Life here in Ames is full with gardening and plenty of napping to deal with
fuzziness in my system that is probably a reaction to
stuff in the springtime air. However, I did get time to shorten
the video that I produced in 1997 about the road I where I grew up.
The show is now 10 minutes long and short enough to post on YouTube.
Some of you may have already seen it in a 13-minute WMV file. Hopefully, by
being on YouTube, it will get more visibility. I will embed the
program here, add some thoughts about Miss Marcum, then plant onion
seedlings that I started a few weeks ago. They need to get in the
ground before they perish in the containers, which are the
bottoms of gallon milk jugs.
Recently, I did some journal-writing with the thought of editing
the material and posting a new essay. But alas, it is hard both
to write and keep up with the gardening.
Miss Marcum Some of what I
wrote was about Miss Marcum and the new appreciation I have of her now that I am signing up for Medicare.
I had thought I was nearing the
age that she was when she served as principal, librarian, Latin and English
literature teacher when I was in high school. But it turns out that
I was wrong. She was 77 years old when I graduated in 1963.
The Rolfe school had been organized with Kindergarten through
high school in one, three-story brick building until 1959, when the
district merged with the Des Moines Township school and junior high
classes were held there. So even though Miss Marcum's official role
was as a high school educator, she was an icon of authority not only
for the high school students but for those of us in the lower grades
She had taught my great aunts and uncles as well as my father,
Deane Gunderson, who was a 1935 graduate of Rolfe. They and most of
the community had high regard for her. That meant, like it or not,
I had to get along with her.
Many of us have had moments of dismay or delight when
we realized that we were taking on characteristics of our parents.
Well, I have been thinking a lot about Miss Marcum this winter and
how I may have more in common with her than I ever thought.
She was single. I am single. She had cats. I have cats.
I was not a fan of Miss Marcum. However, I remember one summer
during my high school years when I had too much time on my hands and
was lamenting that she had her favorite students. My mother, Marion
Gunderson, suggested that if I wanted to get on Miss Marcum’s good
side, I could take beef liver for her cats. And contrary to what
seems now to be good judgment, I did just that, buying a half pound of
liver at the SuperValu grocery store. I was not relaxed at all as I knocked on the door of her
Victorian house with turret. I was not relaxed as I sat in her
living room—a tidy and formal space. I was a fake,
and Miss Marcum probably saw right through me and the gift of beef
liver for her oversized Calico cat. But we were cordial, and I was
glad to be out of that mansion at the end of our conversation—superficial
as it was.
if Miss Marcum had chickens. I do have chickens. They are in my
garage. I am under the impression
that she did not have a car. I don't have a car. However, she probably didn't
have a bicycle, but I love getting about Ames with my bicycle and
trailer. She was NOT an advocate for girls sports. In fact, she most
likely preferred that the school never have girls teams. As it was, the school
did not offer girls sports until 1959, until I was a freshman, even though there
is evidence that Rolfe sported a girls basketball team in the early
part of the 20th Century. I was an ardent advocate of girls sports.
1908 RHS girls
basketball team Left to right: Vinnie Doe, Ruth Gunderson VandeSteeg, Lena Wiegman
Vaughn, Coach Stella Hoover, Anna Brinkman Vaughn, May Brinkman Caffrey,
Lucille Charlton Hall. Gunderson collection
She was disciplined and most likely a morning person, walking
the four blocks from her home to school early to be prepared ahead of everyone else. I
am neither well-disciplined nor an early riser.
She did not like the deterioration of the English language and
insisted that students say, "Yes" rather than "Yah." If alive today,
she would not like the relaxed way that I use the language but would appreciate my disdain
of words such as "veggies" and "fridge."
She was devoted to one town and one career, retiring at the age
of 80. I was an educator, too, teaching junior and senior high girls
physical education for six years. However, I have lived in different states, tried different jobs, and
lived like I was retired for a number of years. And I am only 65.
I never saw Miss Marcum in
anything but a dress. I never wear a dress, and my shoes are not at
all like her sturdy, black high heels with laces that I called "old
I dislike Miss
Marcum's authoritative style. I couldn't stand her role as
junior class advisor and how she controlled the theme for the
homecoming float and the prom. And when I look at the 1950's home
movies that Superintendent Mortensen shot and see Miss Marcum
crowning the homecoming queen, I wonder what that was all about. I
am not big on homecoming coronations, but if there is to be one, why
did an older school marm crown the queen? The thought of
"vestal virgins" enters my mind.
(If you want to see her in
action, check out the following YouTube film footage.)
Miss Marcum could be unkind and unfair. An
anonymous person from the class of 1930 wrote an
essay for this Web site
about a freshman boy, whose widowed mother was forced to leave the
farm and move to town with her children. When Miss Marcum called him
before the class to report on a theme paper:
Her criticism of him was harsh while he stood almost in
tears. Finally she told him curtly, "Take your seat!" He never
appeared in class or school again and if she noticed his
absence, she didn't acknowledge it.
