Carolyn Rae Bartley was born at the height of the Great Depression, April 17, 1932. Today would have been her 85th birthday.
She grew up in Almena, KS, a small town, even by Kansas standards. The town was founded 1872 and had little to offer except being a shipping point located at the junction of two
railroads. The population in the 1890 census was 366 and that’s about where it stands today. At its peak in the 1930 census, it was credited with about 700 citizens.
Mom was the youngest of three children born to Thomas R. Bartley, editor and publisher of a one-man newspaper, the Almena Plaindealer and Leona Bartley, known by her middle name, Ferryl.
My grandfather (born in Nebraska in 1894) was reportedly a brilliant man, but tragically alcoholic. I never knew him and the family never talked about him. Grandma divorced him when my mother was young, and this was quite scandalous in the 1930s — especially in small town rural areas of the Bible Belt. He died when my mom was 13, probably due to his alcoholism. My parents told me and my brothers that he died in a car wreck. When pressed for details, they said that a bee got into the car and he was trying to kill it or shoo it away while driving, lost control and had a wreck.
This story was supposedly better than acknowledging the shame of his “sinful” condition.
That’s really all I know about him, except that I have seen some of the newspaper columns he
wrote (under the pen-name “Bartomley”). He was a witty and erudite man. Mom said he could hand-set the lead type used in newspapers in those days as fast as anyone else could write with pen and paper. That is quite an accomplishment when you realize that the type was basically little blocks, one letter each, and they were backward so that when the type form was put onto the press, it would transfer the ink like a giant metal rubber stamp. He also had a Linotype machine — a huge contraption that had a lead-smelting pot and a typewriter keyboard and was able to cast molds of printed lines — which he could use quickly and proficiently.
My Grandma was a single mother in a difficult time and place. Her oldest child, Maryse, was born in 1923 (passed away in 1988). A year later, she had a son, Thomas E who they called Tom (1924 – 1991). When Carolyn was born, eight years later, she was one of those “surprise” babies — maybe unplanned, but not unloved. She remained devoted to her mother until Grandma died.
In fact, other than our grandfather, we had a very close family. After Mom married my father, we lived only 12 miles away in Norton and spent most Sundays visiting her and our aunts, uncles, and cousins. Every other Thanksgiving and every other Christmas was spent with the maternal side of the family, alternating with the paternal grandparents and extended family in Norton. Thanksgiving with one and Christmas with the other in one year and then alternating the next. It worked out well.
One of the tragedies of alcoholism is the genetic component.
Although grandma Bartley was a tea-totaler, Grandpa passed the alcoholism gene to all his children. Maryse and Tom had their struggles but overcame them with the help of AA. Tom eventually became an alcohol treatment counselor and worked many years at the nearby center, Valley Hope — which has grown into a multi-state chain of centers. I remember Maryse and her husband Burnal were always drinking ice tea whenever we visited on Sunday) so their battle with the bottle was also successful.
Mom was cute, but said she was skinny, shy and awkward as a young girl. But by high school, she was popular — mainly because she was so light that the boys could throw her in the air while dancing the Jitterbug. She remembered those dances as the highlight of her young life. She graduated from Northern Valley High School in Almena, class of 1950.
She met my dad, Don Ward, who was a few years older and a college man back during summer break, when he and some friends were cruising the streets in Almena. She and some of her friends joined them and they all cruised, as kids did then and probably still do. They must have hit it off because they eventually married and spent the rest of their lives together.
Don attended Kansas State University on the ROTC program and graduated just in time to be shipped off to the Korean War. Fortunately, he was a staff officer assigned to a desk job in Tokyo and Mom took a ship across the ocean where she found employed as a civilian clerk/typist for the military. They married in 1951 and had a government-sponsored honeymoon.
Those were good times — young and freshly married, in an exotic land with a nice little house and a native maid paid for by Uncle Sam. My parents would show slides of their Japanese days at family functions for years after. They even had a Japanese-English dictionary that my brothers and I would look in to see if they translated any naughty words. The closest we came was under “A Trip To The Doctor” and the sentence “How are your bowels today?”
I remember that one phrase to this day.
Returning State-side, Don and Carolyn settled down in Norton a gigantic metropolis (compared to Almena) of nearly 4,000 people. Craig, the oldest, was born in 1953, I came along in 1956 and Bart joined the family in 1959.
After mustering out of the Army, Dad joined the National Guard, where he remained for the next 25 or 30 years. Although not an architect, he designed his dream house, which was built in the late 1950s in Norton, and he took a position as advertising manager with the Norton Telegram, a small daily paper averaging about 6 pages a day.
