Oleta Thomas’ father was the community activities director at the Heart Mountain relocation camp during World War II. She discusses his role there and shares other memories about her life as a home economics teacher in Cody, Wyo. and later as a therapeutic massage therapist, nutrtition specialist and author in this interview conducted by Teri Hedgpeth of Casper College on April 11, 2012. This oral history was provided by the Casper College Western History Center.
Editor's transcription notes: In most cases I have deleted redundant ands, ers, uhs, buts, false starts, etc. If I deleted an entire phrase, I have inserted ellipses . . . Where you find brackets [ ] I have added words for explanation or to complete an awkward sentence. Parentheses ( ) are used for incidental non-verbal sounds, like laughter. Words emphasized by the speaker are italicized.
--Lori Van Pelt, Assistant Editor, WyoHistory.org, Sept. 23, 2015
TERI HEDGPETH: We’ll get this going in just a second. All right, my name is Teri Hedgepeth. Today’s date is April 11, 2012. I’m in the Western History Center at Casper College and I am interviewing Oleta Thomas. Oleta, do I have your permission to record this interview?
OLETA THOMAS: Yes.
TERI: Okay. Oleta, can you give me your full name and spell it, please?
OLETA: My full name is Lois Oleta Thomas, Kurtz-Thomas. And O-L-E-T-A is the main one that many people get crosswise in spelling it. They spell it O-L-E-A-T-A, but it’s O-L-E-T-A.
OLETA: I’ll tell you the story of that.
OLETA: All right. My family came out from the background, from Chicago Illinois, after they had seen Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. And they came out on a camping trip; there were nine people in the family, the Newton family. And so that’s wherein my family settled in Cody because of this camping trip that they come out, so … and they helped Buffalo Bill build the town.
So the story about how I got my name, I was born in 1930, but I was … my first name is Lois. And people call me Oleta and I have to have all kinds of explanations when I go to the doctor, and they go, “Well, what’s your first name?” So this is quite a unique story. It’s a cave story, an adventure story, and it was written up in the Los Angeles Times when my mother, her brother and three cousins, and her boyfriend from Des Moines, Iowa, were in this cave outside of Cody--Frost Cave, they called it [See Phil Roberts’ WyoHistory.org article “Shoshone Cavern, Wyoming’s Only Delisted National Monument”]—and on Easter Sunday, instead of going to church, they took their lunch and their matches and their candles and went through this cave right outside of Cody, in Cedar Mountain, if you’ve ever been there. Later on, we went through the same cave that our folks went through.
But this was an adventure and I might just read this that was in the Los Angeles Times: “Explorers of Frost Cave spent twelve hours in the darkness: Cody party forced to wait for outside aid when they lose their candles in the cavern. A party of explorers composed of Alden and Lois Ingram, and Leona Oland of Cody and Malcolm Love of Des Moines, Iowa, were forced to spend twelve hours in Frost Cave, more formally known as the Shoshone Cavern, on Sunday when they lost their candles and exhausted their match supply while seeing the sights of this underground wonder.” Also, this is later known as the Spirit Mountain Caverns. They made a commercial venture of this cave. “The party entered the cavern at noon, and it was not until twelve o’clock midnight that a searching party, headed by Daniel Ingram,” my mother’s brother, and I have a picture of these three kids.
OLETA: Daniel Ingram, and Alden. This is Alden and my mother that were lost in the cave, and this is Dan Ingram, no, the opposite. Dan Ingram and Alden. But they … it was the brother, Dan Ingram, that finally got the search party together so that they could go and find these wayward people. So, “After a searching party headed by Daniel Ingram, brother of Alden and Lois, they found the weary and worn-out explorers, who had been waiting in the dense darkness for eight hours for outside aid. They sat on a ledge inside the cave, afraid to move. The party of young folks had gone to the cave Sunday morning, taking their lunch and were well supplied with candles and matches to brighten the way through the underground passages of this wonderful cavern, which has been made a national monument by the Interior Department. [The cave was later delisted. See the WyoHistory.org article linked above for more information.] After spending several hours passing through the many rooms and passages, which led to the heart of Cedar Mountain, they discovered that their supply of candles had been lost while crawling through one of the low tunnels which it is necessary to pass. A search was started to find the candles and soon the match supply was exhausted and the party decided that the most sensible thing to do would be to wait outside, until … outside aid came to their relief than to attempt to find the passage out, as there are many dangerous places to pass through the cave. When the searching party, which left Cody at nine-thirty, reached the cave and spent considerable time wandering through the many passages before it was able to communicate with and locate the lost party. Mr. Love is a guest at the Ingram home, and the experience of getting lost in Frost Cave will probably be one he will remember for a long time.”
So, what happened then, I call … my mother was very good friends with Oleta, Malcolm’s sister, in Des Moines, Iowa, and she’d been going to school in Neola, Iowa, where her fiancé was studying to be a minister. And so he claimed after this experience that maybe God was punishing him because he didn’t go to church on Sunday. But, anyway, Malcolm and Mother kept good contact with each other with the Love family. Malcolm Love, was their name, and Oleta Love was his sister that Mother much adored. And later I met her, later on, after I was named after her. And that’s my middle name. And Mother met my father at the University of Wyoming the next year when she went, and because of her friendship with Malcolm Love and Oleta Love. They had many wonderful experiences with the families getting together in Iowa and coming out to visit us in Cody and coming to my sister’s wedding and Aunt Oleta sent me birthday presents every year and later when we sent my daughter to school in Missouri, we drove up through Des Moines and stayed the night with Aunt Oleta and played some games with her family. They have a family of five, and we played some card games with about ten of us around the table. It was a very wonderful experience, and I feel privileged that I’m named after such a wonderful family. So I call my name now, my middle name is “I Love Adventure.” And this was written in the Los Angeles Times in 1924 or twenty-five. I can submit that to you.
TERI: Okay. Okay, now you said that your mom married your father and his name?
