Saving Marvel Morrison

Donated 1925 yearbook book a window to Oregon’s past
(The Oregon Observer, Vol. 131, No. 7, Thursday, August 20, 2015, pg. 1)

Scott De Laruelle
Unified Newspaper Group

Frankly, Betty Nowak was just there to find an item or two to help turn a buck, as she browsed an estate sale in suburban Phoenix, Ariz.  

She wasn’t planning on saving an irreplaceable treasure trove of Oregon High School history from the trash bin.

But that’s exactly how it played out – all to the delight of Nowak – a Glendale, Ariz. resident who told the Observer Friday she usually doesn’t pay much attention to “more personal” items at estate sales she attends for her online resale business. But something caught her eye at a recent stop – something amongst the usual collection of furniture, jewelry and accessories was this tattered-yet-elegant, bulging book, with a fading rose-inscription and falling-apart collection of letters, photographs and memorabilia. 

It was simply titled, “My Graduation Memory Book.”

As she carefully leafed through the delicate, yellowed pages, she saw it was the 1925 Oregon High Yearbook of Marvel Morrison – this was the estate sale of her only child, Marilynne, who had moved from Wisconsin to Arizona years ago. 

“Normally something like that, the family will set aside,” Nowak said “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is amazing; this is a one-of-a-kind thing.’”

Realizing the significance to Morrison’s hometown, she purchased the book, did a bit of research on Morrison and Oregon, and donated it to the Oregon Area Historical Society (OAHS) for the cost of postage. In a letter to the society that’s included in the 150-page display document, she called the book a “glorious and idyllic account of (Morrison’s) high school years.”

“I thought, ‘This is invaluable, I’ve got to get this back to the community,’” Nowak said Friday. “It just makes me happy, knowing what they are doing with this and how it’s impacted the community; to have that knowledge.”

And even though Nowak and is 1,000 miles away, she’s now considered the best of neighbors by some very grateful area historians back in Oregon who appreciate someone putting past over profit. 

“It’s important to find the right home for photos, artifacts, but that doesn’t always happen,” said OAHS board member Melanie Woodworth, who called the book a “treasure.” 

“This time it did, thank to a person who recognized the value to our community.” 

Treasure trove

Due to the book’s condition, society members have separated its contents into a 150-page three-ring binder for purposes of readability and posterity.

“It’s unfortunate, but we had to take it apart or it would have fallen apart,” said OAHS member Gerald Neath.

Aside from the age of the documents, the main reason the book is best examined as separate documents is the sheer quantity – as well as quality – of what Morrison collected. It is a memory book in the truest sense of the word.

OAHS member Ann Morris, ironically a one-time next-door neighbor of Morrison (they lived on adjoining farms) was also a student of hers when the latter would substitute teach at the elementary school in Oregon. Morris said while the society didn’t have any other OHS memory books from that era in its collection, they were actually quite common – generally autograph books more than anything. Morrison simply took it to the next level, and perhaps that is one of the reasons it’s survived to this day – it’s worth keeping. 

“Most people don’t fill it out to the extent that she did,” she said with a chuckle. 

OAHS member Jerry Neath said the book is sort of “unique scrapbook” detailing the experiences of Morrison and her classmates.

“There’s never going to be a class documented as well, from what she’s done there,” he said. “Very few people have taken the pains to do what she has done for her graduation book – it’s an extensive review.”

The book is the most valuable type of artifact for a historian, Neath said, because it’s a “snapshot a lifestyle that has changed over the years.”

“To me, when we go through a museum, the important thing is people’s lifestyle – how it has changed and why it is changed,” he said. “Because so often, we overlook that – things were done differently and they changed, quite often out of necessity. 

“And I guess that’s what you want to draw from it, as much as you can, is that lifestyle was prevalent in the 1920s for a high school class.” 

Marvel of her time

These days, Marvel Morrison probably would have been a social media boss, prolifically and thoughtfully posting photos, thoughts and links. But for the OHS Class of 1925, communication meant black-and-white photos (that had to be developed) and handwritten letters through the mail.

In her scrapbook-type style, Morrison’s memory book uses these as her medium to provide a unique look  into an era long past – now nearly a century – with dozens of pages of handwritten letters from friends, programs from plays and concerts, newspaper clippings, autographs and photos of teachers and classmates and even her sketch of a proposed class ring. 

In flowing cursive, she writes detailed observations about the school’s teams and activities, and teachers and classmates. There is even a collection of dried petals from a “bleeding heart” flower, given to her in May 1924 “as a token of friendship by Florence Seely, a dear ‘pal.’”

Morrison, born in 1907, was clearly a good student, as evidenced by a newspaper clipping lauding her work as a 13-year-old at Oak Hill School. By her senior year at OHS, her coursework was Latin, English, physics and American history, for which she received final grades of, respectively, 95, 96, 91 and 97. She was neither marked tardy nor absent for the year. There is a penciled notation reading “$5.00 gold piece” on a yellowed second semester report card from her sophomore year – perhaps a reward for good grades. 

Growing up on a farm just outside Oregon on Cty. Hwy. A, she grew from a smart girl into an educated woman with a flair for writing, graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1930 with a bachelors of arts degree. In 1934, she married Odin Alfred Otteson, an oil distributor who worked in Stoughton and was member of the Oregon Volunteer Fire Department for 20 years. They had one child; a daughter, Marilynne. 

Marvel Morrison worked as a substitute teacher for several years at the Oregon Consolidated Schools and later was the Oregon correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal, where she was employed at the time of her death “after a brief, unspecified illness” in 1968, according to her obituary. Odin Ottenson died in 1962.