PHYLLIS WEYER GARRISS’ MEMOIRS OF
Family Life with “The Dean”At a family reunion in the summer of 200l the question was posed: “What do you remember the best about The Dean?” After a short pause everyone said the same thing: No one ever saw The Dean “blow up,” lose his temper, get into a rage, or raise his voice. We don’t know where or how he vented his feelings, but he never had a shouting match or even raised his voice. He just disappeared. The one and only disparaging comment I remember was in a traffic situation where father called the person in the other car a “pantywaist” – a term my sister Dorothy had earlier used. Even though the car windows were up I remember hoping father’s voice wouldn’t carry.
Father represented the model Victorian gentleman that his mother brought him up to be. He always wore a hat – and tipped his hat to show respect. He was always courteous; he never used profanity; he pulled the chair out for mother at the table; and he always respected everyone as a person (even a student who swore at him once in our house and told father that he didn’t know anything about LIFE!)
Father had an upbeat approach to all situations. I never knew him to be vindictive, even when he could have been. What made him so special, I have discovered since leaving home, is that he was the same at home as he was away from home – always courteous and respectful and helpful. I never heard him scream at mother or any of us children. He never downgraded us or told us we couldn’t try something because we were girls.
Father and mother were a team, and much as we tried to play one against another – when we wanted to go some place or buy something – they would always respond: we’ll have to see what your mother/father thinks about this. We would be given the verdict as a united result.
Dorothy wanted to join Job’s Daughters but mother felt some of the girls who were members at that time were too sophisticated for her – Dorothy was younger in years than her classmates because she had skipped a grade. So Dorothy was told to wait a couple of years.
Father and mother were very protective of us, for our physical safety. They would never let us go anywhere by ourselves after dark. Father always drove us there and back. Even when father had meetings he would leave to pick us up and take us home (and usually, he filled the car with other children so they wouldn’t have to walk home alone, either). At noon father would meet us and bring us home for lunch, again filling the car up with neighborhood youngsters.
Father and mother did the housework together. As the youngest of five children, father was taught to help his mother in the house while his brothers “rode range” and did the chores on the ranch. He rode range as he grew older but also continued to help in the house.
When I was a child, I remember hearing father rise as soon as the 6:00 alarm went off. As soon as the alarm rang, his feet hit the floor and soon I’d hear the rattling of the furnace as the previous night’s ashes were shaken down and the new fire would be started. Mother would get up and they both would do the laundry in the basement in a Maytag that lasted for fifty years. Both mother and dad took pride in having the whitest laundry on the block and having it out on the line earlier than anyone else. By 7:30 father would have bathed and be ready for school and the house would be warmed up. We didn’t get a gas furnace until I was in Junior High School.
Father ironed his own shirts, and on occasion helped press our clothes when we needed an extra hand. Father had a wonderful way of saying, “I’ll let you help dry the dishes,” when anyone else would have said, “Dry the dishes.” Twice a year father would remind us that on the next Saturday we would be spending the morning waxing our floors. It was quite a project, on hands and knees, with each of us doing our own rooms and then sitting on old towels and sliding across the floor to get the wood shining. Our stairs were never carpeted, so they had a lot of wear and tear. If we were to be out of the house for a day – that is, going to Lincoln – father would wait until we were in the car and then he would varnish the steps, wash his hands in the basement, and we would be off.
Father enjoyed helping us cook popcorn, seven-minute frosting, peanut brittle, and helping mother make steamed Christmas puddings. It was an all-day project to make suet pudding. When the batter was too heavy for mother to turn, father then took over. I still remember the coffee cans they collected so they could put the batter in to steam for their suet pudding.
Every Saturday night father would sit in a rocking chair in the middle of the kitchen floor, directly under the big florescent light, so he could prepare his Sunday School lesson for the next day. When he finished his preparation he would line us up on the basement steps and would polish our only pairs of shoes so we would be ready for church. Mother would have us take our baths, shampoo our hair, and put curlers in so we would have our curls for the next day.
Father was always resourceful. When my nephews were to be in my wedding party, we realized they didn’t have black shoes to wear with the miniature tuxedos we had rented from Lincoln. Father simply took their tennis shoes to the basement and applied black shoe polish on them. Nobody knew the difference.