Carolyn was the typical housewife of the day, no outside day job, but three rambunctious sons to take care of. As you can imagine, we drove her nuts.
She played the piano and had a beautiful alto singing voice. I remember gathering around the piano and singing songs from “The Music Man” and listening to her sing old songs like “Bell Bottom Trousers.” In church, she sang loud and clear, and that was my first exposure to harmony. I marveled at how she could sing a different part from everybody else and sound so right.
Another tradition of those times was smoking. Don and Carolyn were heavy smokers and they made the most of it by smoking Raleigh and Belaire cigarettes. Each pack had a coupon on the back and each carton had a bonus strip of coupons inside. I recall my parents bundling coupons into bundles of 100 bound with a rubber band stored in shoeboxes until they had enough to redeem.
Our house was furnished from the Raleigh catalog and probably a lot of birthday and Christmas presents came from those cigarette coupons — toasters, blenders, bowling balls, whatever you wanted.
The cigarettes themselves had something else to give.
Sweet, kind Carolyn had health problems most of her adult life. Like others in her family, she developed Type II diabetes, which ran uncontrolled at times and hospitalized her. She developed breast cancer, and later survived with a double mastectomy. She couldn’t give up the smoking habit, though, even when Don developed COPD severely enough to require an oxygen tank all the time. Eventually, she developed throat cancer and it made the remainder of her life miserable.
The major tragedy of her life was when her first-born, Craig, developed colon cancer and died just two days after his 49th birthday. Her fragile health teetered and then landed her in the hospital in a diabetic coma.
When she recovered, and family members came to visit her, she wondered why Craig wasn’t there. The illness had totally blocked his death out of her mind. When she found out, she had to live the horrible news all over again. They say no parent should have to lose a child, but absolutely nobody should have to lose her child twice.
Her family was her most precious possession. Once her three sons grew out of their adolescent rebellion period, we all became very very close as adults. Then, when she started having grandchildren, she was in heaven.
Don and Carolyn moved in with their youngest son Bart and his wife Sharol when they got beyond caring for themselves. She passed away in 2004. Don passed away in 2010.
Mom will be remembered by all who loved her as a kind and gentle and sentimental person, dedicated to her family.
Those who knew her and those who loved her will realize that this is not a definitive biography of Carolyn Ward and many things have been left out of her life story.
However this is a tribute made by and for the many people who will never forget her and the impact she had on their lives – as a mother, a relative and a friend. She touched many people, and we are all better because of her.
April 17, 2017
From Estelle Toby Goldstein, MD
Wade tells his family’s story with both the loving words of a loving son and the articulate clarity that obviously comes from his “newspaperman” genetic heritage.
Obviously my direct contact with Carolyn comes later in the story. She was a kind and gentle woman, very indulgent to her maverick Eastern daughter in law.
I remember when she was having terrible troubles with back pain. Me, I never seem to think other doctors treat anybody well enough, especially this sweet woman who told me just to treat her as a “spare mother” and to call her “Momma Carolyn.”
We talked about her back pain while Wade was out with his father. She told me how much she had once loved to dance. We had gotten her a little electric transcutaneous (through the skin) electrical nerve stimulator (“TENS”) unit for her pain. I hooked it up and made it work. She was really happy when it did — all full of smiles. I decided to teach her a little dance she could do to surprise our husbands when they came home.
She was really all smiles when we performed our little Irish jig for our husbands.
She told me she was certain the best and most fun part of her life had been in high school.
She told me she was a “fashion leader” and everyone copied what she did. For example, she “discovered” if you buttoned all the buttons on a cardigan and wore it backwards. it looked just like a pullover. She was proud of herself when she wore her cardigan this way and all the other girls in her class went on to do the same.
But even more than that, she enjoyed being a “dancing queen.” She loved it when the boys whipped her around either on the floor beneath their legs — or better yet, in the air over their heads.
She had been, more precisely, the “jitterbug queen.” Her small stature had made her the most favored dance partner in her class.
Since her husband Don was not inclined to give me any demonstrations of how they had danced, (she was relieved, she was afraid he would hurt himself, anyway) she contented herself with showing me some of the floor steps girls could do together.
From then on, we made it into a sort of “resource state,” since thinking about that time always made her happy.
From that moment, all I needed to do, no matter what we were discussing, was to sing the word “jitterbug” nice and low, and she would start smiling, even laughing.