Roosevelt, My Dad, and Older Students
by Dale H. Easley
Department of Natural and Applied Sciences
University of Dubuque
As a geology professor, the justification I give for talking about President
Franklin Roosevelt is that he was responsible for starting the Soil Conservation
Service, the CCC, and other programs that reduced soil loss in the U.S. However,
the real reason for discussing FDR is the honor in which he was held by my
father's family. Roosevelt was the first U.S. President that I can recall
hearing about when I was a child. On my father's side of the family, Roosevelt
was honored more regularly than motherhood, and much more often than the local
preacher. When my mother married my father, she was 19, too young at that time
to register to vote. She would tease with my paternal grandfather that she was
planning to register Republican. When she turned 21, she went to town to
register, only to find that she was registered already---as a Democrat! The
Easley family was saved from shame by my grandfather's political connections.
But what did Roosevelt do that inspired such loyalty? According to my dad,
Roosevelt gave the poor hope that things were going to get better. After the
Depression hit in 1929, unemployment, loss of homes, and hunger left many
struggling just to survive. The Grapes of Wrath (both the book and
film, but especially the book) captured the sense of loss, the injustice, the
meanness of life. Through the CCC, the WPA, and such, Roosevelt's programs
helped provide jobs and support for families that were barely getting by.
Through the introduction of Social Security, Roosevelt pushed for reducing
poverty among the elderly. Through support of unions, the working poor got a
better voice to speak out against injustice. To these were added both reform of
the banking system and creation of the Soil Conservation Service, making less
likely the future occurrence of the devastation chronicled in The Grapes of
In both The Grapes of Wrath and my family's history, farming is linked
with the Great Depression. In the summer before the Great Depression hit, my
father raised a crop of tobacco to pay for his expenses when he started high
school. After working the entire summer, he sold his crop just as the
Depression hit. After expenses, it brought one dollar. Tobacco was the cash
crop in rural North Carolina, and during the Depression my father's family lost
the farm. My grandfather began to drink, eventually dying of cirrhosis of the
liver. My Uncle James, dad's oldest brother, was able to take over payments on
the farm, but for decades afterward siblings, nieces, and nephews claimed that
Uncle James had stolen their birthright. It apparently gave them some excuse
for their own dysfunctional lives. In my father's view, the farm would have
been lost completely if it weren't for Uncle James. As it was, the old family
home was kept open to any of the family who needed a place to go. (My psychotic
uncle lived there for nearly 50 years.) Meanwhile, Uncle James stayed home on
the farm so that my dad was able to attend and graduate from high school, the
first in the family.
When Dad finished high school, jobs were not to be had in rural North Carolina.
He began raising tobacco. As soon as World War II began, my father left a crop
of tobacco standing in the field and enlisted. He served seven years, first in
the Army and then in the Army-Air Corps when it was formed. There, he learned
how to work on airplanes. After World War II, he could have gone to college on
the GI Bill. However, he thought that at 29 he was too old. Soon after the war,
several small airlines were started. He used his aircraft-mechanic skills to
land a job at Piedmont Airlines where he worked for the next 33 years. However,
as early as I can remember, dad had risen in his job as high as he could go
without an education. He used to tell me that the other guys moving up at work
were no smarter but they had the education. He wanted me to get one. He
started saving for me to go to college from the time I was born.
My first experience saving money was from earning money picking tobacco as a kid.
I saved enough to pay for an old rebuilt Pinto that I drove for 13 years. Though
today I seldom plant even a tomato, having worked in the tobacco fields is one
of the things that ties me to my father. Another tie is a belief in the value of
education. Like Dad did, I've already started a savings program for the college
education of both my little girls. It's not a huge amount, but it will be a tie
for them through me to their grandfather, whom they will never get to meet.
Perhaps it is the tie to my father that makes me happiest to be teaching at UNO.
Unlike the student body at a traditional college like Tulane, I teach where the
average age of students is 27, close to Dad's age after the army. It's where
most of our students work at least part time. And it's where, if my dad had
chosen to go to college, he might have found more people like he was.