The only hobby father had, aside from reading and helping around the house, was refinishing some furniture he had acquired from the Ranch. He checked with the people in the shop at the College, took the tables to the mill to get the leaves planed, and then had many conversations with paint clerks and amateur antique restorers regarding formulas for finishes – so many parts of linseed oil to whatever. The two tables and the old five-drawer chest turned out beautifully. I am the lucky recipient of the little table he had rescued from under the milk cans on the porch at the ranch. Mother and father used that table for their silver service in our dining room at 503 East Sixth Street for forty years. The furniture had all been made from Iowa black walnut trees cut from his mother’s childhood homestead.
I recall as a young child during the depression that money was scarce. Father had made the motion in a faculty meeting for the faculty to go on partial salary so the College could stay afloat. (The Baptist College in Grand Island had had to close, so this was a serious consideration.) The faculty agreed to take large salary cuts and to go out into the community, taking other jobs to supplement their salaries. Additionally, father utilized his children to help with secretarial jobs that needed to be done for the school. My two sisters and I stuffed envelopes, including class schedules and other information. Father paid us a popsicle at the end of the day for our efforts.
We children did not feel deprived, but knew that mother would have a serious look on her face when the mail came and we would get the envelopes with little windows. Father never bought a new car, so he often had to take our old car to the A. H. Jones Company for minor repairs. I think father had a running account with their repair shop for years. He bought his first brand new car after he retired.
Every month, thirty dollars would go to Walt’s Music House in Lincoln because Adolph Wiser, my piano teacher at the Conservatory, had suggested to mother and father that we should get a better piano. Instruments were being repossessed so father had asked to be put on one of those lists for a grand piano. I remember being given the choice of a Steinway or a Mason and Hamlin piano. What a sacrifice that thirty dollars was, and for how many years! I don’t know, but it was never mentioned. If it was needed, it was to be.
Father had a winter suit and a summer suit, each of which had two pairs of pants. When we went to New York father went into a menswear store and asked for a suit with two pairs of pants. The clerk responded to the request with a quip reply, “We do not cater to that type of clientele.” Father was amused, not offended.
Father would never let me walk home from the Conservatory at night when I finished practicing the violin – even though it was close to 11:00 o’clock, because “it isn’t safe to come home alone in the dark.” He never complained even though his usual bedtime was 10:30.
In later years father would come home from the office, when I would let him know that some classmate was coming over for an informal date. He would come in and say “Good evening,” and then enter the conversation. He treated each lad as an equal, asking his opinion on world events or sports. I realized later that the kids really came to see him and talk with him, rather than to see me!
Father was a real “people person” and loved picking up the phone to call former students and various relatives to see how they were – he never talked long, but called just to let them know he was thinking about them.
On campus, father enjoyed sitting in his office in Ringland Hall with the door open in the early hours of the evening when students might be coming in, so they could drop in and talk with him. He loved all his “boys” and always seemed to know what was going on. I remember his saying “Is that so,” when I knew he was aware of a tricky situation – but he never let on and acted as if he were just learning about it.
When I was a student, father never brought home or discussed any school business. I was probably the least informed of all students. However, many students figured I knew about everything and they didn’t want me tattling anything to my Dad, so I never knew about any social or other infractions.
Father seemed to thrive on all the school meetings, and also his Mary Lanning Hospital committee meetings. He was proud of the relationship between the Hospital and the College.
It was fortunate that father could have a job away from Hastings when he retired. He felt it would be better to make a clean break – both for him and for his successor. He and mother very much enjoyed their year in Pakistan on a Fulbright Grant and also the opportunity of traveling to India and Peshawar, where they bumped into Gretchen and Hal Lainson in a little shop in Peshawar.
The last ten years of father’s teaching were spent in North Carolina. He reveled in being in an academic teaching atmosphere again, and had a tremendous respect for the school which had been a junior college but was now becoming a four-year school, and finally a large university. It was a mutually enriching experience for both him and the school. Needless to say, my family was delighted to have our children within an hour’s distance from their grandparents.
