OMAHA -- In Apartment 1206 at a high-rise known as The Manor, Dorothy Cathers was talking about her 40 years as a history teacher, recalling the poverty of the children she first taught in 1935, the drama of World War II and the days of racial desegregation here in the 1970s.
Then she remembered a few of the sacrifices she had made to exert a small, significant influence on that sweep of events -- and to survive.
"When I started, women didn't have many options," said Cathers, 74. "You could be a teacher, a nurse or a mother. At $70 a month, I knew I'd never be rich, and because the school system disapproved of our marrying, I knew I'd likely remain single.
"I retired in 1975 and still live alone on very little," she said. "But I look around The Manor at all the others who gave so much, and I feel reassured that everything I tried to do in life was worthwhile and appreciated."
From the outside, this retirement home for Nebraska schoolteachers doesn't look like much -- a plain, beige apartment house, 12 stories tall on a hilltop in downtown Omaha.
But inside The Manor, amid the framed, reprinted poems by John Greenleaf Whittier, the oak tables covered with literary classics and knickknacks of appreciation from generations of students, lives a remarkable collection of 140 people whose cumulative years of public service here are measured not in decades but in centuries.
The average age here is 84 years. The residents live on annual fixed incomes averaging less than $11,000. But their careers testify vibrantly to the history of the heartland in the 20th century. To them, the American Dream had more to do with intellectual, spiritual and professional fulfillment -- and many here achieved a large piece of that dream.
This is the home of 88-year-old Myrtle McGinnis, Apt. 807, who taught grade school in the 1930s and '40s to scores of Polish, German and Italian immigrants so poor that they called themselves "the River Rats." Today, some of those River Rats are themselves retired, after productive careers in Nebraska industry and commerce -- and several years ago they held a reunion to thank her.
In Apt. 906 lives a retired music teacher named Evelyn Graham who, at 93, still occasionally plays show tunes for her friends in the parlor, despite hands gnarled by arthritis. In her day, Graham performed with the state's best entertainers, helping to launch the careers of fledgling local actors -- including Henry Fonda.
And in Apt. 406, Eloise Crabbe, who spent several years as a missionary teacher in Egypt after she retired for the first time in 1951, still tutors a few Omaha students in the mysteries of algebra and geometry. She is 97.
"Here are people who devoted their lives to the public," said John Thies, president of the Omaha Education Association. "They came up at a time when women were expected to have undivided loyalty to pupils, and in many cases that precluded them from marrying and raising kids of their own. They really helped shape this part of the country -- morally, intellectually. Now they're old and largely forgotten but rich in a sort of nobility that I think is quite rare."
This report, the last in a series about the nation's working class, is about the schoolteachers at The Manor. In socioeconomic terms, they belong to a larger cross section of Americans older than 65, who make up the most sizable percentage of households earning between $9,941 and $18,700 a year. Although their jobs and careers are behind them, their work goes on in the lives of those they taught.
Most Americans in this group live on fixed incomes after lifetimes in the nation's factories, mills and warehouses, farms and schoolrooms -- blue-collar workers, small-business executives and low-level civil servants among them.
Their minds and muscle helped build and sustain the country during the most turbulent and desperate years of this century. They suffered through the Great Depression and saw years of plenty after World War II. Some of them fought in the "war to end all wars," World War I, only to see sons and grandsons fight in Europe and Asia.
A few of these Americans have voted in as many as 16 presidential elections and witnessed some of the greatest social changes in U.S. history, from the organized labor and women's voting rights movements of the 1920s and '30s through the civil rights era of the 1960s.
Most are retired, and their savings, pensions, social security benefits and investments -- in land, stocks, government bonds -- are their primary means of support.
Of the 17.6 million households in this income group, they make up 29 percent. More than 75 percent own their homes, nearly half are married, and most have reached a time in life when they finally can spend the penny saved that was once a penny earned.
The schoolteachers at The Manor -- which could be any retirement home, anyplace in America -- are not a perfect statistical fit. Many of them are women who never married or owned their own homes. Some live on far less than $9,941 a year. A few spent so many of their working years before the passage of the Social Security Act that they are eligible for only a bare minimum in federal retirement benefits -- in some cases as little as $25 a month.
But in other ways, these teachers are more than exemplary, transcending stereotype to evoke a grace, dignity and quality of life that capture the very spirit of their age. The Manor is the kind of place where beliefs in God and country are neither ephemeral nor frail. A portrait of the president hangs in the lobby, and an American flag, certified to have flown over the U.S. Capitol, waves out front year-round.
