Part 2 – Some Notes on the Extraordinary Life of Clarice Dunn


Welcome back to the continuation of the story I began last week. If you missed it here’s a link to Part 1. That segment of the story ended in the fall of 1942 with Clarice making her way to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. Here’s the rest of her story.IMG_6578.JPGIMG_1661.JPG

Upon arriving in Cody, Wyoming after several days of travel, Clarice looked for a way to complete the journey to the Relocation Center. When she asked a clerk at the Irma Hotel in Cody how to get to Heart Mountain, the clerk glared at her and said “You mean that Jap camp?” “Yes,” Clarice replied. The clerk snapped back “You can’t go there, why would you want to anyway?” “I have a job there,” Clarice explained. “Is there a bus?” The clerk then turned her back and that was the end of the conversation. Two young men tried to help her, explaining they were about to enter the military. They couldn’t understand why she wanted to teach there, her reply was, “these kids are in a tight spot. They’ve grown up in a democracy, and behind the barbed wire their faith in democracy will be shaken. They need teachers who realize this.” Thus began Clarice’s adventure at Heart Mountain and peek into her motivation for taking on this challenge.

After a couple of days, Clarice was able to catch a ride to the camp with some other War Relocation Authority employees. The conditions at the camp were less than desirable, the new buildings were covered with tar paper with little insulation and protection from wind, snow and sand. There were few textbooks, no blackboards or desks, students sat on backless benches. Clarice taught high school English, social studies and some evening adult education classes. From her verbal and written descriptions, she loved these students and they loved her because she showed them respect and trust and they her the same. There were very few books in the camp so Clarice would go to the public library in Cody to check out books. Some of the staff were very prejudiced and would only allow her to check out a few books. However, on one of her visits, she asked the librarian on duty how many books she could check out at one time, one hundred she was told. From then on, she checked out one hundred books on every visit so the kids could have books to read. All were returned. Clarice later learned the helpful librarian had lost her husband in the first days of the war in the Pacific.

Over the years, Clarice told us many stories about her time at Heart Mountain. The winter of 1942-43 was one of the coldest and harshest on record in Wyoming. The 150 bed camp hospital (there were over 10,000 detainees in this facility) was often full. Clarice was hospitalized three times with bronchitis, flu and pneumonia during her stay and was advised by the camp doctor not to return the following year even though she wanted to stay as long as needed. The doctor didn’t know if he could get her through another winter. Reluctantly, she left in April 1943 with a heartfelt sendoff by her students and their parents. After her departure, she continued to correspond with several students and they sent her news of happenings in the camp. I should mention that the remnants of the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp are now a National Historic Landmark with a well done interpretative center, it’s on my bucket list to visit someday soon.

Clarice returned to Washington, DC and got a job teaching English to Russians that were in the US as part of the Lend-Lease program. This program provided financial and material support to our Allies in the war effort. She then went to work for the USO (United Service Organizations) that provides services and programs to members of the US military and their families. Her first assignment was in Orange, Texas where there was a large Naval shipbuilding yard. The USO built a large hall where Clarice organized recreation and social programs. One of her stories about her time in Orange related to race relations. She organized some small social gatherings consisting of both Caucasian and African-American women. For some local folks, this was a step too far but Clarice persisted past the prejudice and racism much like she did during her time at Heart Mountain. She told us that during her time at Orange, she and some friends went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, quite the experience for a country girl from the Midwest.

In 1949 or 1950, the USO sent her to Yokohama, Japan in support of the military build up to the Korean War. There she described one of her programs at Christmas to connect homesick GI’s with Japanese orphans. At first the GI’s were hesitant and the orphans were shy but when the presents were handed out the connection was made. These young men were down on the floor playing with toy cars, trucks and dolls with these little kids, spoken Japanese going one way and English the other way yet communication was apparent.

Clarice came back to Madison sometime in 1950 or 51 where she met John Dunn in a comparative literature class at the University. John had recently returned to Madison after working as a journalist in California during and after World War II. They married in 1952 and John worked as the public information officer for the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. Early in their marriage, Clarice worked at the recently opened Veterans Hospital in Madison. Almost all the patients were recovering from tuberculosis contracted during their war time service. Since most of the patients were confined to their rooms, she organized programs such as a game mobile and a traveling library to bring games and reading material to the veterans, many who were there from all over the country. She reluctantly left that job after concerns arose about her own health due to her previous illnesses at Heart Mountain. She told us, “I never kept one job very long!” In the 1950’s and 60’s, she was an early advocate of providing education for kids with cognitive disabilities. At first, it was in-home education then she organized group vocational training for young adults so they could be an integral part of society. This training was done through the work Madison Association of Retarded Citizens and the Madison Vocational School now Madison College. Another example of her desire to help and work with those less fortunate.

