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JF Inspiration: My Grandmother Norma, Written by My Father

Here at Jean Franklin, inspiration is in our blood. Quite literally, with this blog post in particular. Although I was never able to meet my Grandmother Norma, I can feel her spirit, strength and determination. She's an inspiration and her courage is unmatched. She embodies the Fall collection in many ways and our new trousers and chore jacket are named after her. As a single working mother in the 50s, her life wasn't easy, yet she still made choices to stand up for what she believed to be right and give back to the people around her through teaching. I hope that her story can inspire and encourage you like it has me —take it away, Dad.  

My mother grew-up on a 40 acre family farm just outside of the very small rural community of Wooster, Arkansas. A child during the 1920s, she was a teenager during the 1930s Great Depression. Her father tried a number of different small farming options in an effort to keep the farm going during those days - small crops, chickens, eggs, dairy, eventually also taking work as a government employee to keep the family afloat.

Her and her siblings swam in the creek that ran in front of their house when the water was up. Unfortunately, poisonous water moccasin snakes also frequented the creek on hot days. Amazingly no one was ever bitten.  Going into the outside storm cellar, that was dug near the old wooden front porch of their farmhouse, during the tornadoes which swing yearly through the south central states was also part of life.

Norma did well in school, had a sometimes devious sense of humor (her two older sisters were often the victims), independent-minded, strong-willed, determined, and athletic, intensely playing sports in high school including basketball and softball. (There were stories from her sisters of how she would not take anything from the “big” stars on the rival team (Greenbrier, a larger school down the road). She idolized her older brother Carlton, who taught her to shoot both a basketball and a rifle, and he was the first in the family to graduate from college. Her first great sadness and loss was her brother’s sudden and accidental auto death in the mid-1930s.

After High School
Your grandmother was hired for her first teaching job at age 17 (probably in 1933)! Another local rural community needed a teacher for it’s one-room schoolhouse and Norma’s teacher recommended her.  She had already finished her high school classes and was older than any of the students she would be teaching. This was the beginning of her life-long career as a teacher. The salary helped the family by providing another income during the Depression years. Although one of the first purchases she made, when able, was her piano. She began attending college classes to get her degree in education, but was interrupted by the end of the Depression, the start of World War II, and family move to Southern California.

World War II
Norma vividly remembered the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) which brought the U.S. fully into World War II and occurred the day before her 26th birthday. Two sisters had already moved to Southern California and one to Washington State.  Now the rest of the family, including temporarily her parents, made the move to Whittier. Wanting to be part of the war effort, and with husbands or boyfriends joining the military, Norma and at least two of her sisters found jobs in the airplane factories in the Los Angeles area.  If you have seen the “Rosie, the Riveter” icon posters, that is what your grandmother was doing in the defense factories. Her speciality was electrical wiring.

By February of 1944, Norma decided that she needed to do more. (Our Scot-Irish Patton ancestors had fought in both the Revolutionary War and Civil War.) With no brother alive to serve, she decided to enlist in the newly formed Women’s Marine Corp, recently authorized by President Roosevelt to free male Marines for overseas duty.  The motto was “Be a Marine, To Free a Marine to Flight.” The requirements were stringent and only the best female volunteers were accepted as they would have to overcome resentment, crude language and other indignities to prove they belonged. Historically, it is reported that the women Marines succeeded in winning over their detractors by exhibiting competence, self-assurance and pride. She was sent to North Carolina for training and then stationed at various Marine training bases, eventually being honorably discharged as a Corporal in San Diego in January 1946,  four months after the war had ended. While in the Marines, she continued to play on military base softball teams, normally as catcher. With her teaching background, Norma was assigned to teach Marine pilots the recognition of both enemy and “friendly” ships and airplanes (from high altitude dropping bombs on the wrong ship would not be good). Your grandmother described to me that these were the happiest, most exciting days of her life. Her name and experience is registered in the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington D.C. Since at that time the women Marines were consider limited-time “Reservists,” there was no opportunity to stay in the service. The happiness over the end of the war took a devastatingly sad turn with the death of her fiancée, who died in a jeep accident in Europe shortly before he shipped home. They had planned to wed after the war.

With her plans dramatically changed, Norma and her parents returned home to Arkansas, they to the family farm and her to finish her college education.  Like so many “service veterans,” she used her eligibility for college education through the G.I. Bill to attend Arkansas State Teachers College (now Arkansas State University in Conway). There she became the first woman in our family to earn a college degree. Her B.A. was as an English major and Music minor. She loved various music styles - classic, broadway, hymns and later Elvis playing all on the piano. She also loved to read both classic and contemporary (sometimes controversial) novels.

