Mary Hunter-Bowman shares her perspective on 102 years of change
by Mikayla Voxen
photography by Mariela Patron
At age 102, Mary Elizabeth Hunter-Bowman is the oldest living University of La Verne alumni. Mary is an eyewitness to the evolution of La Verne since first attending the University, then known as La Verne College, at age 17 in 1929. She graduated in the class of 1933, along with 45 others. With a B.A. degree in languages and education, she taught primary children, mostly third grade, for almost 30 years. Her career started in San Dimas, which later joined with the Bonita Unified School District. She says she “loved teaching, loved the children.” Mary is an honorary member of the San Dimas Historical Society, recognition bestowed because she taught in the first school in San Dimas.
She and her first husband Sidney Hunter lived on his family’s orchard for 50 of the 64 years they were married. Mary says their family farm was one of the original historic citrus orchards in La Verne. Their home on Williams Avenue was enveloped by the sweet fragrance of oranges until the grove was sold in the 1960s to a land developer.
Mary comes from a family of four older brothers and two older sisters. She recalls that a sister died before she was born, and the other was married when she was a child, causing her to grow up with her brothers. Mary herself has two daughters, five grandchildren, and—“not counting spouses”—10 great grandchildren and nine great great grandchildren. Family and friends are important to Mary, and even though her biological family lives in Las Vegas and Northern California, she has made deep connections and friendships for the past 15 years with fellow residents at Brethren Hillcrest Homes, a La Verne retirement center.
Mary has experienced the Great Depression, two World Wars, the inventions of the computer, frozen food and jet engine, plus witnessed the inauguration of 17 presidents. But through it all, one thing has stayed the same—Mary’s love for La Verne. For more than 85 years, much of her life story has taken place within the city’s nine-mile radius, proving that you do not have to travel far to find your adventure. La Verne Magazine Editor Mikayla Voxen sat down with Mary one fall afternoon to find out about life, love, fast cars and orange groves.
La Verne has been your home for more than 80 years, what brought you to the city?
I was born May 21, 1912, in North Manchester, Indiana, a Church of the Brethren college town similar to La Verne. When I was about 2, a group of us moved to Canada. I never found out why. We were supposed to start a church but never did. We didn’t make a lot of money. We ended up being farmers and stayed there for about two years. From Canada, we came to Washington, a town called Yakima and then to Inglewood, California. Morgan Auditorium was dedicated in 1927, and although that was too young for me to be in school, some way or another, my parents attended the ceremony. That’s when I decided I’d like to come to La Verne. We were living in the Depression so there wasn’t any money. I was only able to attend college because I got scholarships.
You married your college sweetheart Sidney in 1934. How did you meet him?
We met in a class at La Verne College. We had assigned seats close to each other. My name was Hollinger; his was Hunter, so we were right close to each other. We looked at each other and liked what we saw. And when we looked again, we liked it even better. I was class treasurer then and was supposed to collect $2 from everybody, but you have no idea; nobody had $2 except him. When I asked him for $2, he pulled it out and gave it to me, and I thought, “What’s this man doing here if he has two loose dollars?” Then I found out he had a brand new Ford Coupe—a Ford Sport Coupe with the rumble seats.
Describe your perfect day.
Now I suppose my perfect day is any I get to spend with my family—with any or all of my family. We used to play lots of cards. My brothers used to play Bridge, and my husband and I would see them sometimes arguing about it, and we said to each other, “Let’s never learn to play Bridge.” We thought cards were supposed to be fun. I had to give it up a few years ago because I can’t see well enough. My grandchildren used to love visiting and playing a card game with me.
Mary, you’ve seen and experienced so much. What is your favorite memory?
Sidney. Absolutely. He is my favorite memory. Our whole life. He was a wonderful husband.
What did you do for fun in the 1930s?
We went to the football games every Friday night. I worked at the beach on the weekends so we spent a lot of our time there. There were quite a few restrictions when I was growing up. We had to pledge that we wouldn’t drink, smoke or dance. But my friends and I managed to sneak in a couple dance lessons. The Brethren were strict, so I had to quit before too long. My husband ended up teaching me to dance. I was in several church plays.
What is the most significant invention of your lifetime?
I’ve seen so many of them. Probably the radio or the phonograph; it made lots of difference. It created so many new, interesting things to enjoy. Anything Elvis [is my favorite]. Also, “Tennessee Waltz” was always one of our favorites. Teresa Brewer did that one. It was one of the first records, and we had a copy. We didn’t go to many movies when I was growing up. My family didn’t particularly believe in them, and we didn’t have money for them. I was never a very big movie fan. And I’m not a very big TV fan. I prefer music. I like classical music more than anything else.
What was the most difficult world event to live through?
WWI was the scariest because I was young. I didn’t understand what was going on, but it still affected me. One of my brothers served in WWII, but I was lucky. I didn’t lose anyone in the war. [Regarding Presidents] Reagan was probably my favorite because he had been a movie star and was so personable. But I sure don’t like the state of America now. It’s kind of frightening, isn’t it?
I like getting my hair done. I started doing my hair while I was teaching. I pine for curly hair but never got it. A couple of my brothers did, but I wasn’t so lucky. I got a perm all the time, for many years. The same lady has done my hair for almost 40 years. I still go once a month. I had so few fashionable clothes; my mother made almost all of my clothes. I like full skirts, long feminine skirts. I always liked pretty clothes, not fantastic, but pretty clothes.
Many years after Sidney passed away, you found love again?
His name was Loren Bowman. We married at 93. He died at 98, so we only had five years. We went on a couple of cruises, and people would say, “Do you mind if we ask how old you are?” I’d answer, “No. We’re both 96.” They’d say, “Oh, wow, How long have you been married?” [I’d answer] “One year and three months.” Oh what a let down!
How did you meet your second husband?
I had no intention of even looking at another man. Then Loren and his daughter [Sue] saw me, and Loren said he wanted to find out more about me. When I met him, I couldn’t help it. He was a very special person. We had a very good life. We had a wonderful time. And the best part was my acquiring a beautiful daughter and son-in-law. They live in La Verne. We just adopted each other. Robert [Dyer] takes care of all of my finances, and Sue takes me shopping. They’re such dear people. I’ve noticed now, when they introduce me, they say, “This is my mother,” which I think is wonderful. Robert announces all of the college football games so everyone at the University knows him because he is so active.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen in La Verne?
Many more people. Many more houses. See, when I lived here with Sidney, the whole town was almost all orange groves, and that’s what we had. We lived on his family’s orchard for 50 years. Even with the changes, La Verne is still so beautiful. I think the people are just so wonderful. I have many friends here, and it’s just such a restful, beautiful city. I’ve seen it grow from small to big, and from mostly orange trees to practically no orange trees, but the people are still the same.
What is the secret to a long, happy life?
I think I’ve been very lucky; that’s about all I can say. Lucky. And the friends I’ve had, my family, I’ve enjoyed them very much. I hope I’ve done my part. Sidney and I loved each other very much. We had problems; everyone does, but we worked through them together. Our children were a joy. It seems like I’m smarter than I was then, but I don’t know if I am. You’re too young to know, but as you get older, you look back, and you say, “Oh, gee, I sure made a mess of that; I wish that I could do it over again.” But you can’t, so you have to do your best as you go along. What we did seemed to be best at the time, but as I look back, a lot of the things I did were pretty dumb. Most people feel that way. You can hope for forgiveness. The way to survive is to focus on the good things. [I feel] I’ve lived a very ordinary, plain life. I’ve had many blessings—done a lot of things wrong, a few things right. I think I’ve been real lucky.