Hastings College had been father’s life, and he was thrilled to return to Hastings after he retired from Campbell College when he was eighty-one years old. He appreciated the fact that he was invited to various Hastings College functions, and even had a special chair set aside for him to attend basketball games. He enjoyed seeing Dorothy and Tom’s children grow up, and he felt most happy with the selection of Tom Reeves as College President. Father was a great dad and yes, he was a very special person.
A Story I Heard Told About My Father
In recollection of the stories of my father’s early years, it is easy to see where his drive, determination, and values were shaped. Some of the stories that I remember hearing about father as I was growing up include the one about his one and only appearance on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. When extras were needed the students at Columbia University were asked to come help out. In those days they were not called “extras,” but “supernumeraries.” A call was sent one morning for a young man of a certain height and weight and size for a non-singing part in Aida. Father answered and was told to hurry over to the Met where he was given a costume and a big palm fan. Every time Caruso came on stage father was behind him carrying the tall palm fan. We always spoke of father’s debut with Caruso at the Met! Unfortunately, mother wasn’t home when he received the call and so missed the opportunity of seeing his debut.
“The Dean’s” Early Childhood and Family
As the youngest of five children father helped his mother do the housework — mostly bouncing on the beds as she was working in the bedrooms. One time he bounced off and fell on the edge of a metal dustpan, cutting his leg. Grandmother washed his cut, put liniment on it and a bandage. Unfortunately, he continued to play out in the barn and developed a serious infection. When his parents realized how badly off he was, they took him to a doctor who discovered that the maggots from the barn had gotten into his cut and had eaten the infection that had gone all the way to the bone.
Another time, when he was about eight or nine, he was on a farm wagon out on the range and jumped off before he was given the okay to do so. He jumped into a nest of rattlesnakes. As soon as he was aware of where he had jumped, he was lucky to be able to scramble out amid a tremendous whirring and thrashing of sounds. He always looked carefully after that.
Father’s first day at school was memorable. It began with eager anticipation and ended quite differently. In his excitement, he was spanked by the strict teacher for making too much noise. His response was to reach up and pull her nose! He was expelled and not allowed to return until the following year. At that point, father determined that educators need to teach children, not just their subject matter. His enthusiasm could have been used positive if only it had been guided in the right direction. This incident became one of the most driving forces in his pursuit of a career.
When father went to high school after he finished grade school at Buffalo Flats, he had to ride many miles into Long Pine on horseback. One of the townspeople told a friend that he could set his watch by father’s arrival every morning. Long Pine had only eleven grades, so father had to go to Doane Academy to finish the twelfth grade. He probably would have stayed to finish college there, but his cousin (who was the new minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Hastings), invited him to come to stay with his family so that he could attend Hastings College.
Father had a very “carrying” voice and we often joked that he did not need to pay any long distance bills because people could hear him in the next county. I always felt he could probably have had an excellent singing voice if had he had any vocal training.
My grandmother was a dynamo, and a most supportive mother. She never went to bed until father had completed his homework. She would crochet or mend clothes, but never left him until he had finished. We later found out that she had never gone to school and was illiterate. She had lost her mother, who died in childbirth, and her father had remarried. Consequently, my grandmother became the caretaker of all the new babies. Her new stepmother would annually tell her that she could go to school the next year, but that she was needed around the house this year. Grandmother told my mother that she would hide behind the curtains crying, while she watched her stepbrothers and sisters going off to school and she had to stay home. Tragically, she was never given the opportunity to go to school. After grandmother was married, my grandfather taught her how to write her name so she could sign checks. She vowed that her children would be given the opportunity of getting not only a secondary education but also of going off to college.
Father’s next older brother became a physician with a large practice in Ogallala, Nebraska. The still older brothers kept up the ranch, and his oldest sibling, a girl, attended the University but only for one year, much to grandmother’s dismay, because she had fallen in love with the hired man at the ranch and wanted to get married. One of father’s older brothers had had scarlet fever when he was a child, sustaining such a severe fever that he never recovered mentally. He remained an eight- or nine-year old mentally, but had a tremendous affinity for animals, and was able to take care of them better than anyone else on the ranch. The ranch money came from the sale of mules to the government. In those days the army used mules for transporting supplies.
The changes that have occurred in over a hundred years are staggering, but the underlying character traits that sustained the Weyer family will endure for years to come. It has been an honor to see the influence that my father has had on many lives.