Nick Holman’s poignant stories recall growing up in a rural La Porte City foster home

Editor’s Note: At just six years of age, Richard “Nick” Holman, a member of the La­ Porte City High School Class of 1963, was placed in the state of Iowa foster care system with his large group of siblings. For the next twelve years, he grew up on a farm in rural La Porte City. Following a successful career in the United States Navy and working as a plant manager and long range planning for an international food company, he began writing a book about his experiences. In the Foreword, he writes, “Virtually all foster kids come from dysfunctional family environments and they absorb the bulk of the broken home fallout. The common thread they all share while in foster care is the uncertainty of what lies ahead. This uncertainty can cause them to think and act in ways others may not consider or understand. When they eventually leave the foster home, their futures will range from heartening and uplifting to unsettling and tragic. All incidents that unfold [in these stories] actually occurred during the time I and my siblings – three brothers and four sisters – were growing up in a foster home on a farm [near La Porte City in the early 1950s and 1960s. However, some events have been slightly changed to avoid potential embarrassment for yet-living individuals. All the names [except my own] have been changed, only their ages remain the same. This is the story of a close-knit family of siblings as they struggle to stay together in extended foster care. It’s also a story of life on the farm, but a life and a farm few have ever known or experienced, even those born and raised on a farm. It’s told through my eyes but relates more than just the experiences of me and my siblings. As you’ll see, it all comes to a rapid and unexpected conclusion.”

His Heart’s in the Right Place

By Nick Holman

We’re at the country Wesleyan Methodist church on Sunday morning, sitting in Sunday School class. Because of the church’s small size and simple layout, classes are meeting next to one another, and often it’s easier, and more enlightening, to hear the discussion in the next group over. I suddenly hear Dad’s voice and find my 12-year-old body tensing up. I know what’s happening. He’s been called on to read a passage from the Bible for the group next to ours.

His reading is slow and labored, filled with pauses and hesitant pronunciations. Occasionally the Sunday School teacher helps with a longer word, such as “manifestation.” Listening is such a painful and embarrassing experience that I just want to cover my ears. Mom and Dad have been devoted members of the congregation for many years, so just about every adult in church knows he has the reading capability of a fourth grader. Yet Sunday School leaders still call on him to read. I don’t understand why. Why do they, perhaps naively but seemingly purposefully, put him in such an uncomfortable position? Everyone knows, for certainty, his heart’s in the right place, but his reading is almost sinful. As he reads, folks in his class look away and fidget. They look like they just want to take the Bible gently out of his weather-worn hands and complete the reading for him. But they don’t. They feel badly that they judge him this way. The salve for their guilty conscience is in knowing he’ll be the first one through the Pearly Gates on judgement day. Eventually Dad’s reading ends, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and my body and mind slowly untense.

So, how did this adult – 45 years old, dad to a collection of foster kids from broken homes, owner and general manager of a thriving farm operation, pillar of the church – come to have the reading capability of a fourth grader? By my early teens I finally screw up the courage to ask Mom. Although Dad is okay with his limited formal education, he’s reluctant to talk about it. The following is the gist of what Mom recounted.

Put yourself in Dad’s shoes. It’s 1919 and you’re a ten-year-old farm kid, heading off to school on foot. You’ve been up for two hours already, feeding the chickens, slopping the hogs, milking cows to put milk on the table for breakfast, collecting eggs to scramble for breakfast and boil for lunch and bringing in firewood for the cooking stove. All this is done before you sit down for breakfast, after which you make a sandwich to go with the hard-boiled egg for lunch and get dressed for school. You’re out the door by eight o’clock, with younger sister in tow, for the 20-to-30-minute walk to Spring Creek No. 6 Country School, a mile and a half away.
When you arrive at the school, the other six students are already there, as is the teacher, Miss Harrington. She’s just turned 20, with no prospects for marriage in the near future. Custom, and her contract with the school, dictates that she remains single while still teaching. She has a high school diploma, which is considerably more education than those of many school-teachers in Iowa in the early 1920s. Some only have a formal eighth grade education. Though Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls has been in existence since the mid 1870’s, state education requirements for post high school degrees in teaching are many years in the future.

The school is a one-room red, wooden building. There’s no running water or electricity. The room is heated in winter with a wood burning stove in the corner and, if you’re the first to arrive at school, your job is to bring in wood for the stove. Fortunately for the students, the teacher is almost always the first one there and has already brought in wood and started a fire. The nearest, and only, restroom is the outhouse about 100 feet away on the backside of the building. The school is sparsely furnished with benches against two sides of the room, a large table in the middle, blackboards on two of the walls and a map on the third. This school is not at all unusual. It’s very similar to the other 12,000 – 14,000 one-or-two-room country schools in Iowa at the time, more than any other state in the Union. An Iowa state law requiring schools be within two miles of their students helps generate this large number.

