"Oldies but Goodies" by Joni Stewart
It has been said that education is a journey not a destination, nowhere is that more evident than
in the life of Elizabeth Davis. Purposeful and robust throughout her fifty plus years as a teacher, Ms. Davis knows that the value of
life is in the living of it.
Her Mississippi accent, somewhat tempered over the past eighty-four years, still has the alluring lilt
and addictive drawl that any Mississippian would be proud of. She is quick to smile and to challenge.
"Do you want to know how I got here," she asks rhetorically. "Well, I was born on a plantation." So begins
the story of a southern family in the 1920's complete with servants and sharecroppers, corn and cotton, malaria and cyclones,
six brothers and one sister.
Mary Elizabeth Hill, as she was known then, graduated high school in 1929. She then attended Mississippi State
College for Women. Upon graduation she began teaching sixth grade in Jackson, Mississippi. She taught there for
ten years. "Back in those days female teachers could not get married or they would lose their jobs,"
remembers Elizabeth, "that's why there were so many old maids."
In 1937, her folks moved to El Cajon, California. "They had a small ranch where they grew lemon and orange trees, and I would come out on my
summer off to work there," she recalls. With the war years approaching, Elizabeth found herself a husband in Rueben
James Davis, and found the rules on hiring married women relaxing.
Eventually her folks met Earl Brent, a John Day resident, who traded them John Day Property for their California ranch. "I
came up a couple of times to help with vacation bible school. One summer I learned from Mr. Wishard that Prairie City
needed a high school teacher, and since I had a BA Degree they hired me," she reminisces. "Looking back, I had no idea
what I had gotten myself into."
Only this: Along with teaching teenagers English, French, and Biology, [which she had to stay up late working at to keep ahead
of her students], she was in charge of the library, was the sponsor of the Junior class [read, put on the plays and proms] plus,
the 1945-46 school year was the first year for P.E., which of course, she was required to participate in. It was the mother of all teaching
Just when the State department was beginning to become boggled at an elementary teacher teaching high school, Ms. Davis
became pregnant and they moved back to Mississippi in 1947. There she gave birth to a daughter, and then in 1953 the three moved back
to John Day to live. R.J. got a mail route and their second daughter was born here. "Before too long I needed a
job teaching; there was an opening for a fourth grade teacher, and I stayed with that for nineteen years. That's when I became
interested in Northwest history," says Elizabeth.
During her years at Humbolt, Ms. Davis, as she preferred to be called, collected, enacted and investigated all
aspects of Northwest history. "She was a wonderful hitorian; one of the first "women's libbers" and a real mentor to myself and other young
teachers," says Gene Dunn, one of Humbolt's most respected teachers.
She is remembered for her productions of Northwest life staged with friend Lorene Allen. The two would produce plays and skits re-enacting the chinese,
indian and indigenous experience. She has collected and catalogued over three hundred pictures and stories relating to Northwest history; taped many of the stories
she has heard, and has written an autobiography.
Here's an example of one such story: There was a family by the name of Keil, that K,E,I,L, who lived in Iowa. He was a minister and he was going to come
out west on the Oregon Trail. He had an eighteen year-old son who was going to drive the oxen, but the boy died right before the journey. So the
men made a coffin and put his son in it and they hit the trail. Along the way, they learned that if they brought out the deceased it
would chase the Indians off. File that under helpful travelling hints. When Elizabeth traveled by car she always kept
meticulous logs of the terrain as her own record of exploration. She would chronicle all plants and seek out the best atlas in
order to upgrade her journal.
Her folks lived out their lives here; she making jewelry, he cutting rocks. Elizabeth and RJ's children married, moved on, and blessed them with
six grandchildren. Elizabeth retired in 1976, and she lost RJ in 1984.
But, it isn't quite accurate to say she retired, because she substituted for an additional fifteen
years all over Grant County. Visiting with her today, three years after true retirement, one gets the
impression she will never stop learning and growing. Some people are just like that.
I leave her the way I found her, puzzling over the crosswords. She's looking for a four-letter word for 'travel costs' and with what she has,
the word fare won't fit. So, she will re-work it. She is seeking more than a solution,
Elizabeth Davis revels in the process.
©1998 Roxann Gess Smith
All Rights Reserved
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