USC life over 100 years ago

Now, anyone who met me would never guess I am over 100, because thankfully I am not. Yet! However, my passport photo courtesy of Walgreen’s definitely shows the passage of time. Time fascinates me – I always enjoy movies about time travel, time loops; how we perceive time, how we experience life; and how memory functions. There are incidents from nearly 5 decades ago I remember more clearly than something that happened three months ago, for sure. However, the pictures I share today, from a century ago, are not mine – but my grandfather’s, who studied at USC in 1921.

My Grandfather, Richard, most likely in the era he studied at USC in the early 1920’s

Perhaps because I did not know my mother’s parents at all, but have inherited many of their letters, photos, journals and more – I find coming to understand their history fascinating. My maternal grandmother, Jean, passed about a year before my birth; she and her husband Richard wed and had two children in Southern California Long Beach area before divorcing in the 30’s, which was far from common then. My mother was not close to her father, and when he left to serve in the Pacific for the Navy during WWII, she was a teenager basically on her own. After the war, he remarried and returned to Oregon, where he was born, and ultimately passed there the year I graduated high school. There is much more to his life – and I will probably write about that here, my own little archive open to the public who might wander through. Today’s post is about one facet of his life, this man I did not know, and yet of all people living I now am his truest witness.

“Jan. 26 ’20 – USC Math Club” – a remarkable number of women students! Gramps at top left.

“May 7 1920 USC Engineers Picnic Anaheim landing below Seal Beach”. Great uniforms!

Richard was an only child, born in the train station in Corvallis Oregon where his father was the stationmaster and his mother the eldest daughter of a branch of Oregon wagon train pioneers. He saw the turn of the century, and as a teen, his mother passed; his father was not a man of means, and for reasons that I can only surmise were of economic reality, he was sent to Denver to be raised by his childless uncle and aunt. Thinking about it now, I can only guess how hard that was, to be alone, sent away from all he knew. But what was a sad beginning in some ways turned out to be his doorway to a life he might not otherwise have imagined; he met my grandmother, another motherless child, in Denver, somehow, and I have pictures of them with high school friends, laughing, playing, growing close. His uncle, like me, was interested in family history; seemingly a very well off gentleman, he had a beautiful Craftsman home and a well established career in real estate. It seemed like a very comfortable life.

Glued into an album without notations – was that some earlier weird mascot? Fascinating!

They left all that behind, and I am guessing it was to give Grandpa Richard a chance to have the education he wanted, in Southern California. Richard, his Uncle Kingsley and Aunt moved to Hollywood – right around the corner from where Grauman’s Chinese Theater welcomed the stars to premieres, down the hill from the mysterious “Magic Castle” I always hoped to visit. And he went to USC, as well as Cal Tech, ultimately pursuing a career in oil in Long Beach; he and my grandmother married in Oregon after he completed college, with my uncle born there in Drain, and my mother in Long Beach at a hospital that no longer exists. In the family pictures, there is only happiness; yet, in time, the family disintegrated, and all I knew of him as a teen was the annual Christmas card and letter, and occasional stories from my cousin who would visit them in Oregon, an opportunity I never had. He was laid to rest in the veterans cemetery, not far from the Portland airport.

“Alchemists – USC Feb 2 1921”. These folks don’t look to happy to be all dressed up!

Captioned “S.O.P. Gange 1918 – Richard would have been 19 or 20 – He’s on the top right.

After he passed, in 1976, his widow – his third wife, in fact, a retired librarian – sent boxes of his mementos to my Mom, and decades later I would open those and wonder at the pictures. Now, in retirement, it is as though I have accepted a kind of quest – to save those moments, to share them with siblings and cousins and nieces and nephews, to preserve the tales of their lives and the lessons we might glean from them. Richard’s files were, honestly, just haphazard piles of paper, with memories and faces of his rural childhood, his military life, and sometimes his oil career. Scattered in the albums, and now and then in loose stacks of black and white images, were a few with notations from his USC days, generally dated in 1921. I can make his face out here and there – usually on the edges of the crowds of students, sometimes posing in front of imposing columns of temples of knowledge, in garb that no student today has in their wardrobe, much less wears.

“Feb 18 20 Alchemist Club U.S.C.” Don’t you love the protective overalls??

“Part of sophomore class Taken on steps of Liberal Arts March 12 ’20”. Building still there?

As I began to sift through them, on impulse I posted a few to Facebook, and was surprised at the enthusiastic response. I had poked around online to see if USC had an archive or school history office, and finally wrote to a department with a couple of shots asking if they would like to have them for their collection; they were delighted. One thing I have learned about archives is they usually want the originals, and in these cases, I am fine with that; but before dropping them in the mail, I trekked to the Oakland Family History Center, courtesy of the Temple of the Latter Day Saints, where they provide outstanding access to computers, books, other research materials – and scanners. Professional level scanners, where I can sit for hours (and I have), getting shot after shot of these moments in time. It’s been a couple of weeks since I sent them to USC; there hasn’t been a response, but I appreciated that initially they did look to see that Richard is not shown as having graduated from there, which was a bit of a surprise. Perhaps he ultimately got his degree from Cal Tech, but he clearly treasured his memories of USC – and now, I share them with you, out in the wider world where moments like these might find their way to someone who, if not recognizes a face, gleans some meaning from a time and place that has changed, as have we all.

Notation – “USC Varsity Basketball February 1920” – yes, times have changed!

“USC vs. Berkeley”, October – probably 1921, most likely at USC. Go team!!

Our memories have lessons not only for us but for those yet to come. I have learned a great deal from the silent voices of my ancestors; now, slowly delving more deeply into researching genealogy, I am starting to see that the stories we build from our lives are somewhat like a prayer; echoes of our cries into the darkness, and the light, seeking understanding. The stories we share, and those we hide, ultimately fade into time and are forgotten except for pieces buried in the memories of others, or in dusty boxes shoved back into the basement of our own souls. We write our stories, we tell them to ourselves at night as we drift into rest; sometimes we lie even to ourselves, just to move on. For many, children are the legacy they leave behind, but for those who, like me, do not add to the gene pool of generations to come, there may be little left after we exit the stage.

“U.S.C. A. A .E. Engineers Santa Anita Canyon near Fern Lodge Los Angeles”.  Not dated.


USC Alchemists Club October 1921 Aroyo Seco Pasadena. No Harry Potter in sight!

One thinks differently as time passes; it is not only natural to reflect, to preserve – but it is a gift. Looking at these pictures of men and women almost assuredly now long gone, knowing a little of my grandfather’s childhood and his ultimate future, I recall how uncertain yet promising life seemed as I finished college and prepared to enter the world of responsibility. There are moments in these faces of hope; none could anticipate world events ahead, many thought of love and family and riches, but most likely only a few dreams were fully realized. My nephew is about to graduate high school, my niece will graduate college herself in a year – there is wisdom I wish I could impart, but like these forgotten, nameless faces from a century ago, I know they will have lessons to learn that are beyond my imagination. Life is a precious gift, and my hope is that your memories, your heritage, reminds you of how much we all have to be thankful for, and what we share in common.

That’s it for today, friends. My sense is, moving ahead, this blog will be a place where I share more of what is ultimately deeply personal family lore, and yet representative of what life gives each of us, in different packages and tongues. I have learned from my ancestors, and hope you shall, as well.