Photo: Naida Gipson, via the Humboldt Historian.


Humboldt State exploded with veterans on the G.I. Bill in the fall of 1945. Excitement filled the classrooms and hallways of Founders Hall, as enrollment more than tripled. Many of these students were not boys any longer, but men with wives and families, serious about getting an education.

The state bought homes near the school to house classes and offices. Redwood Hall, a new men’s dorm, was built. The Co-op outgrew its space and was moved to a large, gray house across the parking lot from Founders Hall. A sign over the door read “Coop” instead of “Co-op.” Vera Walters, the mother of one of the students, ran the snack bar, and made the most delicious tuna sandwiches. Her secret — a little squirt of lemon juice in the tuna.

Joe Forbes came to HSC with his football team from Compton Junior College in Southern California, a far different world from Humboldt County. Among the team members were Gordon Schroeder and Tom Viracola. They had been best friends at Iwo Jima in the South Pacific during the war, where Gordon had saved Tom’s life. They arrived with Joe and the other football players and played left guard and left tackle. They worked as a team to win. Girlfriends of some of the players tagged along from Southern California. Blonde. Tanned. Beautiful.

Dane Clark in 1946’s “Her Kind of Man.”

In the 1940s, the ultimate goal for most girls was marriage. I was the first in my group of friends to take this plunge. Tom Viracola swept me off my feet. Not only was Tom a veteran of the war in the South Pacific and a star football player, he looked like the movie star Dane Clark, with dark curly hair and big brown eyes fringed with curling eyelashes. We were married in the early fall of 1947: Tom, a 21-year-old street-wise kid from Long Branch, New Jersey; me, a quiet, small-town 19-year-old girl from Eureka.

When my mother and father were married, my grandfather told my mother, “You’ve made your bed, now you lie in it.” When my sister, Pat, got married, our father told her if she ever needed help she could come to him. My father had died the Christmas of 1944, so before Tom and I were married, my mother took Tom aside and told him the story. Tom informed me my mother had told him I had made my bed and I would have to lie in it. I carried this pain like a blister on my heel for four years. On top of that, a few days after the wedding, I realized had made a big mistake.

Housing was difficult to find right after World War II. For a month, we rented a room in Eureka and either walked a mile to catch the early bus on Harris and California Streets, caught a ride to school with friends who had a car, or hitchhiked on Highway 101. Mother didn’t like to see us living like this, so she bought a big old house on Sixth Street in Eureka, converted it into apartments, and rented us the downstairs, demonstrating her willingness to help, although I had not asked for help. From Sixth Street we could easily catch the bus on Fourth as it headed out of town.

Then, housing became available at the newly constructed married students’ housing project at the college, Humboldt Village, which was down the hill from the College Elementary School playground. We were extremely lucky to get a studio apartment. How inconsiderate, though, to go live in Arcata and leave Mother with that apartment building. But it was much better to live on campus. No more running to catch a bus. No more hitchhiking back to Eureka in the dark and the rain after late classes or a football game.

A road ran from the entry straight across the middle of the Village to a fence where there were garbage cans that were usually filled to overflowing. Four U-shaped courtyards, two on each side of the main road and outlined with wooden sidewalks, faced grass that had seen better days. Some of the buildings were long, with two two-bedroom apartments back to back in the center, and a studio apartment at each end. A few tiny one-bedroom houses edged the perimeter.

The laundry building stood in the middle of the compound, with two sets of laundry tubs and two wringer washing machines. Yards and yards of clotheslines were strung behind the building. One day all my bras were stolen, probably as a prank by some boys in a dorm. I couldn’t afford to buy new ones. I posted a notice in the laundry room asking for them to be returned, but I never saw them again.

A pay telephone booth across the road from the laundry building stood against our apartment and served the entire complex. Living next to the phone meant answering it at all hours of the day and night and running all over the Village to find the person being called.