OLETA: His name is Marlon Kurtz, and he was from Buffalo. After his family came out, they were immigrants originally from Germany, and they settled from Oregon, Missouri. But in 1904 or five, they came out here to Buffalo, Wyoming, and they had a sheep ranch and a cattle ranch. And my father and his brother and sister, they were pretty well known at the University of Wyoming. When you went to college in those days, from Cody or Buffalo, that’s a 400-mile drive. And in those days, well, their cars weren’t as good as they were when I was going to school. But they usually stayed there during their vacations and so. We’re … the good friends that my folks have, they married each other, and my uncle, great-uncle, Laurence Meebar was the bookkeeper, or comptroller for the University of Wyoming. My aunt Florence Meebar, married Mr. Meebar. Florence Kurtz, from Buffalo. And so we had some connections still with the University of Wyoming. And so that’s where I graduated.
My father came to be a schoolteacher at Cody High School. He was a history teacher and a coach and a basketball coach particularly. But while he was at the University of Wyoming, he was a cross-country runner and into sports quite a bit, followed by my brother, who’s been in the cross-country and track and field at the University of Wyoming. And then I was track queen at the University of Wyoming, when my brother was on the track team. And we got to go to some many, many different things, sports events, with all these great athletes down in Denver, in track queen. And so … and I was very much involved when we lived in Cheyenne, my dad was in the state Department of Education after he was teaching in Cody for a while. And I was in Cheyenne, I really like Cheyenne, but I was the second winner in the high-jumping contest. I started high jumping when I was a kid and used to challenge the boys to their high jumping, wherever we were in Cody or Powell or Heart Mountain. Well, we didn’t live at Heart Mountain, but I liked to challenge the boys because I could beat them with high jumping, and my long legs and everything. So, like I said, I come from a family of track people.
TERI: Tell us the story of [how] your father graduated from University of Wyoming, went back, and became a school teacher, so tell us the story that led him, and you, to Heart Mountain. [See “A Brief History of Heart Mountain Relocation Center” at WyoHistory.org for more information.
OLETA: To Heart Mountain … Well, my dad was working in Cheyenne at the state Department of Education and the war [World War II] came along. Apparently with his experience in government, city, he was also he was … not the city planner, but he had experience with education, mostly. He applied for this job at Heart Mountain as community activities director, which he did receive with eight people under him. And I have the, all of the things they had to talk about in order to have a town of 11,000 people to become so that the people would be, would have something to do, and would get through this period of war, which they were American citizens. So the planning of this was quite an enormous undertaking. And I have one of the articles that took place when they had to plan all this in the city. And they had to get together within the blocks, in the recreation room, where all the other planners were there, and it was so much noise when they were trying to get this put together. How many blocks of people would be in the certain part, and who would be the block chairman, and all the things that go into making a city planning.
But they had no cell phones in those days. I guess according to this, my dad was so, he was a little upset because he couldn’t hear what was going on with all the other planners, going on in this big recreation room. So he got his eight people that were under him, the Japanese people, to meet at night at a certain time, so that they could hear each other and plan it out more carefully. So they made a brief history of the community activities at Heart Mountain, which I think would be good to participate.
TERI: To include?
OLETA: To include. It was written by Dave Yamakawa, my dad’s administrative assistant, … my dad and Dave were close friends after the war. And 40 years, they had the same wedding anniversary as my folks: May 29, 1927, I guess it was. So they kept track of each other, and when I went to massage school 40 years later in San Francisco, my mother said, “Get in touch with the Yamakawas, and they will show you around town.” They’d been writing to each other for years, and so I did. That was a very poignant moment because they showed me a letter that my father had written in Dave’s behalf after the war so that they could get work. And Pat was thirty-nine. I have a picture of her.
TERI: And Pat is …?
OLETA: Pat Yamakawa. She’s Dave’s son–daughter. And she has a brother. And I have a picture of her and her father and mother when I was in massage school. There’s Pat.
OLETA: Right there, and that’s her son. He had a brain injury. He went around with this, and Pat was about thirty-five, and that was his, Dave Yamakawa’s wife, Shiggy, and Dave. He was eighty-nine. Since then, my father has since died, and so it was really nice. And this is Pat Yamakawa and her husband that I saw last summer, so isn’t that wonderful?
OLETA: And so, but we’re still in touch on email, and so we really enjoyed that. But then planning these activities, Pat brought this from her father, that she wanted us to have, and I guess she presented it to the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. The way they had this recreation department set up, my father was the director of the recreation department, and it was to insure that all of the evacuees had equal voice and opportunity in the recreation program. So they had all these leaders from all different parts of the Japanese. Some of them were housed at Santa Anita and Pomona [California], and other assembly centers. And so they had them all together and they were drafting this recreation … they drafted the … they had to have the head of the police department, the department of education, and the ceramics department, the placement officers and the chief manager of the community activities but …
Oh, this is where it tells about how there was so much noise, that “Mr. Kurtz on the evening formulated the original chart, and realizing the danger of the block consciousness, he very strongly expressed throughout the center, and everything was planned on a center-wide basis.” And they had a chart for the technical schedule, the maintenance and supply, and the activities, the boys’ and girls’ activities, athletic activities, adult activities, social activities, entertainment activities. Can you imagine all the things that they had to nail down so that they would all have a chance to have some fun, if that’s what you want to call it?
Because they had the head of the American Red Cross, there was Dave Yamakawa’s brother, and he was there incarcerated. And he was also influential. My father was there getting it organized for two years, and then the last year he joined the American Red Cross. There’s that picture in that paper shows he had his American Red Cross uniform. And he went to Australia as head of the R and R department for the boys coming home from Brisbane, from the war to be a trans[ition], you know, have some recreation and help, for them before they went back home after the war. So that’s what he did, the last part when he was in charge of this big recreation. Which, I have taken that out to the Air Force, out to the Air Force Museum, [Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum, near the Natrona County airport] but they didn’t get a chance to scan it. I think I’ll bring it over here.
OLETA: Because all the activities of the war in Australia that my father was in charge of, so that was kind of the history of getting it started.