Also, as high school principal, Miss Marcum was in charge of report
cards. One 1960's alumna, who was at the top of her class, claims
she ran into problems when applying to colleges. At one point, in a
discussion with an admissions officer, the student discovered that
Miss Marcum had tampered with her transcript and lowered her grades.
(click photo for
Even my brother, Charles Gunderson,
an attorney who graduated from Rolfe in 1962 and refrains from idle
gossip, says that decades ago, he heard an 80-year-old woman say that Miss Marcum
had altered the
grades of students that she did not like. Of course, a lot depends
on perspective, and it is hard to verify these kinds of claims.
Perhaps they are simply small town speculation.
Miss Marcum may have done a great job of teaching students to
diagram sentences, but I never gained a love of or aptitude for
writing from her. And she dampened many a spirit for reading when
she reprimanded anyone in English literature for reading ahead of
the assignment for the day. Admittedly, though, I never was one to
read the actual assignment—for instance, in Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities—on time
and was glad when I was able to make it to the end of the class
without being asked a question.
Miss Marcum led a classroom experiment each year in something
akin to ESP (extra sensory perception) that smacked of mysticism. I
was one of her guinea pigs and was sent outside the classroom while
the other students decided where to place a small item. When I
returned, she put a white cloth loosely around my head to serve as a blindfold.
Then she stood on my left, holding my left hand in her left hand and
putting the palm of her right hand on my upper back. A classmate
stood on my right, holding my right hand and putting his left hand
on top of her hand on my back. The three of us shuffled along, and
indeed, I found the item. It was on her desk. In one respect, the
exercise was spooky. In another, it was hokey. I found the item, not
because of some psychic connection, but because Miss Marcum was
physically leading me—albeit subtly—by the pull of my hand and
pressure on my back. Did I challenge her or laugh out loud? No. Even
I, who at times was obstreperous student, was under her spell of
authority and did not talk back to her.
But imagine her career success. She was a self-supporting,
woman and highly respected in the
community in an era (or should I say eras) in which few women were
so well-accepted and influential. No one that I knew used the
term "feminist" in Miss Marcum's era, but if the term had been in
the vernacular, I doubt if she would have identified
herself as one. Yet in many ways, she is a model of success, even if
she was not
someone I want to model my life after and even though we have some
things in common: I am
single, without car, have cats, and like to be in control when I
organize congregational meals at the Unitarian Universalist
Fellowship of Ames.
Miss Marcum was frugal. I ride a bicycle throughout the year for
in-town travel, buy my shirts at the Goodwill Store, and
occasionally engage in dumpster-diving. However, in general, I am
far from frugal.
She accumulated a lot of money
and left much of it to the Rolfe schools, to the tune of about
$150,000. The bequest was to be used for educational purposes, but
the school board used a large chunk of it to build new locker rooms
in the 1970's. I assume she would have been livid if she knew from
the grave how her funds had been used.
In looking at cameo appearances of Miss Marcum in the
1950's home movies
that Superintendent Ralph Mortensen shot, I wonder who she
really was. I know her exterior persona, for instance, when
she stood at the front of study hall, arms folded across her
chest, rocking onto the balls of her feet in those clunky
black shoes, and glaring at whoever presented a hint of
being out of line. And I recall her classroom formality when
we students were not allowed to move from our chairs, when
the bell rang at the end of class, until she said, "class,
rise and pass."
I wonder what she felt inside. Could she be herself when not
on duty, or did she have to maintain a 24-7 school persona? Did she
ever let down her hair? Did she have chums who she could be
affectionate with and share deep concerns? It probably would
have been risky for her to be close to anyone, man or woman, for fear of
rumors. But there are photos on this site, circa 1917, of my
grandmother, DeElda Gunderson, and her friends being chummy, like
holding hands, in a day when intimate friendships between women did not raise
(Photo from the Gunderson collection.)
I have even seen two photos of mock
weddings from that era with an all-woman cast. Those weddings
probably didn't mean the women in them believed in same sex
relationships. But then again, the participants were engaging in a
ritual that would make some people in this era blush.
Marcum consider marriage? The rumor was that she had been
engaged when she was a young woman, but her fiancée died in a war, and she
never dated again.
Marriage Equality In the spring of 2009, after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that
the state's ban on same sex marriage was unconstitutional, I went to a rally on
the Iowa State campus and prepared a simple YouTube video about the
decision. I feared it would be risky to post the video on this site, considering there is a wide range of
Some would be offended by the
decision and video. Some would applaud them. Finally,
though, I think it is time to provide at least
to the video. If nothing else, it is interesting to read in it the
actual words of a key part of the rationale.
