Part 1 – Some Notes on the Extraordinary Life of Clarice Dunn

Hi everyone,

While we haven’t traveled since the last week of January and it’s likely travel until at least June or July will be limited, I’ve been combing my extensive archives of photos for story inspiration. A few weeks back, I posted an article about our former, now deceased neighbors, Carl and Myrtle. Here’s a link to that post in case you missed it. In that same vein, please join me for a two-part series to learn more about an extraordinary person we met by chance in 1997, Clarice Chase Dunn, and how we came to be wowed by some of the interesting and meaningful things she accomplished during her long life. IMG_3375.JPG

We met Clarice when our community 4-H Club on the west side of Madison raked her leaves and cleaned up her yard as a community service project. At that time, she was 85 and able to live independently in her ranch style home 5 or 6 blocks from our house although needed occasional help with home and yard chores. She loved having the kids come by so we started helping her out in both the spring and fall and including her in some of our club events.IMG_1656.JPG

As she aged and became more dependent on using her walker to get around, my Traveling Partner and I would stop by periodically to fill her bird feeders and bring her some freshly prepared food. It was during these times, Clarice would tell us stories about some of the interesting things she did during her life time. Fortunately, I made some notes (and found them!) during a few of our visits that are backed up stories written by Clarice and others about her life. See links to those references at the end of part two. Here’s her extraordinary story.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost ten years since our dear friend Clarice Dunn passed away at age 98 and 1/2. After getting to know her, it’s a miracle that she survived to that ripe old age. Clarice was born in the small town of Donald, located in Chippewa County in northwestern Wisconsin on February 12, 1912. She often told us that she was honored to have the same birthday as Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. She also shared many of Lincoln’s values; honesty, humility, equality, and perseverance in the face of adversity.

Clarice’s parents, Delvin and Helen Chase, were tenant sharecroppers to a couple of the local “gentleman farmers.” As Clarice described her upbringing, her father was a fun loving Irishman and her mother descended from a strict, stoic German immigrant family. This was considered a “mixed” marriage that this time, often meeting with disapproval by both families and the community. The Chase family moved off the farm after losing nearly everything they owned to a dishonest landlord. Her father then began working in a paper mill in the area where he barely made enough to pay bills and buy enough for the family to eat. Things got much better when the mill workers unionized. Clarice told us that one of her earliest memories was when she was age five, in the fall of 1918 on November 11, people were shooting guns in the air, celebrating the end of World War I. She recalled that one of her relatives, an uncle I believe, served during the war and remembered when he returned home by train, met by the community in a joyous celebration.

At first Clarice attended a little country school, where she said that if the teacher was good then it was a good place to learn, if the teacher wasn’t very good, little learning took place. She remembered that part of the teachers job was to carry drinking water from the nearest farm and to make sure the school house was warm by stoking the fire in the stove located in the middle of the room. The school was often the center of the community social life, they had basket socials as a fund raiser, talent shows, dances and card parties. Later the family moved to Eagleton, Wisconsin near Chippewa Falls where the school was now two rooms, 1st-4th grades in one room and 5th-8th in the other. This school also had indoor plumbing! No mad dashes to the cold outdoor toilet in the middle of the winter.

At some point during her later school years, Clarice developed corneal ulcers, an inflammation of the outer layer of the eye. These ulcers can either come from an injury to the eyes or from an infection. While she did receive medical care from the limited treatment options available at the time, she temporarily lost most of her sight so had to learn in school by listening to the teacher and have kids read to her from the textbooks. When she was a high school senior, she had to take algebra and geometry, she passed inspite of her disability and was the valedictorian of her graduating class. Clarice told us that three days after her high school graduation, President Franklin Roosevelt declared a bank holiday on March 6, 1933, two days after he was inaugurated. This was the height of the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn in history.

Undeterred by the lack of funds, Clarice was determined to go to college. To earn money, she worked in the hospital in Eau Claire and then as a hired girl for a local family. Her brother worked for tips as a bell hop at a hotel, sending her money when he could but lost that job during the Depression. If I recall correctly, Clarice said that he lived in the furnace room at the Eau Claire Teachers College (now UW-Eau Claire) in exchange for keeping the fire going. In the Fall of 1933, Claire walked to the Teachers College and presented herself at the Office of the President and asked to see the President, Harvey Schofield. After waiting for about an hour (she described this as the longest hour of her life!), she was ushered into Mr. Schofield’s office. Clarice blurted out that she wanted to go to college but didn’t have the $20 per semester tuition money but would work off her debt on campus. He agreed to admit her saying she was good for the money and informed his secretary who reluctantly marked her tuition as paid. It’s likely Mr. Schofield extended this offer to a number of students during this time of national crisis. Clarice also supported herself by doing light housekeeping while her parents sent food from home. In addition to working, attending classes and studying, she participated in a number of extracurricular activities such as writing for the student newspaper, acting in plays, French Club and the YWCA. When Clarice was a junior at Eau Claire, the Roosevelt administration created a program as part of the WPA called the National Youth Administration, were students could work on campus for up to 10 hours per week at the rate of 30 cents per hour thus earning $3.00 per week. This was a godsend for students like Clarice.

After graduation from Teachers College in 1937, Clarice taught high school in Arkansaw and Thorp, Wisconsin. In 1939, she moved to Madison, Wisconsin to pursue a graduate degree in teacher education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, she went to Austin, Minnesota to substitute teach for a semester at the local community college. She did this gig to earn enough money to follow her friends to Washington, DC to work on the war effort. Upon arrival in Washington, she landed a job in a settlement house, similar to a neighborhood center designed for continuing education and socialization. Later a friend suggested that she interview for a job as a teacher in one of the many Japanese Relocation Centers being built in early 1942. She was offered a job at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in north central Wyoming between Cody and Powell. Clarice took the train from Washington, DC to western Wisconsin to visit her family before traveling to Wyoming. It was there that she realized that much of the country was prejudiced against Japanese-Americans. Her family feared for her safety.

Join me next week for the continuation and conclusion of the story of this extraordinary person.

Until then, happy virtual travels!


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