TERI: So, you said you didn’t live at Heart Mountain, exactly. Tell us where you lived and your interaction with some of the people there.
OLETA: Yeah. We lived in Cody. That was where I was born, too. We moved back there from Cheyenne. We’d just been in Cheyenne four years.
TERI: And how old were you?
OLETA: And I was twelve. And I have some pictures here of me from when I was 12 years old. So I can turn these in, too. And Pat Yamakawa, the girl I was speaking of, she was four, but I didn’t have any interaction with her, so to speak. But I went out with my father and mother every Saturday. They had a bus that took them out to Heart Mountain, which is 13 miles from Cody. So the three kids went out with our folks. My mother was a home ec [home economics] teacher, so she was working with her schoolwork after they’d finally got a good classroom.
Because the first day of class at Heart Mountain, my mother says that they had no … they just had benches, and the classroom was cold, and it was in another recreation room. They hadn’t built the school yet. And she said the girls wanted to know what to wear. You know, it was twenty below zero that first day of school. The wind was blowing, and these little girls were in this class and they didn’t really have any warm clothes. So they wanted to make some warm clothes, and mother and Mrs. John Corbett, the other home ec teacher, she’s the mother of Dr. John Corbett, who was here … a doctor, the surgeon that lived here in town. His father was superintendent of schools at Heart Mountain. They came from Lusk, I think.
So anyway, the Corbett kids, the Corbetts lived in Powell, and we lived in Cody, and the Corbett kids were the same age as ours, as us. So we went on picnics with our Japanese friends, went fishing with them and my aunt and uncle … my uncle, Alden Ingram, the one who was lost in the cave, he was the director of agriculture at Heart Mountain.
So, the one activity that I really remember was on July Fourth, they had this hero, Doctor Ben … no, not doctor … Sergeant Ben Kuroki, he was from Hershey, Nebraska. And he’d been one of the Japanese Americans that was flying over Germany to bomb the Pitesti air fields [probably Ploiesti oil fields raid in Romania]. And he had many medals of honor, and he was a hero. They had a hero’s welcome for him. They had a parade with all the boy scouts and the flags and a hero’s welcome. He gave a speech that night, and it’s recorded in the Heart Mountain Sentinel. And he really gave a good speech. And I was in this room with all these Japanese girls, and I was just 12 years old, listening to this hero. Afterwards, they said that “you can come up and get his autograph.” And I happened to have a picture of him, and so I went up and got his autograph.
And that was one time that I wish that I would’ve had the same glossy hair, dark hair that the other girls had, and the dark eyes, and maybe a little bit slanted. But that was the first time that I felt like I was an alien, so to speak, or different. And so … but most of the time we just … we had a good time with our Japanese friends when we took them to Yellowstone Park. And we got a letter, I have some letters from Mr. Yamakawa’s wife, and his mother, and they liked my mother’s spinach salad. They remembered that. And we all brought something. I wanted to digress a minute, which I do a lot.
OLETA: About, let’s see, where was I … our friends … Oh, I guess you could put a … what did I do? I blanked out for a minute. Oh. Dave Yamakaw—er … Ben Kuroki, he was featured on a film on National Public Television, on the “Most Honorable Son,” and it was also written up in the Nebraska, one of the Nebraska historical booklets, that … about his life, which I happen to have the story, which would be good for this.
But he had quite a hard time with the Americans. They would call him, you know, “you sorry Jap” and “get outta here.” And they called him names, even though he was one of the crew members on one of these planes that had many, many times over the fields … missions. Missions. So it was quite an opportunity.
And my brother tells about when he went out on Saturday with our father and mother, he went out on a tractor. They were building … trying to get the land tilled so that they could plant lots of food out there, which later on, the food really became good because the Japanese farmers are pretty well known for their farming abilities and growing things. He would ride on the tractor with my dad when they were tilling the land and getting it ready to plant. So it must have been quite a sight, when it first started out. I remember going through the … we had to pass through the tower where the guards were, and we had to give our password or our … give us … our identification that we always had to do. So that was a little bit scary, I remember.
TERI: What did your … did any of your classmates back in Cody … what was their response to your dad working out there, and your mother?
OLETA: Oh, oh yeah. Well, our classmates, as you know … well, I don’t know whether you know, but [former U. S. Senator] Alan Simpson and [former University of Wyoming Foundation director] Pete Simpson, do you know who they are?
TERI: Yes, uh-huh?
OLETA: They were my classmates.
OLETA: And Alan Simpson and Pete, they had written articles in other books with their experiences with the Boy Scouts. And they turned out to be very positive in the long run because Alan and [former U.S. Congressman and Transportation Secretary] Norm Mineta met at the Boy Scout camp. And they were responsible, I think, for getting the Japanese people to have an apology from our government for taking away their civil rights from American citizens. Alan tells about how we were so afraid when 11,000 people out there, and they thought they’d come in and kill us or something.
It was very afraid, very much fear-based. And one of my best friends, who was a barber, he had something on his … a sign on his barber shop “No Japs Allowed.” His son later became a judge … Bob? One of my classmates … I can’t think of his name. But Pete Simpson and I were … we just went about our school thing in Cody, and went out our ways with our folks, everybody … I don’t think our kids, the pep squad and everything that I was in, and the class activities that I was in didn’t seem to make any difference with the kids, other than when they first came.
OLETA: But we were afraid of that.
TERI: How big was the town of Cody, at the time?
OLETA: Cody was about 2,000.
TERI: So, the town of 2,000 was worried about …
OLETA: It was 13 miles away.
TERI: Behind barbed wire and under guard.
OLETA: And I heard some other people talk about Japanese people and about their experiences there, including this Shig Yabu … Did you read this book? [A Boy of Heart Mountain, by Barbara Balzadua and Shigeru Yabu, Yabitoon Books, 2010; now out of print].
TERI: I did, yes.
