Life History of Viola Lauper Johnson

Chapter 4

Education and Employment

Describe a typical day as a child in elementary school.

I choose to describe NOT a typical, but an [infamously] outstanding day. My entry to school began in the fall of 1919 as a six-year-old first-grader. Together with my brother Marcel, who was two years older, we trudged the three-mile distance to our school house. It was a fiercely cold winter. Snow drifts were as high as tops of the fence posts, and ice everywhere. He hustled me as best he could through snow drifts and icy places, but was unable to keep my hands in motion with all the efforts of making our way. We were bundled with caps and gloves, which proved inadequate: certainly, the going was too slow and the distance too far. Upon arrival, I was mostly numb, with frozen fingers (more than just frost-bite) and frosted toes. The alarmed teacher rubbed my hands in a pan of snow, trying to gain circulation. She kept me a distance from the potbelly wood heater, so that I would not thaw too quickly. When she felt that she could release us from her responsibility, she had brother Marc (who himself was frost-bitten) lead me homeward. Mother continued the routine of rubbing my hands in first cold, then warmth. Eventualy I overcame the numbness, but with successive days, I lost skin from the fingers as they continued a healing process. The result was that all of my fingers, particularly my thumbs, were stunted in growth. Only the little finger of each hand has remained as rather normal; the others are thicker and shorter, with difficult texture in the nails. I remember the pain and discomfort, and have always been self-conscious of the looks of my hands. Yet I am extremely grateful that a miracle prevented the loss of my hands and limbs. We were meant to survive, and this experience is another proof!

Did you have a favorite subject in school? One you dreaded?

I can say that for the most part, I enjoyed school, and made the most of my classes. I thoroughly enjoyed English Literature, having a fine teacher in high school, Sergene Benson. We learned a great deal. When asked to describe a teacher who had a great influence upon me, I would have to say it was this very teacher, Mrs. Benson. She awakened an interest and love of literature and some of the classics, including poetry. Hers was a stimulating class.

Upon my first exposure to Chemistry, I was frightened. I was intimidated by a very large and loud-sounding man teacher. I studied with all my might and conquered that class with high marks - even growing to like it so much that I desired to become a laboratory nurse, IF my opportunities had allowed it.

Describe a typical day during your high school years.

Living on the farm, ten miles from the nearest high school, we all had to be early risers in order to take the bus to school. We took turns over the wash bowl and the outside privy for our personal needs. Then, a walk of about one and one-half miles to the bus stop to catch the ONLY school bus. We must allow time for the bus was not that accurate in its time table. Sorrowfully, we missed it, as well as a day of school, all too often. After about an hour of pickups along the way, the bus arrived at Delta Union High School, which was an all-right school, drawing students from miles around in suburban farming communities. At 3:30, we had to hustle to get our seat on the bus, taking no chances of being left in the town to our own devices. During the Christmas holidays while I was a sophomore, the whole school building, with all of its contents, burned to the ground. High School then juggled a schedule with the nearby elementary - each group attending half-day sessions of school for the rest of the year.

Describe any experiences with foreign languages.

Languages were not taught in school in my day - not even in high school. My only exposure to foreign language was through my parents. My father spoke eloquent French (he was a native Swiss-Frenchman), but had not formal training in English, only self-taught. He leaned heavily on his native tongue and was persuasive in helping our mother to learn to understand much, even learning to speak to his understanding. Her own native language, Danish, was put to the background; but a few choice words were picked up, especially after 2 of my brothers, Marcel and Ralph, returned speaking the "sprog" [the Danish word for "language"] from having served missions in Denmark.

Were you ever in a drama, speech, sports, or glee club?

During my last year of high school, as part of my class, I took part in a speech contest. I received the dubious honor of being told by my class teacher that "she felt I had really won" the contest; however, the judges had awarded first prize to a son of a leading and affluencial family in Oxnard, Henry Levy. I have participated in many church dramas with enjoyment; and did sing in various choirs in my day - even a women's chorus.