The G.I. Bill barely provided enough to live in abject poverty. Veterans had tuition and books paid, and married vets received a living allowance around of $97 a month. I carefully budgeted $20 a week for groceries, although some married students managed on $15. But the G.I. allowance was not enough to cover food, rent and incidentals, let alone clothes.

I paid my $25 semester tuition with War Savings Bonds I had bought before the war at Marshall School on “Stamp Day.” Every week during the last year or two of elementary school, I had paid ten or twenty-five cents to buy stamps. I’d paste them in a book to redeem for a bond when the book was full. When these bonds were gone, I saved enough from my part-time job for tuition. There never was enough money to buy books, so I paid close attention in class and relied on my notes.

Tom and I both worked Saturdays and every school vacation. Sometimes Tom worked a night shift in a service station. One summer he worked the swing shift at the California Barrel Factory in Arcata. Most of the married men with children worked a full-time job as well as going to class and studying.

Some veterans had no children, but had wives who worked. Many of these lucky guys spent their afternoons hanging out in the Village drinking beer and playing cards, or tossing a football around.

At college, a dead silence would fill the room if I walked into the women’s lounge. My old friends didn’t seem to want me around. So instead, I worked, cleaned house, did laundry, studied, and went to class. Once in a while, Vicki Short (Hartman) would walk to the Village with me, and we’d share a can of soup for lunch.

Tom’s world revolved around football, so mine did, too. At the games, wives and girlfriends shivered on the bleachers in nylons, high heels, thin coats and thinner dresses while we watched our men play. Immediately after a game, we all went to a dance or a party.

Tom considered himself a ladies’ man. Since I was only on campus long enough to attend class, many students did not know he was married. That suited him just fine. One night at a football game, I heard a girl say she thought he was “so cute.” She didn’t know that his wife sat in the row behind her. By that time, I really didn’t care, but thought I had to keep my vows “for better or for worse.”

The day Tom and I were married, John “Spider” Klingenspore, a college basketball star put an 1886 silver dollar into my hand, and said, “Keep this and you’ll never be broke.” I treasured my silver dollar for three years, until one night when Tom grew restless and demanded my dollar. He wanted to go to a movie, which cost forty-five cents. He pestered me until I finally gave him the coin. He went to the movie without me.

Many wives with small children in the Village became despondent. Humboldt Village must have seemed like a squalid ghetto to them. Working mothers were just beginning to emerge from the housewife cocoon. Day care was nonexistent, unless one had a willing grandmother. But one of my friends in the Village, Betty Preston, was the exception. She loved being a homemaker and a mother.

When I met her, Betty had three little girls. She spent her days happily sewing dresses for them on her brand new Elna sewing machine, cooking, or washing down the walls of her two-bedroom apartment. Plywood sweats and becomes moldy without good care, but I don’t remember anyone else in the Village who washed walls. I do remember shoes getting moldy if they sat too long in a Village closet. Betty’s husband, Ed, held down a full-time job as a truck driver at night while going to school days. Whenever I became discouraged, I went to see Betty Preston.

Halfway through my college years, Daly Brothers, the department store in Eureka where I worked part time, offered me a full-time job in the office for $100 a month. It sounded like a million dollars. Sick of scraping along, never having anything to wear, I was tempted to take the job. But even with all the hardships, I still loved college. I decided to stay in school.

Somehow, we managed to save enough - maybe $60 — to buy a car, a 1931 Chevrolet Coupe. Tom painted the Chevy baby blue and trimmed the wooden-spoke wheels yellow. Mother gave us a new blue and yellow plaid seat cover for Christmas. I could see the pavement through a hole in the floor where a rod poked up to connect to the missing accelerator pedal. The car had to be parked on a slight hill and pushed a little bit to start. Once it was rolling, you hopped in and shifted into second gear, with the clutch in. As the car picked up speed, you let the clutch out a little until the motor caught. Later I realized we needed a new battery, but who had money for batteries?