OLETA: And Shig Yabu talks about the swimming pool. And the latest one they had in Heart Mountain, the all-American town. It was also on public television about two months ago. And Shig Yabu talks in there about the swimming pool. They dug out this hole, there, where they had this swimming and great swimmers and then they iced it over in the winters and did ice-skating. And so he talks about that. And of course, about his having this bird crawling under the barbed wire fence when he was ten years old and all these kids … and getting the bird to talk …bringing the baby bird back to talk, which was the talk of the town, I think. I think he said people came from blocks all over just to talk to that bird.
TERI: Did you, when you were there, when you were there, did you hear anything about it? No—?
OLETA: No, never did, not until sixty years later. So, we’re gathering all this information. And it has really been a delight to hear about these other Japanese tell about how—well, they had never been around so many Japanese people in all their life. You know, they lived in Japan-town, and the Chinese and the Japanese didn’t like each other very well. But this was an occasion where they could accept what they had to go through or not accept it, and not have a very good time or be negative about it. Most of them I found were very positive. And that’s what Shiggy…Shig Yabu (I call him Shiggy), that he was … he used his inspiration on a young person outfit to attract other people of like mind. And he said that, well, that he’d never gotten a chance to be so close to all these Japanese people for so long, for three years. And they just knew them here and there when they were living in San Francisco and went to their respective places. But he was very enthusiastic about what he was learning.
And the kids seemed to be really accepting of it, what you can’t change, you know, accepting what you can’t change and the wisdom to tell the difference. But that’s the way kids are. They were resilient. They had some activities making their sleds. They made their sleds out of this old lumber. They used this old lumber that was laying around. And made chairs and furniture out of it, and they made a chair for my father in the carpentry class, and engrossed [engraved] his name in the back of it. My sister has that chair, here, it says, “M.T. Kurtz,” and it was presented to him out of the craft work they had made at Heart Mountain. And they made ceramic things for my folks, my father had a ceramic pencil holder, and so … but I was just amazed at all the activities that they had. They had the embroidery class, and presenting the picture to my parents. And the embroidery was just, oh it was just beautiful. I’ve had people look at it. I have it in my massage room; my angel room where I do my therapeutic massage. That’s what I do now. I’ve been a therapeutic masseuse for 30 years.
TERI: Okay. I want to fast forward really quickly, and then we’ll come back. But I want to fast-forward to the dedication last year, last October … er, last August 2011 that you attended. How was that? Tell us about that.
OLETA: That was, that was just amazing, especially to meet my friends Pat Yamakawa, and her husband, and I guess his name is ….We met at the library in Cody. I knew they were going to be there, and I drove like heck to get up there at a certain time because at the library they were having this speaker--why didn’t I bring my book? He wrote the book. The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. That’s who it was by.
And he’s part Chinese, and he was giving a talk at the library about his book. I’ve since read his book, and it’s all about this Japanese family that was interned and all the emotions that they went through. And so I got there to the library just in time to hear him, and went with my sister-in-law, my brother’s wife. And we met Pat Yamakawa and her husband there with all these other Japanese—that was another thing: most of the people were Japanese at that time in Cody, and out at the Heart Mountain Dedication Center. It was just really … and I have a picture of them here. I guess I showed that to you before. Oh … this is them.
OLETA: Pat … Pat Yamakawa. She’s 79 now, and she has her grandchildren, and she’s … most of the people out there at the churches … they had all kind of churches: the Buddhist church, Methodist, and Episcopal and Catholic, and that was another of the activities that they did through the church. And the Simpson boys went out to be with the Japanese on Sundays, you know. But she also told me about Shig and so she gives this to her grandchildren, and she gives talks about Heart Mountain all over, too. And those are some pictures of the beautiful Japanese girls that were all surrounding Shiggy, here.
OLETA: And he had six girls around him, but I only got pictures of four of them, and I wanted to take a picture. But their mother, these girls’ mother was sitting over in the corner, and she was 83, and she’d been at the camp when she was a girl. And we got to hear [former NBC Anchorman]Tom Brokaw speak. There were over a thousand people in that tent, and Tom Brokaw. ... we just got a picture of him, but I did get to go up and shake hands with Pete Simpson and Al Simpson and Norm Mineta and some of the organizers. And Norm Mineta, their speakers were inspiring and it was really inspiring to see them. The next day, cut the barbed wire, they had a place where they had the museum. We also met the architect of the museum after the library talk.
It seemed like the spirit was just one of joy and peace and healing of old wounds, and they cut … they had a Shinto priest in his white garb and everything, so … there was a few of them … we were sitting clear over on the other side; you almost needed binoculars to see this thing go on, but they did have big screens around. And they had a Japanese drumming group that were just spectacular doing the drumming. And they were from Los Angeles.
There were people from all over the country, mostly from California and the East. And some of them did climb Heart Mountain. We wanted to climb Heart Mountain, but it was pretty closed because they didn’t want to have too many. I climbed Heart Mountain when I was … let’s see. I was eighteen. And I went with my brother and my boyfriend, and we went clear to the top of the pinnacle there. And then I climbed it again with our hiking group here in Casper, that we … they have a better trail now. It’s a lot better trail.
And by the way, Shig has … there’s a lady in Cody that has an aviary. She works with birds that are wounded and repairs their wings and so on, so Shiggy sent me a picture of him and this lady releasing these birds. He called them Maggie, “Maggie One” and “Maggie Two.” So it’s been really quite a blessing to go back.
And Pat Yamakawa is coming back again this summer. And they’ve been so impressed with being able to go to Yellowstone Park. At first they weren’t able to go to Yellowstone Park because they were aliens. But I saw the historical thing for the Western History … about the Japanese girl scouts. I also have some really good pictures of the girl scouts. But they were just amazing, these people. The boy scouts and the girl scouts and the activities that they had.
Also, the intermural activities … some of our friends from Casper, Mary Lou Morrison’s husband, went up and played football with the teams at Heart Mountain. And then they had the baseball teams at Heart Mountain. There was another story about that, on public television. And so the cultural exchange was … with music and churches, the activities, the sports, the intermurals, we all got to look at people a little bit differently because we got to know them better. And that was the main thing … some of the Japanese said, “Well, I never was around so many Japanese in all my life! But I got to know them better and they’ve been friends for life,” while they were at Heart Mountain. How are we doing?