When old men gather in the parlor with their canes and walkers to recall "the war," it is sometimes World War I they speak of, 85-year-old George Rybin in particular remembering the hellish days of the Argonne Forest.
This is a place where life's smaller joys resonate with singular clarity, nurtured by the power of time. Last year, when Halley's Comet made its first return to Earth since 1910, many here, binoculars in hand, spent hours atop the roof each March night gazing heavenward to see the comet a second time.A Tradition of Self-Reliance
The Manor was built in 1958 with federal loans and $300,000 in private donations from Nebraska teachers. Administered by a nonprofit foundation made up of educators, it was the first retirement home in the United States built specifically for teachers.
In this city of 311,681, whose growth was spurred initially by the cattle and railroad industries, self-reliance and private charity have a long, honorable tradition. This is the home of Boys' Town, which, 80 years after its founding by an Irish immigrant priest, continues to educate and nurture delinquent and troubled youths from across the United States.
The same spirit, applied at the opposite end of the life cycle, gave rise to The Manor.
"Omaha didn't get into the Social Security system until 1951, and for a long time our pension plans were quite poor," Thies said. "The Manor was a way of helping our old teachers who just weren't doing well. A few were broke and quite ill. Many were single and had outlived their families. It was also a way of bringing these teachers together so they wouldn't have to be alone."
Each year, an average of 12 people die here. The second floor was converted long ago into a 16-bed health care center for teachers too ill or frail to care for themselves. There, amid sepia-toned photographs of parents long dead and bouquets of flowers from Omaha schoolchildren, the teachers, a few older than 100, spend their last weeks of life.
"When they come to this floor they expect to die, but while they're here they do come to terms with the loneliness of their life," said nurse Edie Schulte, 59, showing a visitor through the center, where most of the patients were napping. "An old schoolteacher is a lovely sort of person. Even those with Alzheimer's are always thinking of children. One lady moans most of the
day about how cold it was one winter years
ago and how badly her children needed
shoes . . . .
"A couple of months ago a wonderful woman named Amy died. She was 94 and taught English for 45 years in Omaha," Schulte said in a soft voice, as she brushed a few strands of white hair back from the face of a sleeping teacher. "She never married and was dying alone. On her last night, I held her face in my hands and I told her, 'Amy, you have such a beautiful smile. I love you.' The poor thing started crying. She said, 'No one's ever told me that before.' "
The nurse entered Room 201, where 88-year-old Rose Lite, who taught grade school here for 44 years, sat in a wheelchair eating lunch. She was thin, her gray hair tied in a bun behind her head. "Hi, babe," Schulte said, smiling as she admired an old framed photograph of a beautiful young couple sitting beneath a tree.
"Those are my parents," Lite said. "It was taken in 1907."
"You taught at Corrigan, didn't you, Rose?"
"Yes, indeed. I spent most of my life there. In the early days, the children used to come to school in white shirts and long black stockings and garters, no matter how poor they were. One boy used to say every day, 'I wished to heck I had a nickel.' Finally, I asked him why. He said, 'So I can buy a loaf of bread and eat it all myself.' He said his mother had to put their bread in the upper level of the oven so the rats couldn't get it . . . . "
Lite told stories as she sipped her coffee and puffed on a cigarette. Then Schulte asked, "Why didn't you ever get married, babe?"
"No one could afford me," Lite replied, her eyes alight with conviction. "No man ever got lucky enough." Endowed With Higher Values
Rent at the The Manor -- now $260 a month -- has always been modest, but for a time in the late 1970s, when occupancy dropped below 80 percent, the association that runs the building was in grave danger of bankruptcy. Then, like the unlikely twist in plot of a 1930s melodrama, three resident teachers in their 90s died within a month, bequeathing their entire estates to the home and their comrades.
"Suddenly, we had $2.5 million," recalls Linda Richter, 44, the manager of The Manor. "I usually get mad when I hear the stereotype about the quiet old lady who stashes away all her money. Most of our people just don't have much. But in this case, the three ladies had inherited money from parents who had gotten wealthy in railroads and ranching before the turn of the century. They worked and taught and lived all their lives without spending any of it."
Such devotion to higher values above earthly gain characterized the working lives of almost everyone at The Manor. To hear them speak about the America they used to know and the one they know now is to grasp how much they have invested in this country, and how much -- and how little -- it has changed.
"When I was a little girl in Missouri, I was very close to my grandmother," said Lola Williams, 75, a cheerful woman with bright gray eyes who taught nursing for 30 years. "I remember her once talking about the war -- the Civil War -- and how she ran mile after mile telling people, 'Mr. Lincoln's been shot!' I remember how amazed she was at the neighbors' reaction. One farmer just broke down and cried. Another said he should have been shot years ago.
