, the others at Cheney. The one at B-ham was as much vacation as education, being on the Sound where there were so many things to do and lush, green beauty to see. You see, I had always lived in Eastern Washington where summers were dry and dusty.

The years from 1917 to 1921 were taken up with years of the first World War, teaching, finishing at Cheney and preparation for married life with “Dad.”

[In Yakima after Christmas 1922] I was offered a teaching job by the County Suipt in a three teacher school and I jumped at the chance at about $90 a month. A man principal and his wife were the other teachers. I had 3 and 4 grades –a fairly small class of very nice children. I had some part breed Indians and some with a mixture of Negro and Chinese, but in 1923 race differences posed no problem –they were different colors but basically they were children seeking knowledge and were treated exactly as were the white children.

My diary makes me appear to be very frivolous and gay and I did have a good time nearly always and I hope put earnest effort into my work. At the time I felt that I worked very hard and I’ve lived to see some of my pupils grow into successful lives so perhaps I didn’t do too poorly.

Editor’s note: Helen Odell Dewey’s son, Donald Dewey, was kind enough to share his mother’s story and photos with us. Helen’s career as a teacher took her to several small communities throughout eastern Washington, ending in Portland, Ore., where she remained a substitute teacher as she neared the age of 70. The complete transcript of Helen’s journal is stored in the Special Collections at EWU’s JFK Library. It ends with a note from her daughter, Joy, regarding Helen’s death in March 1969.

YOUR TURN is a reoccurring feature giving Eastern alumni the opportunity to share their thoughts, opinions, musings and stories. Readers are welcome to submit original essays of 1,000 words for consideration. Send to Eastern magazine, or 300 Showalter Hall, Cheney, WA 99004.


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