Just before Christmas of 1949, the country was in a slight recession. Part-time work was hard to find. The G.I. Bill allowance and what I made at Daly Brothers on Saturdays wasn’t enough. Tom needed work, too. Joe Forbes had told his football players if they got into a financial hind to go see the loan officer at the Bank of America in Arcata. He had already made arrangements with the bank, just in case. We were down to our last 87 cents. No food in the cupboard. Tom had a lead on part-time work at the post office in Eureka, so he took the Chevy to apply for the job.

I walked down the hill and past the Plaza to the bank. The bank manager was very kind and loaned me $100. I don’t remember the interest rate or how long we had in which to pay it back. I was so relieved that now we could eat again, I went directly to the Safeway store and did a week’s grocery shopping, using $19.50. I couldn’t walk back up Humboldt Hill to the Village carrying all the bags by myself, so I used the rest of my food allowance for that week, fifty cents, to hire a taxi. The remaining $80 went into four separate envelopes, $60 earmarked for the next three weeks of groceries; $20 for gas and incidentals. If we ran out of something like mayonnaise, we did without until time to do the next week’s shopping.

By June of 1949,1 had earned an elementary teaching credential, but went back in the fall for student teaching at the College Elementary School. Margaret Telonicher, the wife of my zoology professor, was my supervisor. She was a wonderful teacher, a sympathetic mentor, and a caring person. Still afraid of speaking in front of a group, I froze when she told me I could take over the class. I asked to observe a little longer — and then, and a little longer.

One Sunday I was called to the Village telephone booth. Mrs. Telonicher had run a hand drill through her finger as she prepared pine cones for a Christmas wreath. I had to take over her class the next morning. Many classrooms in the College Elementary School had screened viewing rooms above the front chalkboards, entered by a separate door in the hall. People sitting in the viewing room could see the classroom, but people in the classroom could not see the person in the booth. At the time, I was so busy it did not occur to me that someone might be watching how I handled things — but now, I’m sure someone from the Education Department, maybe Mrs. Telonicher herself, was sitting up in the viewing room. I did. From that day on, I was fine. I found I loved being in charge of the classroom. I loved the children and I loved teaching. In January 1950, after completing student teaching, I was hired by the McKinleyville School District to teach a combination fourth- and fifth-grade class on an afternoon shift.

Tom graduated in June 1950. That fall, we both taught in the Whitethorn Valley near Garberville. Before that school year was over, I knew my marriage was over, too. It no longer mattered that I had promised for better or for worse. It no longer mattered that I had made my bed and had to lie in it. But it did matter that I had signed a contract for a year and could not break it if I ever wanted to teach in Humboldt County again.

Tom and I finished the school year, moved back to one of the studio apartments in the Village, and registered for summer school. He was rarely home — only to get clean clothes. We filed for a divorce. Mother asked me to move in with her, and I found out then that Tom had not told me the truth about me being able to go to her for help. My life was like a photograph album with four years of pictures missing.

Maryellen Keating (Householter) and Lola Austin (Larson) were home from nurses’ training that summer. One Saturday night, they invited me to go with them and some other girls to the Fortuna Rodeo Dance. A nice boy from Humboldt State asked me to dance. When he heard my name, he thought I was Tom’s sister — like most of the other students — although he had heard all about Tom, he didn’t know Tom was married. That nice boy was Ken Gipson. We were married two years later when he graduated from Humboldt State with a degree in business administration and majors in accounting and economics.

Humboldt State College is now Humboldt State University. Founders Hall still sits at the top of Humboldt Hill like a beacon guiding young people to a better life. The bench from the class of 1933 is still there, as is Nelson Hall, now the psychology building. The Co-op and Pop Jenkins’s workshop with the creaky wooden floors are gone. The six-cent sundae is only a memory. Humboldt Village has disappeared. Last time I was there I couldn’t remember exactly where it had been.


The story above was originally printed in the Winter 2004 issue of the Humboldt Historian, a journal of the Humboldt County Historical Society. It is reprinted here with permission. The Humboldt County Historical Society is a nonprofit organization devoted to archiving, preserving and sharing Humboldt County’s rich history. You can become a member and receive a year’s worth of new issues of The Humboldt Historian at this link.