Category Archives: College

Tragedy, the Orphanage and Clyde.

Well hello there!  Hope you’re having a great week.    In my last post I shared Part One of “Talking with Grandma.”  You may recall that as a child she lived on a farm in Ohio with her parents and two younger sisters.  Life wasn’t easy, but it gets even worse as she approaches adolescence.  Here’s Part Two of Grandma’s three-part story.  Enjoy.

October, 2010.

I was down from L.A. to visit Grandma each day while Uncle Steve and Aunt Susan took a well deserved vacation.  To pass the time, Grandma and I were going through a box of old photos stored for decades in her back bedroom closet.  The day before, Grandma had surprised me with her candor about her early childhood.  Some of what she shared I’d never heard.

I’m glad she’s opening up, I thought.  Especially since she’s getting up in years– her 98th is in a few months.

I had also noticed some changes in Grandma.  Sometimes she repeated stories and asked me the same questions about my kids.  Uncle Steve had mentioned signs of dementia.   To me,  because her childhood memories were so vivid, the dementia didn’t seem too pronounced.  I hoped she would be up for more reminiscing.

I got to the house about 1 p.m and turned the key in the front door.

“Hi Grandma, I’m here,” I called as I walked inside.

She didn’t respond.  My heart started to pound.  I peered around the wall of the family room.  Grandma was lying on the sofa, her deep blue eyes barely open.  Whew, she was alive awake.   I walked over and gave her a kiss, then picked up a half-empty glass of cranberry juice on the coffee table.

“Oh hi, Honey,” Grandma said, her voice cracking and barely audible.

“I’m making you some lunch, Grandma.”

“Cheri, I’m not hungry.”

“I know.  But you need some food to nourish your body, and calories for energy.”

I went into the kitchen, re-filled her cranberry juice and assembled a plate of cold red grapes, extra sharp cheese and  water crackers.  I grabbed an Ensure from the fridge and poured it into a glass.  I took a whiff;  it smelled like SlimFast on steroids.   I topped off the creamy drink with a splash of Brandy from the bottle on the counter.

“The Brandy cuts the sweetness,” Grandma had once confided in me.

I topped the mixture with a sprinkle of nutmeg and stuck in a straw, and brought the lunch into the family room.  Grandma was sitting up now.

“Here you go, Gram.”  I held the Ensure in front of her.  She grabbed the glass and took a big sip.

“Mmm, tastes good today,” she said.

I plopped into the boxy tweed chair next to the Davenport.  As Grandma bit into a cracker I pulled the box of photos closer.

“Ready to go through some more pictures?” I asked.

“Okay, honey.”

That was easy.

I pulled out a black and white photo of several people.

“Who are these people?” I asked.

“That’s my mother’s family, during a visit to our farm.”

I peered more closely at the picture.  Several women and girls were wearing white dresses and standing next to a man in a black suit.   I pointed to each person and Grandma rattled off their names.  I grabbed a pen and wrote the names on the back of the photo.

Helen Norman, far left, with her mother's family.

“How old were you in this picture, Grandma?”

“About nine.”

“So it was 1922 or so,” I calculated. “You told me yesterday your mom was teaching you to cook?”

“Yes, about the same time as this picture.  But we didn’t get very far.”

“How come?”

“Because the United States was in the middle of a flu epidemic and my mother caught the flu.  She couldn’t shake the illness and it got worse and turned into pneumonia.   She was always coughing.   She’d get better, but then the pneumonia would come back.  The third time she got pneumonia, she died.”

Grandma’s eyes brimmed with tears, and I grabbed her hand.  Seeing her sad made me tear up too.  Her skin was papery thin and I could feel the bones of her fingers.   We sat together, in silence for a moment.  I understood the pain Grandma was feeling.  Even though it had happened eighty-nine years before, I was sure the memory of her mother’s death was still vivid, because my mother had also died when I was a child, and the details were etched in my mind, forever.

“Tell me about that day, Grandma.”

“I was nine, my sister Margaret was five, and Pauline was three.  They put my mother’s body in our front parlor.  White lilies surrounded her.”

“I always thought that was strange, displaying people in their parlors after they died.”

“Yes, a lot of people came to pay their respects.   But what I remember most is the smell of those flowers.  To this day I can’t stand lilies.”

“What happened then, Grandma?”

“My father had a tough time raising us.  We girls became a problem for him.”