Do you have a special high school or college memory?

During high school, I remember my classes of English and Chemistry with most enjoyment. The teacher for chemistry was a fierce and blustery man, and I was frightened of him. I felt that I would not survive, but through serious application and persistent work, I scored high and liked the class so much that I would have liked to become a laboratory nurse if I had ever found it possible.

English class was a wonderful world of learning. The literature has still not faded from my memory, and the poems are unforgettable. Social life was difficult. We lived ten miles from school, having to travel by bus, allowing no after school fun or participation. I was chosen to take part in an operetta, but was unable to arrange for transportation and other needs.

College was a nightmare of struggle to survive. I was working as a domestic for board and room and to augment the skimpy savings that I had hoarded during restaurant work through high school and summers. The fees were high and I felt such an urgency to work and study to make my credits aggregate as swiftly as possible. I was relieved to finish.

Tell about a graduation in your life.

I choose to remember my graduation in 1926 from the eighth grade in elementary school (I had skipped a year/grade). There were by that time only 3 in my class - myself along with 2 boys. I was valedictorian. Somehow a new dress was managed and I was helped to prepare a 'lofty' talk. The people of my Ward were very complimentary with my participation and I was made to feel quite special. We students made our own original "Year Books". The teacher took several roughly managed kodak shots, and I arranged this along with descriptions and other information in what any of you would deem a mighty primitive-looking edition.

Did you have roommates or companions? Tell about them and what learned, etc.

My husband Joe was my only roommate, a wonderful and memorable one, and I learned a great many things from him. I'm so grateful for our years together, short as they were. I had no other roommates or companions. While in college, I lived with a family, as a domestic, working for room and board. My missionary experience was as a mission aid with the California Mission, but I lived at home. Now I have a house mate in my #1 grandson, Dave Peterson. He is a wonderful person, and the experience is very nice.

Did you receive your education somewhere other than a school?

My entire life has been my education; and certainly provided much more learning in experiences than ever I learned in the classroom; however, some certain skills for the workplace came from attending to my school duties.

Describe your first paying job. What was your salary, your duties? Describe your boss.

I graduated from Woodbury University, Los Angeles, during mid-year 1933, with bookkeeping /accounting and secretarial skills, but it was full bore depression for the nation; consequently, looking for employment was wretchedly disappointing. After several weeks of trying to survive in LA, I succumbed to going home to Ventura where the family had now taken a rental house. I trudged into every establishment in that town for an interminable time, until I was finally accepted as a bookkeeper for the Hickey Brothers. One of the Hickey brothers was owner and proprietor of a hardware/household store, while another brother was a realtor and kept his office within the above mentioned store. I did work for both of them, at a starting salary of $60.00 per month. I worked hard and did work UP. I stayed there a full 3 years doing general-ledger bookkeeping, general office as well as heavy realty correspondence, and personnel work with the salesmen. They all became my friends, and the staff and owners were sorry to see me go when I moved with my family to Northern California.

What is your principal occupation, and what circumstances led to it?

In the Los Angeles College, which was the last school I attended, I was trained in Bookkeeping and General Secretarial skills. This training was quite thorough, and when I was first employed, I grew in competence, especially in the area of keeping the books. I was given responsibility early on, albeit the salary was never compatible (these were dark, depression years). After three and one-half years, I moved to Northern California, following my family, all of whom had left almost a year earlier. At length, I was employed by Breuner's Furniture and continued my accounting work in their corporate office for another 3 and one-half years until I was married. At widowhood in 1963, I was forced to re-enter the workplace. I was employed in an engineering office of a large midwestern firm called Cooper Bessemer. Being only a branch office here in San Francisco, not much real bookkeeping was required, but I did plenty of secretarial work for engineers, both technical and personal, and was in charge of the office.