TERI: We’re doing pretty good. I’m going to ask you about after Heart Mountain, about your life now. So, your dad is there through 1945, and tell us what you did, I mean, give us the story of your life from there, when did you graduate from high school and what did you do from there?
OLETA: I graduated from high school … I enjoyed high school so much; I was in the plays and pep club and in all the activities like I said, like high jumping and track and field, and I was … Pete Simpson and I were the boy and girl “best exemplifying the spirit of Cody High.” That was one award I got. And I enjoyed being in thespians. I think there was an article here of when I was in a play. I played the part of a Negro maid in there. And … let’s see.
TERI: Young April.
OLETA: Mm-hm. It was the junior class play. And then I went to the University of Wyoming and I majored in home economics, what my mother had majored in. And so at the University of Wyoming, my first year I pledged Kappa Delta sorority because one of the girls in there was at girl scout camp when I was … I was at girl scout camp, and I was also a leader at girl Scout camp, come to think of it. When I was … that was after high school. I was 19 at girl scout camp up at Home Lodge at North Fork towards Cody, towards Yellowstone Park. And I taught archery and folk dancing and Indian dancing at the girl scout camp--
TERI: I just need to flip this over, that’s going to continue, but I just … get this to the point where we can … all right. So you were at girl Scout camp.
TERI: You taught archery and …
OLETA: I taught archery and folk dancing and Indian dancing. And I learned the Indian dancing because our Coach Waller at Cody High School, he was our girls’ coach. He also danced in the Fourth of July parade and he wore his Indian costumes that he made and he was adopted into an Indian tribe up in Montana. And you couldn’t tell him different from a real Indian except he had blue eyes. And so Bill Waller, my coach … I wanted to learn Indian dancing and teach that to the girl scouts. So he came over to my house—we had a book, too—and he had a drum and so he taught me some … the main things about Indian dancing, and they tell stories.
And I had been, when I was a little girl we lived in Lander, and my uncle was head of the Northern Tribune Herald, the newspaper over there in Lander. And he would take us out to the Indian reservation at Fort Washakie. And we would watch the Indians dance and go with him, so I guess that’s where I got my passion for that. So I enjoyed that very much, and girl scout camp and going with my old girl scout leaders. And so in the meantime, I pledged Kappa Delta because of this girl Pat Henry, who is a teacher here in Casper, a reading teacher, very well known. And she was from Lovell. And so I pledged because of her. Being in a sorority, I was also in the Miss Wyoming contest for two years—the sorority had sponsored me. And that was quite an experience.
TERI: What was your talent?
OLETA: My talent was a humorous reading that my mother taught me when she won prizes in elocution at the University of Wyoming. And it was called “The Laughing Norwegian Girl,” and [she was] going to see the photographer to have to picture taken so that she could send her picture to her boyfriend in Sikania. And she had this accent and she would laugh at every sentence (laughs) you know, and I had a black tooth. I didn’t bring that picture. But I had a tooth blacked out, and Mother was my trainer and I had a costume with an old multicolored big hat, and a purple suit, and high top shoes that took a while to lace up.
And let’s see. And then I had a purse, a funny-colored purse. And then I would come out in the spotlight and sit on this chair, er, no, I’d say … first I’d say, “Oh, Mr. Photographer. Yes, I want to see you. I want to have my picture taken!” And then I’d go into this big laugh, and I’d sit on a chair and I’d have my legs up and I’d just laugh! But I remember that first time, you know, you had to go through the mechanics of … they had about eighty people I think, and they had to break it down to eight finalists. So I was in the eight finalists. And there was another girl from Cody that I knew very well too. And I thought they were all more beautiful than I was.
And so the night I went out on the stage, there was about … it was in the liberal arts auditorium. I think there’s a big Miss Wyoming contest with a lot of people there, 2,000 people. Or maybe … I don’t know maybe 1,000 I might have exaggerated a little. And I just didn’t want to go out, I was so scared. I wanted the floor to swallow me up. But it just so happens that there was … one of my sorority sisters was behind the stage, and she was pulling the curtain, and she kind of gently pushed me out. “Oh, you can do it, Oleta, you can do it.” And so I got out there in the spotlight and as soon as I started to laugh, then I … that I did it fine. And so they gave me fourth place.
OLETA: And they interviewed me. You had to wear a gown, you know, your gown, and you had to wear a bathing suit. And then they had to interview you on the spot, the judges interviewed you. I can’t remember what it was, but they didn’t take any pictures except in my room. I have some pictures of me in my bathing suit and my gown, evening gown, and some pictures of me doing the “Laughing Norwegian Girl.”
The girl that won first place was Esther McLeod from Sheridan, and I think she played the piano. And the next year I was in it in 1949, and my mother … she didn’t sponsor me and I got somebody from the theatre department, and I got a reading of Anne Boleyn just going to the guillotine, and so I [went] from a humorous reading to a very sad reading for Anne Boleyn. But I still placed fourth the next year. And so … and I was so tired afterwards … it took a lot out of you.
And the girls … I was living in the dorm the first year, and I flunked chemistry because of that … of being in that event. So I had to have special chemistry, I had to have a tutor and everything in order to pass my home ec classes. I flunked the first year of organic chemistry because I just didn’t have time to put in on it. But I came out graduating from the University of Wyoming with … on the dean’s honor list, making up for it. And I was in home ec cooking classes, and so my first job was in my own hometown, Cody, Wyoming, as a teacher. And that was quite an experience going in, going to your own hometown. Where you taught girl scouts, and my cousins all lived up there.
