Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Shirley, Baby Jean and then (and now) Marilyn

This is my friend Marilyn Smyth Johnson, also curator of the Lucas County Historical Society Museum, who sat down last evening to tell her story --- or at least to talk about a few aspects of 80 years spent for the most part in Lucas County among fascinating people, doing interesting things.

The conversation is part of an historical society oral history project coordinated and conducted by museum intern Karoline Dittmer, who heads off to college this weekend and is finishing up this phase with a flourish that includes several interviews.

These interviews are, or will be, available on DVD at the museum for anyone who wants to look and listen and learn.

I've been especially fascinated for as long as I've known Marilyn by the story of how she came to be in Chariton in the first place --- and she talks a good deal about this in the interview. Her first months were spent at Iowa State University, then Iowa State College, as part of a program that would not even be considered today, but was thought to be quite innovative and progressive at the time.

Marilyn was born during June of 1934 in Des Moines to a birth mother who could not care for her, and so she was placed in custody of the state. Her birth name was Shirley, but that would be temporary.

At the age of three months, during September of 1934, little Shirley was placed in the Ellen H. Richards House at Iowa State College. This was a "home management practice" house where young women enrolled in the Department of Family Environment were expected to gain experience in running a household and raising children. There were four of these houses, each equipped with an infant, at ISU at the time. And Shirley was renamed "Jean" upon arrival.

Six to eight students were assigned to care for Baby Jean and the house on a rotating basis --- new students arrived every six weeks. They became, in effect, surrogate mothers.

Jean lived in the Richards House for a year, cared for by dozens of students, before she was adopted during August of 1935 by Porter J. and Joy Smyth of Chariton, brought home to their lovely and distinctive home on North Grand Street. Porter and Joy gave little Jean a new name, Marilyn --- and that name has endured.

Marilyn had a happy childhood as the treasured only child of older parents and, when she was old enough to understand, Porter and Joy told her that she was adopted and described the circumstances of her first 15 months. 

There was a scrapbook, too, maintained by the students and containing photographs of Baby Jean with her student mothers, at play and on her first birthday; details of her growth and development and the "scientific" schedule her mothers had been expected to adhere to; and some writings by the students themselves.

Marilyn, of course, doesn't remember her first months; only that as a child whose initial exposure was exclusively to young women she was for a time less comfortable with older women and men. 

One of the state workers who made home visits after Marilyn had been placed in Chariton told her parents that the birth mother had been a concert pianist and encouraged piano lessons. Porter and Joy complied, but Marilyn was less enthusiastic. Other than that, Marilyn says, she knows nothing about her birth mother nor has she ever had any interest in finding out more.

She did become interested some years ago, however, in locating other children who had been placed in the Iowa State program and as part of that process took her scrapbook to the University to be placed in its archives. She discovered then that she was the only "home management baby" ever to return or to contact the University. She suspects that most if not all of the other adoptive parents simply never told their children that they were adopted.

Marilyn has, however, visited with a few women who were involved as students in the program, including Charlene (Trumbo) Meyer of Chariton.

There's a good deal more to the interview than this, so stop in and take a look sometime once Karoline gets it processed. Or just stop in and talk to Marilyn.


Anonymous said...

My wife was one of the babies in that program at ISU in 1956 before being adopted. Her adoptive mother had more information than is apparently common, although not all correct, and encouraged my wife to try to make contact.

The papers included her birth mother's name. Using standard genealogical resources we were able to track down her birth mother. Found the counties with the not-too-common surname, looked in obits for the mother's parents or grandparents, found a girl of that name who missed that year in the school annuals. An obit gave her married name and city. Couldn't have been easier.

After tentative contacts, they have been corresponding for 18 years and meet every time her mother is in the state. My wife was welcomed as a lost cousin by all the family at their reunions.

Contact doesn't always work out, even if possible. Her adopted brother (who was not at ISU) also tried to make contact with his birth family and was rebuffed. After finding out as much as he did, he decided he wasn't interested in them either.

Frank knows my email address and can pass it on to the other ISU "alumna" if she wants it.


Frank D. Myers said...

Thanks Bill! It would be interesting to know when this program began and when it ended.