It's not often you meet someone as upbeat and knowledgable as 89-year-old Donna Ochs, who has a story to tell about growing up in a poor Independence family during the Great Depression and not knowing she was.
“I have done a heap of living in Independence and I have enjoyed every minute of it,” says Donna, who was one of the first babies born at the now-defunct Independence hospital on March 11, 1928, and lived the first 18 years of her life at 1420 S. Dodgion St. with her grandmother, mother and three older sisters.
Sitting at a small table in her apartment at The Fountains at Greenbriar, Donna says even though poor, “We didn't want for anything. My mother and grandmother canned. We kept a cow and had all the milk we wanted,” she says, explaining she and a sister use to walk the family cow down Noland Road to a nearby pasture every morning and bring 'old bossy' home at night. The family also owned a goat.
Reflecting on her growing-up years, Donna never thought of herself as a “ poor little girl,” she says, because she was never hungry or without nice clothing. Her widowed mother made all her children's clothing out of donated apparel.
“My grandmother would split all the seams, wash and iron the material; Mom would reset them and we would have new clothes.”
One thing missing in Donna's life was a father. He was killed in a car-drowning accident in Carthage, Missouri, three weeks before she was born. Therefore, not knowing how it felt not to have a father, “I didn't miss one,” she recalls. “My grandmother came to live with us, and she pretty much raised me. My mother had to go to work and grandmother stayed at the house and took care of everything.”
Growing up in the 1930s and '40s wasn't anything like growing up in today's world.
"It was different. We didn't have toys. We didn't have (electronic) things to play with. You had to find your own fun,” she says. “We had to walk everywhere – rain or shine – because there was no transportation where we lived. My mother never had a car until my two older sisters graduated (from high school).
As Donna reminisced about the “good old days” in Independence, she recalls parades, band concerts and street dances were big draws on the Square. And if you looked long enough, you might spy the nation's 33rd president strolling the Square at times.
While reminiscing about Harry Truman, Donna recalls the evening she and three other nurses-in-training at the Independence Sanitarium were walking together down Truman Road to the nurses' quarters, as Truman was returning to the “Summer White House” for a weekend visit as he often did. To their surprise, the presidential motorcade stopped near the student nurses. President Truman exited his car, walked up to the four nursing students and gave each a presidential hug and a “thank you.”
Why the hug?
“We were in the last government-paid class for girls to attend nursing school, and he told us how much he appreciated us and how proud he was of us, she recalls. “It was just wonderful.”
Another wonderful day occurred for Donna, who as a preteen participated in a door-to-day campaign selling subscriptions to The Examiner. She scoured the neighborhoods, sold six subscriptions and won a pair of clamp-on roller skates, which she says brought her much enjoyment for a long time.
Calling herself a “tomboy,” Donna says if she wasn't roller skating, she was probably playing softball – her favorite sport – with neighborhood girls, either at a nearby lot, or at nearby McCoy Elementary School, or even in the street at times. She didn't care where. She loved the sport, referring to herself as “a good hitter and a good first baseman.”
Other childhood memories were the “many, many, many hoboes” that visited 1420 S. Dodgion asking for a food hand-out.
“It was a very common (occurrence),” Donna says, recalling her mother always had enough food to give them. “They would sit out on our back porch and we would talk to them as they ate their food. They were always very grateful. We weren't afraid.”
Then there was the old Model-T that Donna's dad was driving in Carthage when a piece of the river bank broke off just as he was crossing. His car fell into the river and he drowned. Later, the Model-T was retrieved from the muddy waters, dried out and Donna's mother drove it for years.
Donna, thanks for sharing your memories with us. Here's hoping you have many more remembrances to come. May God richly bless you in your golden years.
-- Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.