So my first class I had study hall and I had three home ec classes, sewing classes. Home ec one, and home ec two, and I taught marriage and family relations and sociology. All those classes! And I had these outside activities. I was a pep club leader, they put on drills at every football game, basketball game. We put on a play. Then I was … Future Homemakers of America … advisor, we put on a play. We went to Laramie on excursions and the FHA girls put on every night there was a football game. We furnished the food, the hot dogs. We cooked them in the home ec department. I’m telling you, I was so busy! And with study hall--I thought that was unnecessary. I resigned the first year I taught, because I had too many activities.
I got $3,200 a year as a special teacher, as a year. And I lived with my folks. That was the only way I could make it back then. I think the second year I lived with my folks and I was able to buy a car, my first car in 1952. So anyway that was … I resigned and I tried to get a job … I had nailed down a job as home demonstration agent in Thermopolis.
But I had a boyfriend that I used to go dancing with, and I just couldn’t think about leaving him and driving 87 miles back to see him on the weekends. He worked at the Cody Trading, and he was a shoe salesman. I later became engaged to him. My first engagement. He was … then I think, the third year teaching … well, I quit the first year and I went with two of my girlfriends back to Pennsylvania—schoolteacher friends—and while I was on the train I hadn’t … I didn’t really like that job in Thermopolis, so I wrote to Mr. Kraus, and I said “could I come back? But please don’t give me any study halls or have me sponsor the Pep Club.”
And so he welcomed me back and so I went back the second year. But he gave me double lunchroom duty, and then I had to teach junior high kids. And that was completely off the schedule. So I had to improvise. They only had 30 to 45 minutes in a class, and there were 30 of them in the class, and you should have no more than 16 to teach cooking, and sewing, and marriage and family and dating, and those things I taught on the side.
I was just four years older than the marriage and family relations class. I didn’t know half as much, and most of them were engaged by the time the class was over. But … at the end of the classroom, I don’t know, because I was a special teacher, Mr. Krauss, he said, “We’re going to give out checks in the home ec department, the last day of school. And if you could please have a lunch ready for us for 87 teachers,” the day before I was to leave, you know.
And I was going on the train to Pennsylvania with these girls. And I had to count and take inventory how much flour and stuff, and had to clean out the ovens and so I was pretty disgusted with that. I said “I’m not going to do that the second year I teach.” But he did, he had me the second year, he gave me a couple of days’ warning. I prepared meals … there wasn’t anybody … my class wasn’t there to help prepare the meals, so I got these boys out on the playground, fourth grade boys, and so I got them to come in and help me make sandwiches. So I went down to the store and got fruit punch and it was Friday. I realized our principal was Catholic, and he had to have fish every Friday. So I had to go to the store again, and get some more tuna or something to make sandwiches.
So that was quite an adventure—being a teacher in my hometown. I couldn’t go any place without the kids following me. And my cousin in the study hall, Kenny Newton. One day I was so serious, you know, taking roll. So the alarm went off behind the study hall curtain, and everybody laughed, you know, in study hall, and, “who put that alarm clock in there?” And it turned out to be my cousin Kenny Newton. And they were playing tricks on me because I was Ms. Kurtz, and I was their cousin, and so they’d follow me. But the year I met my husband, I was the third year teaching.
The third year teaching I had all these … I had home ec three, and I was teaching more advanced sewing and cooking. I didn’t have sociology or family relations. But it was quite a job getting … at the end of the school year we had a big … the money that I was getting for extra income, I had to have career days for home ec … home economists.
So we had a big style show at the Cody auditorium. And we had the parents making all this food, and we were going to have the senior girls come to this big show for careers in home economics and have a style show … and all the girls in the other classes. It was a big undertaking. And getting the Cody auditorium rented at the same time, because the day after they were having graduation, and I was in charge of the graduation. So … but we got … then came the announcement … we were all ready for our … getting the girls excused from school to come to career days, and the principal said, “Oh, we’re having a track meet today. The senior girls are excused to go to the track meet.”
The track meet took precedence over all this planning that I had done, but we still had our style show, and there were a few senior girls that came. But I still got the $200 extra a year for putting that on. It was a lot of work, and showed that I could do it, so … it was quite an event.
TERI: So, how did you meet your husband?
OLETA: I was in charge of graduation, and we had to clear out … oh, I guess, I guess there was also a play. They were giving a play in the Cody auditorium, that was it. And it was on for three days, The Dark of the Moon. And it was a community effort, and I was in the stage crew, and props committee. I wasn’t … I didn’t have a part in it, and all my friends did. It was a big play, The Dark of the Moon. And so … how did I meet my… Oh, I … the girl that was secretary at the high school, Loraine Stauffer, wanted to learn how to do some basic patterns and designs, er, cooking and sewing. Sewing, she wanted to learn how to sew. And so after school sometimes, she’d come down, and I would give her some patterns and how to sew, how to use the sewing machine and all that.
And she said, “By the way, the Marathon Oil” --she worked for Marathon Oil--her husband … Ohio Oil at that time--“We’re having a party and we’d like to have you come. Two of our fellas are bachelors, and they need a date.” And so I consented to go with Len Thomas, so that’s how we met. And I was impressed with … my dad was impressed with him too, because I’d been working on these dude ranches and been going with these cowboys, and my dad didn’t really like those cowboys. But he liked this one, this Len Thomas. And so, you know, I wanted to please my father. And I was living at home, so … that’s how we met, but the first date, it was a blind date, you know.
So I didn’t see him until three weeks later, when I was in charge … I was on the committee for the junior/senior class prom, and I needed a date. And so Len hadn’t called me back, he’d been out in the field or something, and so I got up the nerve to call him, and said, “Will you go to the dance with me?” And with all these school teachers that I’d been with before. And so he came and went to the dance with me. And after that, I think we went to the Elks Club and went dancing after that, and we just had a lot of fun. And after that, he was going out sitting wells, but we’d get to gather everyone—Oh! Graduation. I was in charge … We had to get rid of all the props from our class activity from all the girls getting their style show, and so we had to clear out the auditorium and decorate it for the graduation.
And also, we had the props … I was on this prop committee and my husband went and helped me get the props down at the city dump. We had to get these big stumps and things. And he had a truck, that was another thing, and we went to my grandmother’s house. He met my grandmother. And so everybody was really impressed with him.