"In my time, there's been quite a few things that have divided people," she said. "But it's faith that keeps us together. The men in my family have fought in every war we have ever had, including the revolution. It would be sinful for me to say I don't believe in this land."
Williams, asked how Americans' attitudes have changed in her life, told a story about a slave woman named Annie who once worked as a nanny for her grandmother's family. After Emancipation, the woman married and moved to Iowa. Years later, the family learned that Annie was dying of tuberculosis. Williams' grandmother hitched a horse and wagon and traveled 425 miles to Iowa to pick her up and return her to the family farm, where she was cared for until she died.
"When you love people, race and politics don't matter. During the worst days of the Depression, people survived because they helped each other. If I had a box of tomatoes and you had a box of potatoes, we shared them because it was better for both of us," she said. "Nowadays, I don't think people care as much. We've got welfare and Social Security now, but I think we've forgotten how to help each other as people. That's what worries me most: If bad times come again, I'm not so sure we'd share."
Myrtle McGinnis, curly-haired, enthusiastic, witty, recalls the Depression in equally vivid terms. She taught for 21 years at a grade school filled with immigrant children, some of whom lived on the banks of the Missouri River in "huts made of dried mud," she said.
"They came from broken homes, and a lot of their parents were alcoholics. Most of them worked on produce farms. The most important thing I tried to teach those kids was that life could be much better. I told them, 'Look, I don't want to hear any more of that 'River Rat' nonsense," McGinnis, a widow, recalled. " 'You're just as good as anyone else. I'm with you for more hours every day than my own children, and I am certainly not a 'River Rat.' "
Twenty-two years after she retired, McGinnis said she still hears from those pupils today, one of whom ended up in a Nebraska prison serving a long term for armed robbery. "He wrote to me, 'Mrs. McGinnis, you helped me out of so many scrapes, is there anything you can do to help me?' " McGinnis said. She writes to him every month.
McGinnis then recalled the reunion several of her old students held last year. Her face radiant with pride, she laughed and said, "Oh, they were so successful -- insurance people, car dealers, mechanics. I was never kissed by so many old geezers in my life."
Of all the teachers at The Manor, Dorothy Cathers is perhaps the most active, volunteering as a guide at the Omaha History Museum, a receptionist at The Manor and a saleswoman at a local educators' thrift shop whose profits subsidize the rents of poor teachers in her building.
Cathers is graceful, with blue eyes and wavy white hair. Her income is $1,135.87 a month from three sources: Social Security ($581), Omaha public school teachers' pension ($425.87) and $129 from a small annuity she purchased a quarter century ago.
"It isn't much, but I learned to live on little a long time ago," she said. Her monthly expenses, including rent, utilities, food, transportation and recreation, usually total a little more than half her income.
During the 40 years she taught school, American consumer prices rose 292 percent, according to U.S. Department of Commerce statistics. But Cathers never thought much about money, she said, as long as "I had a place to live and food to eat." She measured the passage of time not by what money could do but by what she could do in her classroom.
"In 1935, when I taught world history, I began the year with the Greeks and Egyptians," she said. "By my last year, so much had happened in my life -- Hitler, the war, Vietnam, Civil Rights -- I saved time by starting with the Treaty of 1815."
In retirement, Cathers delights in the simplest of things, like eating lunch once or twice a week at the Omaha Press Club, where patrons respectfully address her as "Miss Cathers." The other day, with McGinnis, Williams and 40 others from The Manor, she rode a bus to picnic at Beaver Lake, where they ate fried chicken, drank beer and, giggling like schoolgirls, crooned songs from their youth.
For hours that hot afternoon, the strains of "Side by Side," "Oh You Beautiful Doll" and "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" resounded on the lakefront. At one point, Cathers gleefully discovered a bed of wild poppies like ones she remembered from her mother's garden. "I haven't seen these in years," she exulted, picking a few and presenting them to her friends. Joy in Continuity
But perhaps her greatest joy is her sense of the continuity in her life and career. A block from The Manor is Central High School, at 128 years the oldest public school in Nebraska. It's a fine old building of brick and granite. Cathers' father went to school there, graduating in 1901. Cathers went there, finishing in 1931. She taught there for 31 years until she retired.
Each morning when school is in session, Cathers rises from her bed, takes a cup of coffee and sits by her dining room window, which overlooks the school's parking lot. She waits and sips, she said, and watches intently until her great-grandniece, Catherine, now a Central senior, steers her car into the lot.
"It makes me feel so good to see her," the teacher said, "I always find myself smiling."