“How so?” I asked.

Grandma paused and sighed.  I looked at her, and gave her a pleading grin.   She smirked in surrender and continued. “We would go downtown and shop-lift from the stores.”

I gasped.   I covered my mouth with my hand to stifle a giggle.

“Wow Grandma, you don’t seem the type,” I said, shocked.  But I appreciated her openness.

“And the shop-lifting wasn’t all,” she confided.

Good, she’s on a roll, I thought.  “Go on.”

“One time we visited a relative with indoor plumbing,” she said.  “And filled their upstairs bathtub with water.   The tub overflowed and caused a lot of water damage.”

I nodded.  “Yeah, you were handfuls alright.”

Grandma shrugged and nodded.

“My father was furious.  He sent me to live with an aunt.  But times were tough and my aunt couldn’t afford to feed and clothe me.  Three years later my aunts convinced my dad to send us to the Oesterlen Home, an orphanage in Springfield, Ohio.”

“Wow.  How old were you?”


The Orphanage

“What was it like there, Grandma?” I asked.

“They had a bus that took us to school,  so I didn’t have to walk the five miles there and back anymore.   But I hated to arrive at school because “Oesterlen Home” was written on the side and the other kids would yell ‘It’s the orphans!’   I didn’t want to get off the bus.  I felt ashamed because they thought we were poor and abandoned.

“Did you feel poor and abandoned, Grandma?”

“No.  The Orphan’s Home wasn’t too bad.”

“Really,” I said, surprised.  When I thought of orphanages I envisioned the classic Dickens scenario of barefoot children forced into labor under freezing conditions with little to eat.

“I met your Grandpa Clyde there.  His mother died when he was young too, of tuberculosis.  He was one of eight kids, three girls and five boys, and his father couldn’t handle them either.  Clyde’s sister Martha was a good friend of mine.”

Clyde Norman (center) with Helen Lowry (right) and a friend, left.

“How did you and Grandpa Clyde meet?”  I asked.

“We met in the basement during chores.  He worked in wood shop with the older boys fixing desks and chairs and things.   I worked across the hall with the older girls making peanut butter sandwiches.

“For how many kids?”

“About a hundred.”

“Wow.  You made a hundred sandwiches, every day.”   And I thought it was tiresome to make dinner for three every night.

“Somehow Clyde and I met.  I think I brought him a sandwich.”

Dating Life

Grandma went on to describe their courtship.

“We never went on dates, because the boys weren’t allowed to see the girls.”

“That’s strict,” I said.

“Yes.  The closest thing we had to a date was on the bus.  The Orphan’s Home took us Christmas Caroling and Clyde shared my bus seat.   He held my hand.”

“That’s sweet, Grandma.”

“Well, Clyde didn’t let the rules get in the way of us seeing each other. He’d sneak out of the boy’s dorm at night and climb to my windowsill on the 2nd story of the girl’s dorm.  That was how we got to know each other.”

 No Proposal

The late night windowsill “dates” eventually led to marriage.

“I don’t remember a proposal,” Grandma said.  We both received academic scholarships to Wittenberg University in Springfield.  I got a teaching degree and Clyde went on to medical school at Ohio State.   He lived in Columbus and I lived in Springfield and we wanted to be together so we decided to get married.

“Gosh, you both got full scholarships.  It’s impressive how you and Grandpa thrived at the orphanage after enduring tough childhoods.”

“I never thought of it like that.  We just made the best of our situations.”

I liked Grandma’s attitude.

I gave her a hug.  “What was your wedding like?”

“In those days few people had weddings, Cheri,” she said.  “It was 1932, during the Depression.”

“Did you wear a wedding dress, at least?”

“No.  We just went to a Justice of the Peace, and afterwards I moved into Clyde’s studio apartment.  I worked as a bookkeeper to support us while he was in medical school.  Clyde was intelligent and a good student.  That was why I was attracted to him.”

“How long were you married, Grandma?”

“Forty years, until he died in 1972.”

Helen’s Secret to a Successful Marriage

“So what was your secret to your long marriage?” I asked.

“Patience,” she said.  “To put up with someone with different interests.  Clyde ruled the roost.  We did whatever he wanted to do.”

I thought about that.  If letting your husband make all decisions was the secret to a long marriage, then it was a miracle mine had lasted over twenty years.

“What did you like best about Grandpa Clyde?”