So, we got the auditorium all set up and ready for graduation, and then he helped me carry the potted plants from the principal’s office over to the city auditorium where the graduation was going to be, and so he helped me carry that stuff and decorate the stage and all that stuff. I was impressed that he even came to the graduation with me. You know, the faculty had to go to the graduation, and I was always bored at the faculty. Even though there weren’t that many kids, I guess I was bored. But I guess I was thankful … that impressed me that he would go to the graduation with me and carry the plants back. So that’s how I met my husband.
TERI: So, when did you marry and how did you get to Casper?
OLETA: Well, we got engaged … that was the year we got engaged. And we got engaged to get married at Christmastime. My third year I was teaching. In the meantime, we’d been going up to Peanut Butter Flats, we called it, up on Cedar Mountain, where that cave is. And I’d fix peanut butter sandwiches and we’d go up there and eat. Well, he was having to go out in the field. He was an exploratory geologist. He had worked out at Oregon Basin, too, and was just gone a lot. So anyway we got engaged, and the marriage was December 23, the day after school was out. So there was all this planning. And Len’s folks were in Guatemala. His father was an engineer and a geologist both. And his father had worked in Peru and Guatemala and that’s where they were at the time we were engaged in 1952 … 51? 52. Let’s see, yeah. 1952. We were married in 1952, I think, 1952 … No! 1954. I was 24.
OLETA: So, his folks came from Guatemala, and they’d never met me before. But I’d met them through some of the movies that my husband-to-be had showed me movies, and to my folks. And I had kind of met them. They were going to make their home in Salt Lake, where they were before. So we got together and we … the wedding was pretty darn good. I was scared to death, and we had a big reception out at the country club. So it was a good time to get acquainted. We had receptions with our friends, the Van Arsdales.
The kids hid our car, we couldn’t find our car for a long time. But we went to Thermopolis on our honeymoon. And then later to Salt Lake, where we saw his folks again and got acquainted with them. Then I just loved his folks. In the meantime, I’d been, right now, bring you up to … fast forward to what I’m doing now, what I’ve done … we were divorced in 1980, after 25 years of marriage. And so, I was really on my own, and three kids were gone by then, but they were young: 18 and 20 and 24 when that happened. So I ended up going to massage school, family services helped me, and I was … I got to go to massage school in San Francisco. And I got my teacher’s certificate renewed.
I did a lot of substituting [substitute teaching] after the divorce, and so I substituted all over town. I enjoyed that. At Dean Morgan, [Junior High School in Casper] I was a study hall aide at NCHS, [Natrona County High School] and that really wasn’t conducive to getting back to education. But with my background, ten years later, then I started the stress management clinic with massage, and then I’d been working … I got myself well … I went to a macrobiotic cooking group.
And in the meantime, I’d been having migraine headaches for 25 years. I had to have two kidney surgeries when I was 30 and 38, and I was pregnant with my first child. And I had scoliosis of the spine and had to wear a steel brace up my back for two years. And I had arthritis and wore a bracer on my neck and arthritis in my hands, and so when I got divorced, and I went to this macrobiotic cooking group where I had been working at Woods School [in Casper], and this one lady at Woods School got over colon cancer on this macrobiotic diet.
OLETA: And so I began to pay attention, and I was going to the doctor three times a week, and all kinds of drugs and expense, and suicidal thoughts when I was 30, 40, and 50. And so this really, really changed my life, and I’m talking about this next Sunday at the Unitarian Church on Vegan Nutrition: Pure and Simple, and how I came to have the stress management clinic and for four years, people came to my place and I had … it was changing from a plant-based, er, meat-based diet, to a plant-based diet. And I charged people … let’s see … $350 a week.
And I wrote a book, too, Diet for Peaceful Eating: How to Stop a War Against Your Body. And so I met the most interesting people between the massage therapy and this new way of eating, including this guy who had seven Kentucky Fried Chicken places down in Arizona, Phoenix. And he came up and stayed at my place for … I think he stayed a month, so I was really glad to have my house, which was in jeopardy because of the divorce. It was a place, a workshop for me to make my living, and I had … then I, you know, I went to California and to Mexico to work with this lady in California, Victoria Bidwell, I went to natural hygiene conventions and to macrobiotic conventions to learn more about this, because I was so skeptical, being a home ec major, and a meat-eater, and heavy, heavy milk-drinker.
And I found that really all the milk that I was drinking when I was a kid that was causing all these earaches. I had terrible earaches as a child. And pleurisy and pneumonia, and my mother and father would go out and get cactus and take the cactus things, spikes out, and boil up the cactus and make cactus cough syrup for me with it. And so it was really bad when I was a child. So now I write articles in the paper and in my magazines about health, about changing your diet to a more peaceful diet. And that’s really been what I’m going to … tell this girl afterwards. But it has brought me miraculous healing, in spite of the two kidney surgeries and simplified my way of eating and I got rid of $5,000 worth of drugs and I guess it was … I was four years on prescription drugs from the start, from the migraine headaches.
But then after I met my friend, Slim Larsen, after this … that was about 20 years ago. 1992. And I was having these people at my place, and Slim Larson was … he was a goof-off and a show-off like I am. And so we had the Senior Haywire Comedy Team, and he played the harmonica, and we got all these other seniors, these … they belonged to the fiddle club, and I had been singing with this other girl, and we started up … this lady friend of mine, who played … that I did foot reflexology, that’s how I got to know her. And she played the piano for the seniors out in California. She could really play. And so I liked to sing, too, and so we brought people over to her house to make music and harmonize. And there was this other girl that I harmonized with.
And so we started our Senior Haywire Comedy Team. We brought violins and we put an ad in the paper, anyone who would like to be in this group. And then we had this one lady come who played violin with the symphony and started the orchestra at Kelly Walsh High School, D.J. Becker. And so we started performing for all the groups in town, at the assisted living homes. And so we just had so much fun, and we went all over the state, as far as that goes with our group.
