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 Wrath.

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.