She paused a moment.  “There was one particular quality.”

“Yes?” I prodded.

“He was reliable.   He followed through on his promises.  That was important because even though life was difficult I knew I could depend on Clyde.”

It was a good thing Helen and Clyde had each other to rely on,  I thought.   Because more tough times were on their way.


 Coming up in “Talking with Grandma.”  Raising Three Children.

A memorial service will be held at Fort Rosecrans cemetery for both Helen and her daughter, Carol, who will be reunited with her immediate family, on Friday, March 9, 2012 at 9:45 am, at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma, San Diego, followed by a Celebration of Life reception.

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Filed under College, Cooking, Diet, Family, Grandparents, Happiness, Life, Marriage, Parenting, Parents, School, Time

Ben Gibbs: The School Years and a Fluke Career Decision.

Today’s post is a little longer than usual, but I think you’ll enjoy reading about Dad’s school years and his career decision, as part of the Grandparents Series in At Home with Cheri.

As a young boy, Ben (Lucky) walked two miles to Grantville elementary school. Three teachers taught all six grades, with two grades in each room. Mrs. Bender taught 1st and 2nd, Miss Ritchie 3rd and 4th, and Mrs. Ellis 5th and 6th. Mrs. Ellis was also the school principal. Each class had 30-40 kids. If the students didn’t do their work, or didn’t pay attention, the teachers would occasionally rap their knuckles. “We often went to school barefooted. Sometimes red ants would crawl over our feet and bite us– that hurt!”

But the teachers’ discipline and devotion paid off.  Eventually Ben and his fellow students graduated to schools in the downtown San Diego area. The students from Ben’s small school excelled. Because of this, he feels strongly about today’s education system. “We need more good teachers and less administration.”

Ben’s creative skills earned him a mention in the local newspaper. “In junior high school wood and sheet-metal shops I built three little sail boats and raced them in a model yacht regatta. My sailboats won first, second and third. One won for how it was built, and the other two won for speed.

A popular kid, Ben was elected Junior Class Vice President. And his long hair got him voted “Best Hair” in junior high. It was the 1950s, and boys used to wear “pompadours and greasy stuff on their hair. First it was Fitch Jelly, then Bryllcreem, with the slogan ‘a little dab’ll do ya.’ But right after the yearbook came out, I got a butch.”

Here’s Ben around the age of 17, 1953.



Ben was active in sports. He was elected commissioner of boys’ athletics for his high school. In junior high he had enjoyed softball, football and track. In high school, basketball was his favorite sport. He was too small for first string varsity, so played on the B team. “My strongest skill was being able to shoot long set shots, now called 3 pointers. I was elected ‘Most Valuable Player’ and Team Captain for the Hoover High B team. I think we came in last in the league, but nevertheless the San Diego sportswriters named me to the all city team, probably out of sympathy for Hoover High.”


Ben attended Sunday school, and he remembers Mrs. Barker’s class. Sunday school caused some consternation which he still struggles with. “Mrs. Barker was quite a fundamentalist. She taught that Jesus was going to come and those of us who weren’t saved would be left behind. Believing friends would be gathered up into the clouds, but questioners wouldn’t get to go. This made me feel guilty and fearful. The teachers would say ‘you’ll know if you’re saved. All you have to do is accept Jesus Christ as your savior.’ I tried, but didn’t have the rapture experience that some of the kids reported. I think some kids pretended, and the others may have been under the spell of mass psychology.” One summer, Ben attended a church summer camp. “During campfire everyone went down in front to get saved, including me. But now I look back upon it with some suspicion that I was under the influence of the crowd. I still have trouble with people who are touchy-feely about their religion and totally lacking in questions.”


After high school,  Ben went to college at UC Berkeley. It was there he decided to pursue medicine as a career. He had not grown up wanting to be a doctor. It was a fluke decision that would shape his life, and he remembers it happened like this: As a freshman at Cal he stood on the lawn with thousands of other kids to be counseled about his major and assignment of classes. The peer counselor, a girl two or three years older than he was, asked Ben what he wanted to major in, and he said he wanted to be a Forest Ranger. She advised him not to do that, and suggested he declare Pre-Med because it was broader and would cover classes he needed to be a Forest Ranger. But Pre-Med would give him more career options.

So he took her advice and declared his major Pre-Med.