And in the meantime, I still had people coming to the plant-based diet, and I got them a lot of carrot juice and gave them massages and so-on. And so now, my friend Slim Larson died about … ten years ago, and I met this other friend, Mike Kilmer, just a month after Slim died. And we were together thirteen years. And I took care of him, too. And so I met … I always put myself out the door when I was under stress, and I’d go walking up at Sunrise [Shopping Center] or I’d go walking up by the [Garden Creek] falls. I’d go hiking by myself, anything, you know, to get the energy and the oxygen.
And so … How did I meet Mike Kilmer … I met him at the fiddle club, and so we used to sing duets at the fiddle club and he used to dance with me at the fiddle club. So after Slim died, I went to the fiddle club and I asked him if he’d like to go to the Solos club with me, and so he went with me, and then to a writing club at the library. And so he went with me to this creative writing class, and I found that he was a poet as well as Slim Larson was a poet. He wrote a poetry book and we used to go over to Riverton to the poetry … they had a big poetry thing over there, statewide poetry contests. And Slim, he wrote a poem—wrote many poems—he wrote a book. But so did … Mike, and so Mike sang and danced, so we started going to the senior dances and we’ve been going to the Senior Olympics now for eight years.
OLETA: And I’ve gotten about … a hundred and … I’ve gotten about 48 gold medals and silver medals, and he’s gotten about 148, because he’s been in it for 22 years. And he’s … he’ll be 95 in June.
TERI: And how old are you?
OLETA: And I’m 82.
OLETA: So, anyway, that’s kind of a synopsis of …
TERI: Oleta, we’ve covered a lot, but I feel like there’s more out there that we haven’t, but we’re running out of time.
OLETA: I know.
TERI: And you need a break, here. But really quick … is there anything that we haven’t talked about today that you would like to talk about?
OLETA: Well, I would like to talk about the Danforth Scholarship that I got when I was in college. And some of my experiences working on these dude ranches, the dude ranch up in Cody at Sunlight Country, where I met the Danforth family that had … they had the Ross and Purina company in St. Louis. And four-square … Mr. Danforth went up … he’d challenge you to read his book, I Dare You, in one sitting. And I remember I took that dare when I was 16 and working on the dude ranch where the Danforth family came out to Cody. So I would like to tell about that and when I finally got the Danforth Scholarship, for one girl, home ec girl in every state, I got to go with one girl from every state in St. Louis. Then we went up to the Christian leadership training camp in Chicago, where the … William H. Danforth, who founded the Ross and Purina Company, was giving his classes. There were 500 girls from all over the world there, and we slept in tents and had these adventures with this scholarship.
TERI: What did you have to do to earn the scholarship?
OLETA: Well, I applied for it, and told them that I knew the Danforth family and my advisor, Miss McKitrick, was the same advisor my mother had when … before … it’s amazing … so, my mother does plan, a big part of my life. And so the Danforths … and so there was one other girl, Mary … Mary—what’s her name?—she applied too, and she was a brain, and she knew all about chemistry and everything. There were only two of us that applied. You had to be a senior in home economics and so I thought sure she would apply, and I didn’t want to use my knowing the Danforth family, but the scholarship showed … “Are you well rounded?” The … you’re supposed to think tall, smile tall, be tall, and live tall on the four-square, you know, the Ross and Purina company thing.
It was like 4-H. You had to exhibit these things, and so I wrote about all my experiences on the dude ranch and in the Miss Wyoming and all that. And so they chose me because I had a variety of things to do. But I didn’t think that, you know, that I would get it because I wasn’t as brainy as this Mary girl. She’d been back to New York, working as a something … driving in New York and all that. And she was in our class. But I got the scholarship, one out of two. And it wasn’t … and Miss McKitrick said, “It wasn’t because you worked out there, at the Sunlight dude ranch, or you knew the family, it was because you had a variety of activities.” So that’s why … I did that.
TERI: And you went to, you went to St. Louis, and met all the other recipients, and then you went to Chicago, and worldwide, this scholarship was given worldwide?
OLETA: There were girls … five hundred girls from all over the world. The girls in my tent were from Germany.
OLETA: And then we had to take classes in Christian leadership. And I have a notebook … We had to keep a notebook every day of our activities and our pictures in both St. Louis and at our Christian leadership training. And we took many classes … and oh, at that camp, I used my Indian dancing because, in our tribe, how many were in our tribe … I was in charge of the benefits that night.
That night, our tribe had to put on the play. And so I had them do the Indian dance. And I was the … it was the pigeon dance, and we got branches from the trees and branched … I was the pigeon, er, I was the eagle. And I put the branches on there … and the pigeons were all the other girls in the dance. So we told a story with that. But that was what I did for the Girl Scout camp. I did it at the Danforth camp, so … and later on, John Danforth was the senator from Missouri, you might have heard of him. [Former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for President George W. Bush.]
OLETA: And he was also the United Nations advisor that President Bush … advised him. And he’s written a book called, Politics and Religion, and he was trying to get some of the things that are in politics today, out of … politics, they shouldn’t be in there. But anyway, John Danforth was a good legislator, senator. And his sister … I used to dance with them out at Sunlight when we were all young, we went dancing every night at the gym. So, that was exciting.
TERI: Yep, we both have to go today …
TERI: But, thank you very much, Oleta!
OLETA: Well gosh, that was good!
TERI: Yeah, I think we’ve got some great stuff here.
- The snapshot of Oleta Thomas is from her collections. Used with permission and thanks.
For further reading and research
- The 2007 PBS documentary, “Most Honorable Son,” tells the story of Nebraska-born, Nisei U.S. Army Air Force Sgt. Ben Kuroki, who served as a machine gunner in bombers in World War II. After he flew 30 missions over Europe, the War Department sent him to give speeches at three different Japanese internment camps in the U.S., as part of a public relations campaign against growing draft-resistance movements in the camps. It was on this tour that he came to Heart Mountain, and young Oleta Kurtz got his autograph.