The eight students are about average in number for Iowa country schools. Their ages are all grouped in the range of eight to 14. This is not coincidental. The Iowa Compulsory Education law of 1902 requires all kids from age seven to 14 attend school, unless waived by their parents. Families with boys will, almost by necessity, keep one of them home to help with farm and field work. But most try to meet the minimum requirements, understanding the importance of education, even in a rural state like Iowa.

Teaching focuses on reading, writing and arithmetic. However, in some schools there are also history, geography, speaking, and other subjects and skills taught. It depends on the wants and needs of students and parents and the capability of the teacher. There are no mandated books or subject requirements from the state education administration. Teachers teach what they and the parents think are most appropriate, although the state has recently issued guidelines that local school boards and schools are beginning to incorporate. Teachers are the final arbiters of any dispute that occurs at school, and corporal punishment, a wrap on the hand with a ruler for example, is the norm.

In these country schools, the emphasis is on applied learning and problem-solving. Rather than rote memorization, the ability to apply your learnings to everyday issues is heavily drilled. For instance, if you have 20 acres of corn to plant, and it takes one and a half bags of seed per acre, and each bag costs $2.25, how many bags of seed do you order and how much will it cost?

This is the schooling environment Dad encounters as a ten-year-old going to a country school in Iowa in 1919. His younger sister, Bernice, accompanies him. They’ll be bound together through both good and bad, as we shall see, as next-door neighbors the rest of their lives. His nickname is Wally, he’s well liked with an easy-going manner. However, he and his teacher, Miss Harrington, seem to have a difficult time dealing with each other. She often finds him to be less than a fully engaged student and presses him to apply himself. Wally openly admits he doesn’t care too much for school, but thinks Miss Harrington unnecessarily picks on him.

One day in the spring of 1919 Wally is absentmindedly staring out the open school room window, taking in the lovely day outside. The sun is shining, birds are singing in the nearby bushes. Another month or so and school will be out, Wally’s thinking. With only eight students in the room, Miss Harrington seldom misses the distracted behavior of anyone, and Wally is in her sights again. She walks over to re-focus his attention back inside for the second time of the day. A knuckle wrap to the top of his head serves the purpose.

Wally, for reasons unknown, decides right then and there he’s had enough of schooling. He knows how to read (at a slow pace anyway), he can write (though he still hasn’t fully mastered cursive writing) and he knows enough math to be a productive farmer (or so he thinks). So, without saying a word, he stands up, half-walks and half-runs to the window and jumps out. That’s the last Wally sees of the inside of that school and Miss Harrington.

Wally slowly makes his way back home. He tells his mom and dad what happened and begs them not to force him to go back to school. He knows state law requires him to attend school through age 14, but he also knows his parents can waive the requirement. He especially appeals to his dad, pointing out that he could be around full time to help with all the farm and field work. Wally has no brothers that could usurp that role. He also points out that he can read and write and do math – the basics for a farmer, which is what he’s always wanted to be – and it’s a waste of time to go back to school.

Wally’s parents take several days to think it over but don’t immediately compel him to go back to school. They watch closely, observing his demeanor, his happiness, his work ethic, etc., comparing them to the times he’d been attending school. They have some concern that his younger sister, Bernice, won’t have her older brother to walk her to school and watch out for her. But in the end, they conclude that a farmer’s life is what Wally wants and he’s well suited for that life. He’s hard working, loves working with his hands, is great around animals, has a natural instinct with machinery and thrives being outside, away from formal learning. His dad also knows there’ll be a day when he wants to turn the farm over to his son, and this fits well into that plan. Additionally, they know Wally will never stay in school beyond age 14 anyway.

They leave that for his sister, Bernice, a role she’s happy to assume. She went on to earn a degree from Iowa State Teachers College and, ironically, subsequently taught at Spring Creek No. 6 for two years – the school Wally had abruptly abandoned. That’s where Mom ends the story.

I’ve concluded that, from that spring day in 1919 forward, Dad was content with his lot in life. He knew what made him happy, and it was farming. He also understood he’d never be a book reader, much less a book learner. He never considered it a shortcoming or an obstacle to overcome. It was no more a drawback than being born left-handed.

FOSTERED ON THE FARM – Even with a very limited formal education, Dad Williams was more than up to the task of helping raise more than 100 foster children on The Farm over the course of his lifetime. In this photo, taken possibly before a school holiday concert sometime in the 1950s, Wellwood and Ruth Williams were parents to 16 foster children, including Nick Holman (front center), in addition to their adopted daughter. Photo courtesy of Nick Holman.

So, when it comes to reading the Bible, he’s likely the only one in earshot that isn’t embarrassed by the slow, faltering reading. To Dad the meanings and their importance are the same, whether the passages flow freely or with effort.

Next Week: Nearly 70 years ago, the perception of corporal punishment as a method of discipline was viewed differently by society. Read about a memorable day on The Farm in Nick Holman’s next installment, “Crime and Punishment.”