The View from 100: Emmalou Olson

By Joy Conklin December 15, 2009 19:35

Emmalou with her sister, Winifred

“Mother didn’t fool around when it came to having her children,” says Emmalou Olson, recounting the story of her dramatic and premature arrival in 1910.

She was expected to appear in April, but instead chose the pre-dawn hours of February 1 – in the middle of a family vacation. Hailing from the cold of Colorado, her parents, Winifred and Howard McBroom, planned to have a balmy week on the Texas shore before taking on parenthood. They had only reached Waco when it became apparent Emmalou had other plans.

Delivered by a hastily summoned doctor, she was tiny, weighing in at less than three pounds by the hotel’s kitchen scale. She spent the first week of her life swaddled and tucked in a hotel dresser drawer.

They called her Pauline, after her mother’s brother, until Paul saw the red, wrinkled preemie and said: “That’s the ugliest baby I ever saw.” Her irate mother promptly renamed her. It never caused problems until a few years back when Emmalou tried to get a passport for a trip to Ireland. The doctor had died, the hotel had burned, no records remained: passport denied.

Emmalou and her sisters, Bobbie and Winifred, grew up on a ranch owned by their Irish-born grandfather, who came to the U.S. amid the Irish potato famine. Their father had grown up there, between Colorado Springs and Denver, and later became something of a scientist devoted to improving strains of barley and potatoes.

“I have lived through so many ages,” says Emmalou as she nears the century mark.

Her memories begin with the horse and buggy days and continue through 10 decades spanning two world wars, the Great Depression and remarkable societal and technological changes. In her lifetime, women gained the right to vote. Space travel. Civil rights. Computerization. More wars. An ever-more complex world compared to childhood days when 4-year-old Emmalou went to town with her grandmother on a shopping trip, “and with a fast-stepping horse we would go 25 miles each way in one afternoon.”

By the time she was 9, she was driving her own pony and cart, sometimes driving her sisters to the woods to play. When Emmalou started dating, Bobbie and Winnie would hide in the back of the car. As the car got rolling, stifled giggles would erupt from the backseat, to Emmalou’s great embarrassment.

Their mother had a college degree, rare for that time, and had taught kindergarten. From the ranch, she worked with the U.S. Extension Service to bring practical classes to the women of the community, and kept her daughters active in 4-H. The value she placed on education left its mark on the girls, who were schooled in one- and two-room schoolhouses. For Emmalou’s senior year, her mother sent Bobbie and Emmalou to high school in the nearest town, 15 miles away, for a better education.

At Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Emmalou majored in Greek and Latin, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. By age 20, she was teaching high school Latin and English. She taught for a year, then earned a master’s degree in education. All three McBroom girls graduated from college, a triumph in the middle of the Depression.

In 1932 Emmalou was a high school Latin teacher in Monument when she met her future husband, Mel. She was sitting on a box of fruit in the general store when someone slapped her on the back. “How are you today?” a male voice inquired. “I am very fine,” Emmalou responded a little frostily, then walked out. “I certainly didn’t know anyone who would slap me on the back,” she says. But get to know him she did. Though the Depression slowed the union, 10 years later they were married.

The newlyweds bought a little ranch near Colorado Springs and built a log house with beamed ceilings and a huge stone fireplace. Mel was a lumber man and bred Arabian horses. Emmalou taught high school until she was asked to fill in for a sixth-grade teacher. It became her favorite class, and geology and science, her favorite subjects.

Though Emmalou taught more than 1,200 children over the years, she had no children of her own. It was her sister Winnie who furnished a family for her: sons Mike and Pat, and a daughter, also named Emmalou. Their aunt was the “summer mom” for one or more of the children for years, time spent riding horses at the Colorado ranch.

“It all just flowed,” Emmalou says, reflecting on the past century, “and it was all wonderful.”

Yes, there were hard times. In the Depression, her parents lost their ranch – but at  the same time, set a vivid example on coping with adversity. “When Daddy came home from the bank with the news of the foreclosure,” she recalls, “Mother put on her new orange dress and we had a party. ‘It’s a new life,’ Mother said.  She was always determined to be happy, and she always came out on top.”

Sister Bobbie died in 1941. After Mel passed away in 1983, Emmalou moved to Jamestown. Today, the sisters live in connecting houses on Winifred’s Jamestown area ranch, and enjoy time with Winifred’s son, Pat, and his wife, Juliana, who live next door, and Pat’s sister Emmalou, who lives in Oakdale.

The elder Emmalou enjoys the sitting room Pat built for her. As she talks, her original Teddy Roosevelt teddy bear sits in a rocking chair at her side, her impressive pottery collection nearby. The sisters eat together and read together and enjoy their favorite television shows side by side.

Her sister, who became Winifred Stone in 1935, is a lifelong teacher who retired from Curtis Creek School after 25 years. She has 11 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren, and Emmalou loves them all dearly. “The love of all my family, that’s what has kept me alive,” she says.

Her thoughts of the future? Veteran English teacher that she is, she quotes Tennyson: “Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me! And may there be no moaning of the bar, when I put out to sea.”

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Joy Conklin December 15, 2009 19:35
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