Next Decades - 50’s and 60’s
After college she moved back to California and found a teaching job in the Lancaster area where her sister Alyene and her husband were now living and pastoring a small church.  There she eventually met my father Leo William Olsen. They were married in December 1949. She was now 34 years old and he was 41. I was born a year later on December 5, 1950, in Conway, Arkansas.  My mother had returned home to be with her parents during my birth as my father was on the road working as a painter contractor for the growing chain of Sears Roebuck stores. We moved back to Whittier when I was about three months old.  My mother had used her other G.I. benefits to purchase a house in a new post-war subdivision of what was the old orange groves of east Whittier.

I was to be an only child. My mother would later tell me that while she was open to more children, my father was not.  Once home, my father’s constant drinking, alcoholic-related behavior, lack of concern for the well being of wife and child, and other disagreements brought the marriage to an end after four years. My mother said she refused to live and raise a child in such home conditions, even knowing that being a divorced, single mother in the early 1950s would be extremely difficult. They separated and then divorced in 1954 when I was three and a half years old. While ordered to pay child support ($50 per month at that time), he only did so for a few months, and my mother decided the fight over it was not worth it. She had her house, full custody of her child, and went out to find work as a teacher.

After the death of my grandfather Daniel Patton in 1951, my grandmother had moved back to California where four of her daughters lived, renting out the family farm.  She then moved in with us to take care of me through childhood while my mother worked. My mother’s sisters provided help also - primarily your Aunt Marylou and Uncle Andy.

Her first return to teaching was in La Habra.  Later she was hired in the Little Lake School District in Santa Fe Springs, where she spent most of her teaching career in the upper elementary grades. Initially she would work summers as a waitress in a local restaurant chain or we would go back to Arkansas where she would take more college classes for increased pay. She occasionally gave private piano lessons as she had her piano shipped to California when she had moved back.

Mother and Son

Mother and Son

Her life in these two decades was primarily work and raising a son as a single mom. We made several summer trips to Arkansas with her typically driving the distance on her own. We did not have a lot, but never wanted. Her life was not easy and was too often exhausting. My mom always insisted in taking her turn in hosting the annual family Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners even though our house was smaller than those of her three sisters living nearby. My mother taught me how to hold a bat, shoot a basketball and fire a rifle, but failed at getting me to be serious about piano lessons. She did eventually date again, but when ask to marry, she decided that there were too many similarities and warning signs to risk repeating the past. She added bowling to her list of sports, being very active in teacher recreation leagues. As a respected, experienced teacher, she became involved in the early teacher “unionization” movement in her district during the late 60s, seeing it as the only avenue to improve working conditions, fair treatment and better salaries for teachers.

She always said that attending church activities as a divorced, single mother was difficult and it was hard to fit in, perhaps even shunning. As a life-long Democrat she supported Kennedy in the 1960 presidential elections against Nixon (even though all but one other family in church, including the pastor from the pulpit, were staunch Nixon supporters - whom she knew to be a dishonest liar long before Watergate).

During my high school years, she supported and encouraged me in both academics and sports. Sometimes the encouragement in the midst of frustration as the single parent of a teenager had to take the pointed form of  “don’t act like an imbecile, you are much smarter than that!”

Other points your grandmother clearly made with me during my teen years included:

  • You are to show respect to all people and races
  • Care about the poor and working people
  • Always show respect to women
  • Don’t be afraid to stand-up (and speak out) for what you believe to be true and right

As the 1970s started and I began my college life, her health continued to become more of an going issue.  Eventually cancer was diagnosed. Your grandmother went through all the typical treatments of the day - surgery followed by painful radiation treatments. The cancer was pronounced “gone” by her doctor. She began to make plans for “early” retirement when she was financially able and returning to Arkansas to build a home on her share of the family farm.  By then I had met your mother at college, we dated, and were engaged to be married after both our college graduations. My mom came to Wasco to meet your mother’s family (your other future grandparents) and for the official engagement announcement dinner. I graduated from college in June, 1973, with my mother (and your mom) in attendance. Aunt Marylou would tell me later that was the proudest day of my mother’s life to see the son she had raised on her own graduate from college.

By July, the cancer was back with a vengeance.  We took her to Scripps Hospital and later Scripps Clinic in La Jolla (San Diego) for surgery and treatment.  However, the cancer had spread throughout her body. The surgeon said there was nothing that could be done and she had less than three weeks to live. Strong-willed and determined, she fought and lived for another three months, waiting for a possible experimental drug study, but finally losing to the cancer’s complications on October 3, 1973. The turnout at her funeral in Whittier from her education colleagues to honor her was amazing. We took her back to Arkansas where she had wished to be buried next to her brother in a Conway cemetery, following a second service in the little church in Wooster where she grew up.

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