Medical School

To his surprise, during his third year at Berkeley, Ben was accepted into medical school even though he wasn’t an all-A student. He credits his success with taking a challenging course-load. He never chose the easy classes. As a co-op housing manager, he’d go to bed right after dinner and get up in the middle of the night to study so he could concentrate after the other kids were asleep. His house mates would party, but Ben wasn’t nearly as social as some kids his age. He had to focus to get good grades.  At Cal in those days, ROTC was required, and being a private pilot, Ben chose the Air Force ROTC. He took the aptitude tests for Air Force pilot cadet training, and was assured acceptance. So the acceptance to medical school at about the same time made for an interesting decision regarding his career path.

Odds of getting into medical school were about one in 14 in those days.  Odds of getting into flight training were maybe one in three. Ben chose the more challenging course of medicine, and never regretted it. But he feels that the other path, possibly resulting in an airline career, might also have been satisfying. His love of flying did not suffer. Over the years he obtained advanced pilot ratings including commercial pilot, glider, multi-engine, seaplane, flight instructor and instrument instructor ratings. He has owned several planes and has accumulated almost 5000 hours of flying experience.

I hope you enjoyed Part II of Ben Gibbs’ story. Coming Up in my next post about Ben: Career Success, Marriage and Kids


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Ben Gibbs: “I got 25 cents an hour, but only if I didn’t slough off.”

In the upcoming week I will be talking about Ben Gibbs as part of the “Grandparents Series” in At Home with Cheri. Today is Part I: Childhood.

He grew up with little money, digging ditches and working in his father’s local grocery store. A good student, he went to UC Berkeley. He wanted to be a Forest Ranger, but on the advice of a stranger he decided to major in Pre-Med instead. Eventually he became a vascular surgeon who helped streamline surgical techniques developed in the 1950’s. Cardio-vascular patients now have quicker recovery times and fewer complications, partly because of his and others’ contributions in those early years of vascular surgery. Today this 74 year-old has six children, and twelve grandchildren, two of whom are with him here:

Ben lives on a vineyard in Walla Walla, Washington, makes Cabernet Franc wine, invests in stocks, and enjoys spending time with his wife and 13 year-old daughter.

This is the story of Benjamin Franklin Gibbs, Jr.

My dad.

Benjamin Franklin Gibbs Jr. was born on Friday the 13th, 1936. Bad luck? Not to his parents. They nick named their firstborn son Lucky. All of Lucky’s extended family was in San Diego. His father’s side came from Massachusetts, where they lived for hundreds of years. They were among the first settlers of the United States, and immigrated to the Boston area from England in the 1600s for religious freedom. His mother Bee came from a long line of Swedes. Some of Lucky’s ancestors were of royal blood, but Lucky’s immediate family was not wealthy. His grandfather was a grocer, and later his dad was one too.

Lucky’s dad, Ben Sr., believed that if you worked hard you could get ahead. Bee was into art and music. Lucky takes after his parents, and became a hard worker who is also artistically inclined. He also has a sense of humor. His first childhood memory involves his sister and mom. He says, glibly, “I remember my mother nursing my sister, and my getting into bed with them and wanting to take part in that.”

Another early memory involves World War II. Lucky was five. “It was the day of the Japanese Invasion of Pearl Harbor. My mother was vacuuming and Franklin Roosevelt was talking about Pearl Harbor on the radio and she stopped vacuuming to listen. Her jaw dropped, and she said “Oh No!” Later in the war they had to ration everything. “You could only buy so much meat, food, gas, and soap. You couldn’t buy more than you needed, because everything was directed to the war effort to support the troops. After the war there was a cold war, and everyone was talking about shelters. People worried about getting bombed by Russia, and we had to get under our desks in bomb drills. There was also a tremendous prejudice against communists. They were called Reds.”

But despite the war, Ben (Lucky) had a normal childhood. His childhood heroes were Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. His favorite songs and music were by “Sons of the Pioneers.” He sang a lot, and enjoyed songs like The Sons of the Pioneer’s “Cool Water” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” He played games like cops and robbers, hide and seek, and tag. His favorite toy was a cowboy gun and he went fishing in the river with his grandfather. He looked forward to Christmas. “Santa Claus came. I remember getting an architectural drafting set with a T-square and triangles. It was my favorite gift. “

The family had lots of dogs. They had an English setter named “Lady” and a bunch of Dalmatians. “The female Dalmatian,
Chi Chi, had litters of twelve, two or three different times.” There were also a lot of animals around the yard—chickens, rabbits, horses, turkeys, geese. They were for utilitarian purposes. Lucky’s mom cooked macaroni and cheese and spaghetti, and they had family dinners. Meat came from the yard animals or they ate the older, unsalable meat from his dad’s store.

