A favorite photo? Mom goes to college

In this week’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” theme, Amy Johnson Crow asks participants to share a favorite photo. When I saw the entire list of the themes a few weeks ago, I started thinking about this one in particular. And I kept thinking. And I’m still thinking about it now—I have so many photos to choose from! But, there is no right answer to this or any of the prompts, so here it is, my favorite photo (one of them).

This is my mother, Sarah, in the fall of 1956, either going off to college for the first time, or maybe returning from first semester, or leaving home for the rest of term. The text written around the photo, which is in her handwriting, reads “Fall 1956” across the top, and “freshman in college” along the bottom.

She did indeed start college in Fall 1956, at the age of 17!

I think this was taken at her house. At the time, she lived with her parents and siblings in Carmi, Illinois, where her father had a job, even though for most of her life the family lived in Texas. Apparently, my grandfather knew someone who worked at Southern Illinois University, in nearby Carbondale, so he was able to help her get a work-study job in some office there.

So, she went to college at SIU and it was there, the next year, that she met my father, a Chicago native who had spent his freshman year wantonly at the University of Colorado, Boulder. When, as he put it, he was asked by CU to not return for another year, his dad offered him two choices: pick up a shovel or pick up a rifle. My dad wished to do neither, and begged his father for another chance, who relented on the condition that he go to college in Illinois. SIU was as far away from Chicago as any Illinois state school could be, so there he went.

So, the photo: what I love about it is the joy on my mother’s face. In many photos from this era and later, her expression reflects a certain sober, serious demeanor. But here, her wide smile exudes happiness and, I think, confidence. Perhaps also pride, for she was the oldest child of her parents, and the first of her family to go to college. She wears a stylish, cuffed coat over a long plaid skirt and warm-looking sweater. Her dark hair is short, cut with bangs. In her right hand she carries a small, plain suitcase, and maybe an umbrella (or a cane) in her left. Did her father already load a steamer trunk with the rest of her belongings into the car? In any case, it’s far less stuff than I hauled to college on Braniff Airlines, and I had a steamer trunk shipped to campus.

This photo of my teenaged mother heading off to college or returning, whether or not for the first time, is, for me, all about possibility and hope in the future.

— Fred Dews

For Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 3, Favorite Photo.

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