Story provided by Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar
The Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar preserves and protects numerous objects, letters, photographs, and documents safekeeping Stillwater’s memories for future generations. These rich-in-history items are used in a variety of ways to share the stories of the past that they commemorate. The Museum recently received a donation of letters and photographs from the daughters of Myrtis Forman and John Alton “Lefty” Stevens. The letters were primarily written by Stevens, others by his wife and family members, while he was on active duty in the U.S. Army with the 45th Division.
These time capsules provide insight into what it was like for his family as Stevens joined the 45th and went from training Stateside to North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and southern France. The letters range in dates from 1940 to 1946. His daughter Sandra (Mrs. John Ives) placed all the letters in plastic sleeves, and daughter Sharon (Mrs. Gary Wright) transcribed the letters—adding comments as she transcribed for clarification. Copies of the transcribed letters went to children and grandchildren so that they might get to know John Alton Stevens and they would understand more about the history of that time period. The family decided to place the originals with the Stillwater History Museum for safekeeping. What follows is a very brief synopsis of the letters with a focus on the family’s history in Stillwater.
In a letter written in December 1941, Myrtis Stevens, in Columbus, Georgia, writes to her mother-in-law, Florence Stevens, in Waxahachie, Texas. Myrtis describes what it was like just after the United States became involved in WWII and during the time her husband was in training.
“Everyone has recovered from the first shock of war and talk of nothing else. Radio and papers are full of what to do in case of air raids. All towns are getting raid squads organized to do certain work ‘in case’ it happens here. Towns are having air raid black outs, but none here yet. All the south has had blackouts all fall to conserve electricity until this week. But it’s almost impossible to believe it all even now. …”
“Lefty’s eye is black and cheek all swelled up from firing rifles all week. He qualified as an expert the second day but they don’t let up. They are in the field all the time, firing machine guns and cannon now.”
The letters are a rich resource of how people lived and thought during these times—from their deprivations to how they made do to their hopes and dreams.
“August 3rd, 1943
We were happy to have your letter of July 17th—our only news from Sicily—and to know you were in good condition. It looked for a few days as tho you would soon convince Italy it was best to quit now. But seems they are still serving Hitler by getting a week’s respite in which they could dig in in northern Italy. I can’t doubt your eventual victory but seems such a stupid waste to have to do it this way. Just heard over the radio where Eng[land] had showered Berlin with counterfeit ration books, work passes, permits to travel, etc. So Berlin is being evacuated—seems people are funny even in Berlin and get all they can under one pretense or other.”
May 20, 1944, a letter to his daughter Sandra, age 14
“Your letter came last night. I was in a good mood for a jolly letter from you. My war experience comes so thick and fast that it is hard to get just a few screened out of the mess. For instance, just as I finished your mother’s letter an enemy shell hit about a hundred yards from my hole in the ground. One man was wounded—not bad just a scratch down his back. Shells are always coming in with what sounds like ‘We-e-e-e-e- WANT YOU!’ My teeth have chattered so much lately that I’ve already had to have five loose ones pulled!”
He ends his letter with, “Keep your boy friends [sic] well under the yoke—I’ll tend to them proper when I get home.”
When the war was over, Stevens was 44 years old and competing for jobs with much younger men. Whatever anxiety he might have felt about earning a living, it didn’t last long. Both his former Superintendent of Schools and former high school Principal for whom he had worked in Durant were now at Oklahoma A&M College. There, they worked for the President, Dr. Henry Bennett, who was the former President of Southeastern State Teachers College, also in Durant.
These two good men, Jerry Stubbs and Roy Tompkins, quickly recommended Stevens for the job managing the Veterans Village that had recently opened on the A&M campus in Stillwater, Oklahoma, to accommodate the thousands of returning veterans eager to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and gain post-secondary education. While overseas, Stevens had once written to his wife that his dream was to settle “in a college town” when he returned. So, the Stevens family came to Stillwater, Oklahoma, in August 1946, to make their home at 1519 West Fourth Street in a two-story white frame house, and Stevens went to work managing the Veterans Village.
Daughter Sharon writes:
“In the early years, it was a real village, with a mayor elected by its residents. Located just northwest of the OAMC campus, it had a large ‘commissary’ for grocery shopping, a ‘rec hall,’ where guys played basketball–a fire department, and a laundry, along with a post office and a childcare center. The childcare center was located in the same building as my dad’s office, and he could often hear children playing outside during the workday.
“Then, of course, there was the family housing itself. The largest group of apartments were two-story, white barracks-style apartments, originally thrown together and used to train officers for various war duties. When the returning veterans moved in with their families, they named the streets of their little village for their triumphant passage through France: La Rue Petite, La Rue Midi, La Rue Grande, among others. The barracks apartments were spacious, with large windows and a separate pantry, along with the living room, bedrooms, and bath. Each had a miniscule front and back porch.
“East of the barracks apartments, there was another housing section, consisting of ‘hutments,’ either one-bedroom or two-bedroom bungalows. These were pre-fabricated homes, I believe, put together in sections; the two-bedroom style was a ‘double hutment.’ But this still was not all the housing available for married students. Ten or twelve blocks south of Veterans Village, on 6th Street, roughly where the Stillwater Municipal Hospital now stands, squatted the ‘College Courts,’ a number of rickety one-story buildings, divided into an apartment at each end and connected by a breezeway in between. These apartments had once housed a group of Japanese internees, though I was blissfully ignorant of this controversial fact until I was well into adulthood.
“Over the years, the residential composition—and thus the name—of the Veterans Village changed considerably. Once young people saw that married veterans with families could attend and succeed at college, they increasingly began to want to do so, too. And as the veterans graduated and moved on, they were replaced by civilian couples. At first, the name was reduced simply to ‘The Village.’ But by the time [my husband] Gary and I moved into 1-D Petite in the summer of 1964, it was ‘Married Student Housing.’
“With Dr. Bennett’s emphasis on international higher education, international students with families often brought them thousands of miles to make a home at what was now Oklahoma State University. With the societal upheavals of the ‘70s, couples often did not marry before moving in together while attending college, so it became—and, so far as I know, remains—’Family Housing’ to accommodate life partners, divorced women or men, and gay couples, all with children in tow.
“The surge of families in college required another large section of apartments to be built—these made of brick to last—across the street west of the original Vet Village. These were being built when Gary and I married in 1964. Today, several of these brick apartment units are named
‘Stevens’ for my dad. The barracks and the hutments are long gone. In fact, they sold off the hutments at public auction when I was only about 8 years old; my dad bought one, which he and Mother made into a cabin at Yost Lake by setting it up on concrete blocks and adding a full length, screened sleeping porch across the front. The clapboard barracks remained in use for many more years, however.”
It is not often that museums are able to collect several years of letters from one family let alone have the letters carefully placed in order in plastic sheets and transcribed! Sharon and her sister, Sandra, are to be commended for their interest in their family history and for preserving these memories—not only for their own family—but for the community of Stillwater. Details of day-to-day life that cannot be gleaned from photographs are often available through letters—and we get to know the more personal side of people through letters. If you have memories of Stillwater contained in photographs or letters or diaries such as these, consider placing them at the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar where they can be made accessible to others researching local history.