In the 1970’s, Clarice worked for Professor Robert E. Gard at the University of Wisconsin-Extension, to develop a reminiscence writing contest for seniors in the state. During it’s first year between 35 and 50 entries were expected, however they received over 300! Clarice, Professor Gard, and others conducted workshops around the state to teach ordinary citizens to write about their life experiences and to promote the contest. Some of those articles were published in local and statewide papers such as The Country Today. After a few years of the contest, Clarice and her close friend, Gen Lewis, edited many of those stories into a two volume set of books titled: “We Were Children Then: Stories from the Yarns of Yesteryear Project.” Clarice talked fondly of working with Professor Gard on this project, he was a person that came up with ideas then found someone to help put them into action. He was considered a cultural icon in rural Wisconsin during his nearly forty years at the University. He created the innovative Wisconsin Idea Theatre that provided access to the finest arts throughout the state. He effectively used Wisconsin Public Radio and later Public Television to provide and promote the arts. This is the person that Clarice worked with and held in high regard.

After her return to Wisconsin, she was involved with the Madison Area Writers Workshop where she won many awards for her short stories, poetry, fiction, articles and essays. In 1978, Clarice was awarded the Women in Communications Writers Cup for her work on the Yarns of Yesteryear project. She also wrote stories for local newspapers and submitted her work to literary publications across the country. She also taught adult education classes primarily on reminiscence writing. Clarice and John loved to garden, once lived on a two acre plot of land on the edge of Madison where they raised almost all their own food and gave away what they couldn’t use. After the garden became too much for them as they aged, they moved to a house with a smaller lot but still gardened as long as they could. John passed away after an illness, if I recall correctly a stroke, that landed him in the nursing home for a few years. They never had children and only a few living relatives in the area.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this story, we got to know Clarice through our involvement in 4-H. Our club would do spring and fall yard clean up to help her stay in her home as long as possible.IMG_3367.JPG_MG_1961.JPG_MG_4514.JPGIMG_6575.JPG

After we got to know Clarice more, my Traveling Partner and I would stop by her house on a regular basis to check on her, fill her bird feeders (a source of entertainment in her later years), and take her some home cooked food. Over the years, she had a few health issues that resulted in hospitalization and rehabilitation but she always made it back home until she broke her hip for the second time. She was about 94 at the time and we called her house to let her know we were stopping by with some fresh homemade soup. When she knew we were coming, she would open the garage door to let us in. This time the door was closed and she didn’t answer the front door. In a couple of minutes, a neighbor came with a key to unlock the door, Clarice had fallen and pressed her life alert to signal for help. My Traveling Partner is a RN and made a quick assessment and was pretty sure her hip or leg was broken. We called 911, when the paramedics arrived they believed she broke her hip. We followed the ambulance to the emergency room and stayed with her until she was admitted. She was discharged for rehab and recommended that she consider moving to an assisted living facility. She happily lived there for a few years.

We would visit Clarice almost every Sunday afternoon, where we heard many more of her stories and adventures. She remembered them all even though she was a little forgetful about other things. She’d ask: “have I told you this story before?” “Yes” we would say, “but tell us again.” Clarice loved chocolate and ice cream so when the weather was nice, we’d help her into a wheelchair and push her over to the nearby McDonald’s for a hot fudge sundae. When the weather was colder, we would stop at the Dairy Queen on our way to the facility and bring her, what else, a hot fudge sundae! Between bites and licking her lips, she’d share more of her stories. The Sunday before she passed away, she wasn’t feeling well when we arrived but still managed to put away that hot fudge sundae! She died after a short illness at age 98 1/2. We were honored to know her for the last thirteen years of her life. And I’m honored to share with you a little of her story in these two blog posts.

Her legacy doesn’t end there. In the early 2000’s, Clarice donated all the papers from her time at Heart Mountain to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire library. If you are interested to see the guide to those papers click here. In the fall of 2016, an UW-Eau Claire student researched Clarice’s donated papers and wrote a paper about her time at Heart Mountain, click here to read that very nicely done paper. Clarice also wrote a paper published in the Wisconsin Academy Review, Volume 27, Number 1 (December 1980), click here to read that article that also include some photos. Just this past January, the Leader-Telegram in Eau Claire and Chippewa Valley published an article about Clarice’s time at Heart Mountain, again click here to read that article. Finally, if you want to learn more about the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, here are a couple of links to websites, National Park Service and Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.

I hope you enjoyed this story about, in my humble opinion, an extraordinary person who gave a lot of herself to help others during her long life.

Until next week, happy virtual travels!


2 thoughts on “Part 2 – Some Notes on the Extraordinary Life of Clarice Dunn

  1. Great story! I can’t believe you were able to gather such detailed information from Clarice Dunn got these two posts. I doubt I know that much about my own family. What I found especially interesting was her teaching at the WWII Japanese internment camps. What an incredible life she had. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for checking in Mike, appreciate the comments. Over the years we knew Clarice, she repeated some of the stories many times. I also knew she donated her Heart Mountain material to UW-EC so I kept deeper and deeper into her past. It was a fun story to write. Now Heart Mountain, Wyoming is on my bucket list when the virus stuff fades, maybe next year.

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