Another of Miss Marcum's key roles was that of teaching the high
school boys Sunday school class at the Presbyterian Church, which
had its irony. Many people felt, that at school, she favored the
Catholic boys since they were well-versed in Latin. I grew up in her
congregation and have a Master of Divinity from a Presbyterian
seminary, but now I am a Unitarian.
teach the Bible as history and literature? Did she talk about faith
issues? Would she have appreciated a Unitarian Universalist
congregation or been disparaging of a liberal denomination even
though it has Christian origins and has included many stalwarts of
literature and founders of our country among its members?
were alive today and again in the role of senior high boys Sunday
school teacher, what would she tell her class
about the court ruling? What wisdom would she draw upon from her classical
education and personal experience as well as from the Bible? Would
she explain that one of our country's principles is the separation
of church and state and that there is a difference between religious
and civil marriage? Would she refer to the advice that is attributed
to Jesus, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and
unto God the things that are God’s.” Would she teach tolerance and a "live and
let live" attitude, or would she advocate changing the state
constitution so that people of the same gender would be denied the
opportunity to marry? My guess is that she would be a moderate
Republican who would want to restrict marriage to one man and one
woman, but she would not hound the State House to change the
In general, though, I suspect that there is little known about
who Miss Marcum really was and what she really felt. However, I must
note that John Wiegman of the class of 1946 wrote an
essay about growing up next
door to her and his affection for her. It is endearing to read his
sentence, "I also remember hearing her loving voice calling her cat,
Tommy Tucker, late at night: 'Here, Tucky-tuckytuck!'"
That said, I doubt if Miss Marcum
would have been successful if she advocated ideas contrary to
mainstream attitudes. She was no maverick nor activist. Also, expressing feelings was
not in vogue in the Rolfe area in her lifetime. And not being able to
express them can take its toll. In that regard, I feel sorry for her, if
indeed, she could not fully be herself.
Death of a chicken
I had intended to plant onions after drafting the above
material. But when I went outside, I was shocked to see that
one of my laying hens, Goldie, was lying dead in the straw of the
chicken run on the side of the garage. She had seemed vibrantly plucky in
the last few days.
I never questioned until now, several hours after discovering she
was dead, whether it was appropriate to say she was lying
peacefully. How would I ever know what she was thinking when she
made the “great transition?” How do we ever know what a pet is
thinking about life or us, their owners. As I think of it, she did
look comfortable. There was no smell, no mess, no blood, no
During high school, I raised chickens for 4-H. However, I
knew little about what I was doing with the 80 chicks that I bought
at Beckord's Hatchery in Rolfe and housed in an old shed on the farm.
There were times when
I would go to the shed and find a dead, young bird that looked unappealing
that I will not describe here. Luckily, that was not the case with
Goldie and the other four chicks that I got 11 months ago had become
my pets, or perhaps even my friends. And I have been proud to be
part of the backyard chicken movement.
I had been aware of the pros and cons of naming chickens and
treating them as pets. However, I followed the suggestion of a long-time
friend, Joy, and named my five after the chickens in Cheltenham’s Party,
a Golden Book. I had Goldie (a Buff Orpington),
Agnes (a Barred Rock), Rita Jane (a Rhode Island Red), Lacey (a Gold
Star), and Houdina (a Black Australorp.) It was intriguing to watch them overcome developmental challenges
about the dynamics among my five siblings, my parents, and me by
watching and reflecting on the interactions among the chickens.
I am reminded of an
early trauma that I accidentally inflicted on Goldie. At the time, she was
a young, fuzzy chick with a dried wad of poop on her bottom. I had
talked with Marilyn, a friend who had been the poultry adviser for her
4-H club near Roland. She said I needed to wipe the wad off soon. When I
finally got around to the task and pulled gently with a moist towel, it would
not do the job. Then I tugged. And oh my, I was shocked to see that I had pulled
off Goldie’s fanny feathers. I thought that for sure, I had created a
vulnerable patch of skin and Goldie would die of infection or shock.
But I called Marilyn, and she said not to worry. It took only
minutes, and Goldie seemed on with life.
Goldie was a gorgeous blonde with long
feathers—some that fluffed about like a yellow chiffon skirt in the wind.
Occasionally, I let my
chickens roam in the large yard for what I call "supervised field trips."
When hen I tried to catch and put them back in
the pen, they, especially my foxy Goldie, would run me in circles. Did she know I
enjoyed our game even though it was frustrating at times?
Perhaps, late this morning, there was a clue that something was
wrong. I intended to move the chickens from the
small, fenced area next to the garage to a larger pen near the
garden. It's my standard procedure, but if a chicken is in a hen
box, waiting to lay an egg, I leave her alone and move her later.