Lucky helped at the store. About 4:30 or 5:00 on some mornings he and his dad would get in the Model B pickup truck and go downtown to stock up on produce. He helped stock the shelves. The oldest food would go forward and the freshest food went behind. He sorted pop bottles for redemption. During profitable times he got paid. “I got up to 25 cents an hour for working in the store, but only if I didn’t slough off. My dad taught that you did an hour’s work for an hour’s pay.” He also did chores around the house, for which he sometimes received a meager allowance. “I had to weed the garden, water and feed the rabbits, water and feed the chickens, feed the goats, and feed the turkeys. At age eight I got a used bicycle that my dad bought for $20 and painted. I rode that bike for many years and used it through my teens for a paper route and personal transportation. Later I earned money for flying lessons and college by digging ditches.”

Coming Up in my next post: Ben Gibbs– The School Years.


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Grandma Helen. The Orphanage and Clyde.

In my last post, I talk about Grandma Helen’s Early Years as part of “The Grandparent’s Series” in this blog, which I am doing throughout the month of March. Today I talk about the next phase in Helen’s life: “The Orphanage and Clyde.”

Helen was just beginning to learn cooking skills from her mom. But a tragedy occurred that would stop the lessons in their tracks and unalterably change Helen’s life.

The United States was in the midst of a terrible flu epidemic. Helen’s mother Elsie Marie caught the flu, and then pneumonia. Elsie died in 1922. Helen was nine, sister Margaret was five, and sister Pauline was three.

This is Elsie Marie Johnson holding Helen.

“I remember my mother being surrounded by white lilies after she died. I hated the smell. To this day I can’t stand lilies.” Three little girls were too much for Homer Lowry to handle, so Helen lived with an aunt for a few years. But at the age of twelve, Helen– and her sisters– were sent to the Oesterlen Home, an orphanage in Springfield, Ohio.

The Orphanage

The orphan’s home “wasn’t too bad,” Helen says. They provided a bus to take her to and from school, so she didn’t have to walk five miles to and from school anymore. And it was at the orphan’s home that she met Clyde Norman. “Clyde’s mother died when he was young. There were eight kids in his family, three girls and five boys. Martha, his sister, was in the orphan’s home too; she was a good friend of mine.” Clyde and Helen met in the orphanage’s basement. “The older girls would make peanut butter sandwiches for all the kids in one room, and the older boys were in wood shop in another room. Somehow or another we met each other.”

Dating Life

Clyde and Helen never went on dates, because the boys weren’t allowed to see the girls. “The closest thing to a date was one year on Christmas,” she says. “The orphan’s home took us on a bus to go caroling. On the bus Clyde held my hand.” But Clyde didn’t let the orphan home’s rules keep him from seeing Helen. He would sneak out of the boy’s dorm and climb to the 2nd story of the girl’s dorm and sit on her windowsill. “That was our date.”

This is Clyde and Helen (middle and right) with a friend, in front of the Oesterlen House in Springfield, Ohio. 1930.

No Proposal

The late night windowsill “dates” would eventually lead to marriage. Helen says, “I don’t remember any proposal. We just decided to get married after college. Both Helen and Clyde received academic scholarships to Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.  After Wittenberg, Clyde went to medical school at Ohio State University. “He lived in Columbus and I lived with a family in Springfield and we wanted to be together. So we just decided to get married,” says Helen. They went to a Justice of the Peace, and there was no wedding dress. Helen moved into Clyde’s place, which had one room and a kitchenette, while he went to medical school. “He was a really good student.”

Helen’s Secret to a Successful Marriage

Does Helen have a secret to a successful marriage? “Patience,” she says. “You need to put up with someone who’s different. Be patient with all the things they like.” During their marriage, which lasted until Clyde’s death in 1972, Clyde “ruled the roost. Whatever he wanted to do was what we did.” She admired one particular quality: he was reliable. “You could always depend on him. If he said he’d do something he’d always do it.

That was important, “because life was difficult back then.”

Coming up in the next post: Work and Family Life.


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