“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.
My great-aunt Fern was the last member of our California family to be born in Oklahoma. But she was never interested in John Steinbeck’s portrayal of Okies as the epitome of American workers’ struggle. We Okies, she said, are normal people — no better than the other California migrants who sent their children to the public schools where she taught.
She was right, with one caveat. Okie families sometimes had one extraordinary person who changed everyone’s trajectory. On my mother’s side, that was Fern. Before her, we were illiterate cotton pickers from eastern Oklahoma. Today we are middle-class Californians, some with college degrees.
I was happy to thank her for it on Thanksgiving. I can’t this year. She died in October at the age of 84.
Fern was the fifth of Bull and Linnie Humphrey’s five children. Her birth was good news in Okemah, Woody Guthrie’s hometown, during a time of depression and dust that forced our family to relocate to California. Fern arrived at the age of 6. The family found work in the East Highland fruit packing houses, next to Redlands, in San Bernardino County.
Fern didn’t feel welcome. When I asked her why she taught, she spoke of a teacher who had told her she was a stupid okie. Fern never wanted another student to feel this way.
She was also driven by a deep faith that did not come from her family, which was far removed from the church. At 7, she persuaded neighbors to take her to church. Fern soon carried a Bible, witnessed to the homeless of San Bernardino, and joined the Temple Baptist, which became the family gathering.
Fern graduated from Redlands High in 1956 and attended San Bernardino Valley College, where she met Donald Dewees Jr., a Pennsylvania kid, on the student council. They married in 1960.
Bull Humphrey hadn’t wanted his youngest daughter to go to college. But her brother Dale, a truck driver, hauled Sand to Cal State LA and suggested she check it out. Fern was the first in our family to graduate.
After a few years in Covina, Fern and Don—and their two boys, Donnie and Michael—returned to Redlands and bought a three-bedroom house in 1967. It would be her home for the next 51 years.
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 well-known high school football and baseball coach. She organized the Easter parades at the Redlands Bowl. She volunteered in community organizations and supported education, women and faith.
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.”
She inspired some students to become educators. Today, the teacher in Fern’s classroom at Mariposa Elementary School is Mara Comadena, who was her student in the 1970s. As a colleague, Fern advised Comadena that “Being a kindergarten teacher isn’t just about learning.”
I remember she often said, “You want kids to enjoy coming to school.”
Fern also loved school. There were no limits to her ambitions – to open the elementary school curriculum on weather, she convinced TV meteorologist “Dr. George” Fischbeck, Redlands. She taped construction paper to the underside of the students’ desks and had them lie underneath and paint upside down – to show how Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Fern retired in 2004 after 41 years as a teacher and became a missionary. She traveled to South Africa with members of her church to work with HIV-positive children.
Fern, who never quite lost her okie twang, got along well 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 favorite dish was Aunt Fern’s chocolate cake, which was made with four eggs and two knobs of butter.
It tasted good enough to make you believe in God almost as much as Fern did.
Joe Mathews co-writes the Connecting California column Zocalo public square.