by Melinda Dilwicius
photography by Jason Cooper
Leola Ott looks like the typical grandmother. She has snowflake hair, shiny blue eyes that sparkle with her warm smile, and pale pink lipstick adds a special touch, matching her carefully chosen delicate butterfly-wing earrings.
But Leola is anything but typical. She is not the naive senior sheltered from national issues, but rather a knowledgeable woman who can recall specific laws and bills passed that affected her home economics classes that she taught at La Verne College.
She recalls a time when students not only carried their science, English and math books, but also their books for Basic Foods and Nutrition, Clothing and Textiles, Dress Design, Tailoring, Design and Color, Home Management, and House Planning and Home Furnishings. In addition to courses offered by department chair Ott, major courses included Consumer Economics, taught by Dr. Ahmed Ispahani, professor of business administration and economics, Marriage and Family, offered through the Sociology Department, and Household Physics, taught by Al Herbst, professor of mathematics and Dr. George Arnold, professor of physics. Child Growth and Development was taught by the Education Department. In addition to these classes, the National Home Economics Association mandated a class in chemistry in the major. Classes were offered in bacteriology through the Science Department if a student wished to pursue a special Secondary Teaching Credential in the subject.
As the Assistant Professor of Home Economics, Leola was determined to teach the students, both male and female, that she and the home economics profession viewed “a full time homemaker, as a homemaker, not just a wife.” She adds, “The term homemaker was ahead of its time, because now some men stay home as full-time homemakers. They take care of the children, and the wife is out because she has a much better job.”
Leola graduated from Live Oak Union High School in 1946; following, she graduated from La Verne College in 1950. She then completed two summers of work at California State University, San Jose, to gain a special secondary education credential.
Her career began with two years of teaching homemaking at Orosi High School, southeast of Fresno; she then moved to Bakersfield and taught homemaking two years in a junior high school before joining the faculty at La Verne College in 1954. Dr. Harold Fasnacht wrote a letter to Ott in the summer of that year, inviting her to come to La Verne and lead the college program. Leola says she initially declined the offer; Dr. Fasnacht was persistent. He shot back a reply telling her, “You are making a grave mistake.” This time, she accepted the offer. At the time, she was enrolled in a master of science degree program in home economics at the University of California, Los Angeles. She finished the UCLA program in 1960.
Between the years 1954 and 1970, Leola was able to mold and shape the minds of young people. “I helped prepare them to be good cooks and taught them how to make good nutritional choices. I showed them how to select and care for clothing, how to furnish and decorate their homes and how to care for their families.” She says that although her classes consisted mostly of women, around 1965 more “fellows” were enrolling, and that they made the classes “more interesting.”
The main role of women, Leola remembers, during her time of teaching at La Verne College, consisted of being a full-time homemaker. If women did go out into the professional world to work, the choices were mostly limited to teaching, nursing, childcare, social service or general office work. “But teaching was the major thing for La Verne graduates,” she recalls. Much of that changed, she notes, in the mid 60s, with the big push of the Equal Rights movement. Leola proudly states, “Women began to achieve more financial status.”
While she was leading the department, Leola recalls that societal views of marriage and family living changed-sometimes dramatically. She accredits many of the changes in society, and what is acceptable in society, to the effects of the Vietnam War. “Many people dropped out of the military and society. Alternative life styles became popular; young men were caught in military draft hysteria that resulted in them fleeing or seeking peaceful alternatives to military service. Leola recalls the flower children and hippie movement that really liberated women. On a trip to San Francisco, she observed many women hitchhiking in remote areas near Big Sur. She says that was unheard of a few years earlier. On the homefront, she remembers that the “opening of the co-ed dorms were a big part of the sexual revolution at La Verne.”
In comparison to today, Leola says that the concerns of young women were not all that different. She recalls that the average age for marriage by 1970 for women was 17 in California, and that money was often an issue, especially for women. When young women would go to Leola for advice on marriage, she would always ask them, “Are you sure you want to mix the kitchen sink with exams and papers?”
Leola remembers sullenly 1970 when LVC President Leland Newcomer closed the Home Economics Department and added the Law School. This was a tumultuous moment for Leola because she loved to teach. The Senator Fisher Bill caused “real damage to the applied arts in California.” Students majoring in the applied arts had to take four additional units in their major and to add a stronger minor in order to gain a credential. “This discouraged many people from taking the major. The bill is no longer active; it expired,” Leola adds optimistically. Leola was offered home economics positions at McPherson, Kan. and Bridgewater, Va.; sister colleges to La Verne, but she declined. “I could see the hand writing on the wall that other states were considering ending the program. Following Proposition 13 in California, “if Colleges were forced to make cuts in the budget, they whacked out the applied arts, in some cases the fine arts.”
Leola says that she wouldn’t compare herself to the modern day Martha Stewart, but would consider herself more as an educational leader with ideas and tips for persons considering teaching as a career. She admits that she’s fallen in love with small towns like La Verne, because of the closeness with the community. She imagines herself as one who would like to own a fabric shop and a tea room.
Leola is an independent woman. She was never married and never had any children of her own. The students and the college were her family. But with the closing of her program after 16 years of dedicated service, there was a void to fill. She took a year off, then May of 1971, she became the mailroom and fileroom supervisor of Haskins and Sells, one of the big eight CPA firms. It is now known as Deloitte Touche. She worked there for 21 years, retiring in 1992.
