LIFE IN POVERTY has been romanticized as a simple, pure life, moral and uncomplicated, as in “We didn’t know we were poor, so we were happy.” Calvin Roetzel, professor emeritus of religious studies at Macalester, counters that notion in his new memoir I Knew We Wuz Poor: Coming of Age on an Arkansas Farm in the Great Depression (Page Publishing, 2018).

Roetzel, nicknamed Toon, was one of five children born to loving parents whose own education ended after third grade. But thanks to the family’s incessant hard work and abiding faith in education, he grew up to become an Air Force chaplain, a parish minister, and a beloved religious studies professor for 42 years, 35 of them at Macalester.Image of old barn from Great Deepression

An internationally respected scholar, Roetzel has conducted research in no fewer than eight languages, and published 10 academic tomes, one of which, The Letters of Paul, has been continuously in print since its publication in 1974.

Now in his 80s, Roetzel has written a book unlike all the others: an unpretentious story of work and play, and the struggles and joys of growing up in Arkansas during the Depression. Their farm had no electricity, no running water, no indoor toilet, no washing machine, and no telephone. Everyone struggled to survive in that hardscrabble world, which was not always welcoming to the immigrant families he knew.

“I’m very pained by the xenophobia I see and the suggestions from high political office that immigrants cannot be positive, active members of society,” Roetzel says. “I also worry a great deal when I hear statements such as ‘Poverty is a mindset, so it doesn’t matter if you give someone money. When it’s gone, they sink right back into poverty.’” In this open and unpretentious memoir, Roetzel illustrates what is possible when family and image of people from Great Depressioncommunity work together.

The following excerpt appears courtesy of the author and the publisher.

“Our one-room country school house … was a simple building without electricity, running water or central heat. A large heating stove stood at the center of the room to make the temperature bearable but not necessarily comfortable. … An outdoor handpump provided our washing and drinking needs, special gender-specific privies constructed by the WPA stood at opposite ends of the school yard, and that yard had no play equipment but did offer room for games and space for eating our bag lunches.

After walking the one and a half miles to school [my sister] Wanda and I took our separate places among 40 other pupils. The school day opened with the Pledge of Allegiance, then a story read or told by the teacher and ended with a song….

After this opening ritual the real school work began in the basics: arithmetic, reading, spelling, writing, geography, history and civics.

With forty pupils and eight grades sharing one room, it was simply impossible for any teacher to supervise every pupil in every subject. They simply had to call on students with special strengths to assist. With my strength in math, I was pushed through four grades in two years, and at eight or nine, I had my first taste of teaching—a task I liked and was able to do with joy until the end of my career. Wanda helped with reading, spelling, and writing, and those experiences influenced our decisions to become teachers.

Recess offered ways to release pent-up energy in games like “Red Rover, Red Rover, Red Rover, come over,” softball and tag. Friday ended with a math (cipher match) and/or spelling contest. During the normal day, there was time for reading out loud and for doing homework. The school library was tiny, but its collection held important works by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and Jonathan Swift and copies of Grimms’ Fairy Tales.

Although there were no plantations in the area, there was a significant African American community in a town five miles away that was segregated by the railroad. I do not recall a legacy of racial hatred expressed in the home, but I do remember being puzzled that in the Bald Knob Railroad Depot there were separate restrooms and fountains for “colored.” At almost every level, racial division and prejudice was institutionalized. The very fact that schools were not integrated and the blacks who lived on one side of the street in shanties only crossed that boundary to work as maids, cooks, custodians, or construction workers and then had to return to their segregated space at night reinforced discriminatory habits.

My awareness of the unfairness of this system began early. I remember reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which made me aware of how unfair segregation was. Kids have to be taught racism and sexism, and fortunately, I had been spared such indoctrination. … I identified strongly with Huck, for whom his friendship with Jim was more important than the threat of hell for lying as he paddled Jim across the Mississippi into Illinois to liberate him from his bondage.”

Jan Shaw-Flamm ’76, a freelance writer and editor and frequent contributor to Macalester Today, was a student of Roetzel’s when The Letters of Paul was first published.

July 25 2018

Back to top