[Additional memories, written in 2005]
Before marriage, in June of l940, I was employed by Breuner's as an accountant. I worked in the Central Office [in Oakland], the 6th floor of their large corporate building in an office that reported directly to the [chief financial officer] and the president of the firm. Our deadline for all monthly financial reports to be on his desk was the l7th of each month, so it was a scramble. I almost always worked overtime as well as some hours of the night at the office when that mid-month would approach.

I was extremely frightened in becoming a widow [1963]. There was much insecurity associated with this new role and reasonably so. A major factor was financial. I feared we could not possibly Ďmake ití, having two young elementary-school-age children, together with a mortgage and the rest. I went looking for full-time employment immediately and found an opening at Cooper Bessemer. Mr. J. [her name for boss, Harris A. Johnson] offered a part-time position to begin with. [This company was not completely unknown to the family; it had employed Grandmaís brother-in-law for a number of years - William Brown, husband to sister Alice.] I took it without further interviews and with no negotiation about anything. I worked a full year without one day off and became fully-needed in that office. As I look back over my foolish approach to it all, I feel I could at least discussed salary, time off, and vacation. On the other hand I was most fortunate in working for the men I did. Mr. J. never looked at me wondering how little sleep I had when my red eyes and face showed no rest along with the definite results of crying a good deal. He never looked at me critically in any way when I wore the same clothing day-in and day-out, without recognition of the seasons. He simply gave me work to do and we did do a tremendous amount of WORK.

At the beginning I did more secretary work than otherwise. I could take transcription at 120-140 wpm and, at the time, I could type a good spell at 60-70 WPM. Mr. J. liked to dictate, although he grew into the habit of doing more correspondence by using a machine into which he would record his correspondence. Later, I would transcribe it from another machine. In addition to a great amount of correspondence, for we were a branch office, we had to account most everything to the Corporate office in Columbus, Ohio [actually, Mt. Vernon, 40 miles outside Columbus]. Within a short time I was handling bids for heavy duty engines and related equipment for prospective customers; then, a formal proposal followed which had to be dickered with and often changed. These documents had to be made in multiple copies and, mind you, this was before the day of the computer with its associated conveniences. I also was responsible for the servicemenís time sheets and payroll. My duties included petty cash, all incoming and outgoing mail, and telephones calls, which were often referred to me by the Engineers. We were visited often from the Corporate Office by executives, by other salesmen, and by other specialty engineers. I was often called upon to make them welcome and comfortable with refreshments and the like.

A Company dinner was infrequently planned, as well as a usual Holiday Social Night at Mr. and Mrs. Johnsonís home in Larkspur, in Marin County. We were well fed and entertained. Drinks were the usual for all but a couple of us who didnít participate. Mr. J. was a social drinker, plus heavily into profanity and swearing. I had to live with such, although I was very grateful that neither he nor Phil Smith, another engineer who was there for a good deal of my tenure, did any smoking.

Mr. J. and I were close in age and retired within a few months of each other. The retirement age was then compulsory at 65 years, so I had to leave in April, 1978. Gene McElhattan had replaced Mr. J. for the last few months as my boss. He was very likeable and was immediately interested in my stingy retirement allotment. (Branch employees were treated mostly as step-children.) He was unsuccessful in getting the amount raised. Mr. J. regretted, belatedly, that he had not put attention at an earlier date to a deserved higher rate. That has remained as my one serious grudge against Mr. J. As a matter of history, he, Mr. J., has remained a personal friend throughout the ensuing years. He and Viv sold their Marin-county home to relocate in Seattle, Washington. He keeps in touch, regularly, with me by writing as well as by telephone. [Mr. Johnson passed away in about 2007(?). Cooper Bessemer, through mergers and acquisitions, is now Cooper Industries, headquartered in Houston, Texas.]

Would you choose differently if you could choose your occupation again?

I think I would go for Nursing - probably laboratory nursing of some kind. This was a first choice in younger days, but unfulfilled.

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