One of her current pleasures is her eight year old “grandson.” She now spends many weekends going to Little League baseball games and karate matches. Scott Owen and Leola adopted each other as grandmother and grandson. Scott’s mother Harumi Sakamoto was a roommate to Leola’s sister Lena Coffman. Harumi, a Japanese native, had met an English man named William Owen at the New Otani Hotel, where they worked and soon married. However, Harumi and William divorced, and both remarried others.
Leola’s advice to newlyweds is to keep in close verbal and non verbal communication. She says, “It’s hard to give advice to anyone in this free reigning society,” and recalls that many women traditionally felt they lost their identity when they married.
While she was actually born in Dorris, Calif., her La Verne roots started with her parents many years ago. Her father and mother attended Lordsburg Academy, starting in the fall of 1920. Soon, her father was earning the mark of student body president and playing on the first football team. After they graduated, they returned to Live Oak, Calif., to marry and farm. Leola and her four siblings graduated from La Verne College.
The Church of the Brethren has always had a strong presence in Leola’s life. The Live Oak Church sent 18 students to enroll in the fall of 1920 at La Verne. Leola recalls that she was one of nine to attend in 1946 from Live Oak. Her mother holds the distinction of earning the second “Alumnus of the Year Award” presented by the College in 1967.
Leola’s father was killed when she was 7 in a logging accident “on the last day in the last hour of his job with the last load,” Aug. 11, 1934, and her mother was left with five children to care for, ranging from 11 years to 11 months old. Leola has one older sister Lena Coffman, a brother one year younger than herself, Dale Ott, and two other brothers Daniel Ott and Roy Ott. Leola smiles as she says she went through first grade all the way through La Verne College with her brother Dale. “My mother was more liberated than I wanted to be. She had to be that way, being a self-sufficient widow in the Depression.”
Among Leola’s favorite experiences at La Verne College were preparing tea and coffee hours, lunches and dinners for the National Accreditation Committee. She does not hesitate in saying that she and her students took credit for La Verne College gaining national accreditation. It was her first year as a teacher, and the first time the school gained national accreditation. J. Onis Leonard, alumni director and fund raising director, invited her and her students to do a “bang up job” in serving gourmet food service to the dignitaries. This started a tradition of the department catering the special events hosted by the college. “We provided gourmet food service for these occasions,” she recalls.
Among the other important public contributions of the department was the continuation of the annual Wisteria tea, held at the Glendora home of “Mrs. Gordon,” the mother of Dorothy Merritt, who was a long-time professor of art and modern literature. The annual tea included alumni and the wider community in show-casing the college. Later the teas were hosted by Mary La Fetra, president of the board of trustees, but all the food preparation was handled by Leola and her students. Starting in the mid ’60s, Leola, with the gentle prodding of Onis Leonard, started the notion of a faculty coffee hour, so coffee and doughnuts were available for the faculty from 10 a.m. to noon in the Home Economics Department Dining Room, located in the basement of Founders Hall in the northwest wing. “With Onis Leonard’s guidance, the home economic program got out in the larger world,” she says.
One of Leola’s close friends while teaching at La Verne College was Dr. Ispahani. She says, “Dr. Ispahani was a wonderful addition to the University in the breath and scope of his international contacts.” I felt privileged to accompany Dr. Fasnacht when we went to the Federal Building in Los Angeles to participate in his citizenship application and swearing in for U.S. citizenship. We had to swear that he would make a good citizen.” Another valuable friend is Dr. Sharon Wright, former dean of the college, who, as a student, minored in her Home Economics Department.
Leola holds memories that helped shape the person she became. Among them is the treatment during the World War II years of the Japanese people in her Live Oak community. She specifically remembers having Japanese friends and walking with them to school because of the rock throwing. She recalls that when Church of the Brethren women accompanied the Japanese women on their daily chores, rocks were thrown at both parties. When the women tried to hang the laundry, rocks were thrown at them. “We ended up hanging the clothes ourselves,” she recalls. It was not a popular time to be a high school student in a small town. Because of the stand members of her Church took toward the Japanese people in her community, the Live Oak Church became known as “the Jap loving church.” The Japanese people in her community were forced to leave their homes and were sent to Camp Manson. She says the Church of the Brethren had a strong sense of influence for her because it was her source of comfort.
Leola recalls another character shaping memory being a 1951 Greyhound bus trip around the United States with Barbara Johnson Baughman, the year following college graduation for the two women. “Our destination was Bangor, Maine. The trip, costing $380, took eight hours to plan at the window, with the multiple reservations needed. For two women, it was a rather interesting undertaking. We were stuck on the rear seat of that bus from Oakland to El Paso Texas, where the African-Americans were forced to move to the back. We saw the segregation, the separate drinking foundations. If the line was too long, we went to the Black fountain. “We were stared down mightily”by the White folks.
Leola now divides her time among the La Verne Church of the Brethren, the Home Economics Association, the Business and Professional Club of La Verne and San Dimas and the Association of American Women. While in Geneva, Switzerland in 1968, she visited her brother Dale, director of the Church of the Brethren Volunteer Service in Europe, and became interested in birds, joining the Audubon Society, a membership she holds to date.
Leola has discovered many life lessons. The one thing she learned that is most important to her, she says, is that no matter where she goes, the best thing is coming home and being the typical grandma that little Scott Owen wants her to be.