Goldie was nesting in the straw
on the ground, bathing in the sunshine next to the garage. I thought her behavior was peculiar. I even said, “Now, Goldie, don’t go
starting a new trend of laying eggs there in the straw rather than in
your laying box.” But I left her there where she could have
access, if she wanted, to the laying boxes in the garage. Later, when I finished
writing the first part of this piece, checked on the chickens, and discovered she was no longer of this
world—she was only a foot away from where I had last seen her.
I got my five
baby chicks when they were three days old at the end of last May. I got my two
cats, a mother and her grown daughter, last August.
I have often thought
about my grief when I was in fourth grade and my
dog Dandy died. She (or was it he) was a plain, rust-colored,
not-so-tall dog. When I arrived home on the school bus one day, I was told
that Dandy had followed the tractor and equipment to the field and
had been run over. I was upset but don’t remember
the details of how I expressed myself. But I do remember Mother
asking why I was more emotional about the death of a dog than
the deaths of people.
During my months of being a new pet owner, I have reflected on the
fact that, unless something tragic were to happen to me, I
would outlive my chickens and cats (Micah and Shimmer). I am not a
stranger to death, especially after Mother died 2004,
but I have gotten sentimental, thinking that my pets would
predecease me. You could call it regression–that my inner child
still has a lot of growing and healing to do in terms of losing a
dog such as Dandy.
By the way, people have asked, and I have responded that I will not butcher and eat my chickens but let them
live to old age. That decision has its own set of
I wonder what I learned about death and grief from the Rolfe
Presbyterian Church–the congregation I was raised in. I draw a blank
except to say that we were never taught about the value of knowing
our feelings and having avenues to express them.
I wonder what Miss Marcum taught her boys in Sunday school about feelings.
I also wonder what wisdom she had gleaned from
studying the classics that would apply to dealing with grief. Surely, someone who could translate and lead
class discussions on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and who was an
expert in English literature, would not be a lightweight. She often told
us, in an unsentimental tone, about how every empire in the history of the world had fallen from
power and that the same would happen to the United States. Talk about a
sobering message that we Rolfe students didn't quite believe and
certainly didn't want to hear.
I also wonder how she dealt with the death of her cats. Certainly, in
her 86 years, she must have had several generations of cats come
and go in her
home. And she would have seen many generations of students come and
go at school. How she grieve the death of her cats and students who
predeceased her? Did she allow herself to regress and honor her
inner child? Heck, she probably would scoff at the term "inner
child." Did she have close friends who consoled her?
Fortunately, I have some fine friends I can confide in.
But first, after seeing that Goldie was dead, I called Ames Animal Control. The officer was warm,
matter-of-fact, and understanding. When I asked, she said I could bury Goldie on
my property, but the city requires a
three-foot, deep hole. Then I thought about taking a shovel and
inviting friends to go to a farm north of Ames to have a ritual
honoring Goldie and bury her there. I even fantasized about placing a temporary,
white wooden cross, at her grave. But at the time, no one was available
to go with me, and I could not reach the people who owned the farm.
So I wrapped Goldie in a burlap bag and put her in a cool spot in
When I called a friend, who had given me my cats and has a degree in animal science, she was wonderfully
sympathetic. There was no scolding, like in "What did you do wrong?"
When she stopped by after work, we sat on the cracked and pocked concrete in the driveway
while she gently and thoroughly examined Goldie's body to see if there were clues about how she
died. There were none. Like much that is related to death, the cause
of Goldie's demise is a mystery.
I liked my friend's combination of
nurturing support and pragmatism. I liked her recognition that
Goldie meant a lot to me, but on the other hand, that death happens,
pets die, and their corpses need to be dealt with. She agreed to
dispose of Goldie. I opened the burlap wrapping and took one last
look at my golden girl before sending her with my friend.
Goldie that she had brought me a lot of
fun and meaning. I didn’t say the exact words, “Good bye.” But
that’s what I meant. And I hoped that Goldie knew I had meant her well
in this life and that I also wished her well in her journey—if indeed chickens have a soul that continues on
when they are no longer physically present.
Also, I will have the opportunity, if I want to take it, to
light a “milestone” candle at the UU Fellowship during the Sunday
morning program and tell the congregation that Goldie had died. And I know people there, young and old, would
understand and value the lighting of that candle. I don’t know as
there ever was a similar opportunity in the Rolfe church, and I am
not sure what Miss Marcum would think about a church ritual honoring the life and death
of a chicken. I'd
like to think that just maybe, she would wish that she could have
had some of the opportunities I have had. But that is imaginary and wishful thinking.
Even so, it's fun to
fantasize and reflect on these kinds of things.
May Miss Marcum, her cats, her students
who have died, Mother, my
Dandy and Goldie rest in peace.
If you have information about or
reflections on the life of Miss Marcum, feel free to send them, and if you
want, we can post them.