Family, Great Depression, World War II Shaped Chickasaw Elder’s Legacy
Visitors to the bustling University of Oklahoma Medical Center emergency room are frequently assisted by Chickasaw elder Jeraldine “Jerry” Brown. The petite, effervescent 92-year-old dons her pink smock three days a week to help keep things operating smoothly at the suburban hospital. Most hospital guests don’t realize one important fact: Service to others is nothing new to Mrs. Brown. She has a lifelong legacy of service. Service to her country, service to her family and service to enhancing the education of Oklahoma’s youth.
Mrs. Brown’s story began October 28, 1921, when she was born the third child of Annie Rennie Colbert-Meek and Alymer Hightown Meek. Named “Jeraldine” upon her sister Lawanna’s request to name the baby in memory of her best friend, Mrs. Brown has lived a remarkable nine decades. “I was named Jeraldine Virginia Meek, but they just always called me Jerry,” she said.
A lifelong Oklahoma City metro area resident, Mrs. Brown knew about her Chickasaw heritage at a young age. “My mother would say, ‘Remember that you are Chickasaw.’ When I would ask her about my nationality, my mother would say ‘Chickasaw and some other things,’ which happened to be Irish and Dutch,” she said. Chickasaw pride ran deep in her mother’s family. Her grandfather, Joseph Edwin Colbert, was the first secretary of the Chickasaw legislature in Indian Territory from 1902-1907. Connecting with her Chickasaw heritage meant regular Sunday dinners with her Colbert family in their hometown.
“I remember spending time in Purcell with my grandparents, at least every other Sunday,” Mrs. Brown said. She remembers the time Mr. Colbert, the grandfather she adored, served as McClain County Commissioner. When he was county commissioner in the Depression era, “Grandmother never knew who he was bringing home for lunch, so she always had a pot of beans on the stove.”
Her grandmother’s motto was, “You can always feed boys and men if you have beans to subsidize the meal.” Her grandfather was commissioner when the “new bridge”—later named James C. Nance Memorial Bridge, which spans the Canadian River and connects Purcell and Lexington—was dedicated in 1938. To date, the bridge is one of the longest in the state. It opened in a gala event that Mrs. Brown witnessed. “It was like a street fair,” she said. “We were there for the opening of the bridge and the opening of the jail.”
She remembers as a young child walking into the new McClain County Jail and her grandfather slammed the door shut, with a stern warning to her not to break the law or she may end up in a place like the jail. “He probably left me in there 30-40 seconds, and asked me how it felt to be in there. I told him I didn’t like it!” It startled her and made a lasting impression, she said, chuckling. “I can hear that door clang shut now.”
Her mother enrolled her in Bloomfield Chickasaw girls’ boarding school at age 11 and attended until a year after she graduated. “She would tell us about her time there and would paint these beautiful pictures in my imagination of Bloomfield.”
Bloomfield Academy was established by the Chickasaw Nation in 1852 near present day Durant, Oklahoma, as a boarding school for Chickasaw girls. It remained in operation until January 1914 when the school was destroyed by fire. She remembers her mother saying the girls were required to speak English and dress for dinner at Bloomfield.
“They were taught to blend into society, taught violin and piano,” she said. “They played three-court basketball in a long black skirt and a long-sleeve white shirt.” When Mrs. Brown was a child and did something “horrible,” her mother would threaten to send her to boarding school as punishment for disobeying. “Well, after all the wonderful things she told us about Bloomfield, I wanted to go to boarding school, so I would do it again,” she laughed. Up until her death, her mother attended the “Beautiful Bloomfield Blossoms” reunion every Christmas.
Education—Continuing her Mother’s Legacy
Education was a top priority in the Meek household. Mrs. Brown attended Classen High School in Oklahoma City and graduated in 1939. She played field hockey and volleyball and contributed to the school’s Latin newspaper. “There was never any question I was going to college,” she said. Despite the death of her father when she was 17, Mrs. Brown enrolled at Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University) to study education. Arriving at school with $100 in her pocket, she worked several jobs to pay her way through school. She worked in the dining hall and as a proctor at Murray Hall, where she was paid 25 cents an hour. Other jobs included tutoring a student in Latin. She also helped her legally-blind roommate learn music by reading the notes, a skill she learned from her mother. The roommate would transcribe the notes in Braille. They remained friends for 40 years. She was also a member of the Aggie Pep Squad and an “Aggiette” cheerleader her senior year. She graduated in 1943 from Oklahoma A&M with a bachelor’s degree in education.
Living History—Service to her Country
Two months after earning a college degree, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Among the reasons she decided to join was to keep her brother-in-law, who was a father, from having to go fight. Another reason—she felt a call to duty. She reported to basic training July 1, 1943. Two years later, she was one of the first people to witness the devastation of the atomic bombs the U.S. had dropped on Japan. Selected for the top-secret mission because she took a photography class in college, Mrs. Brown was ultimately assigned to the Pentagon where her duties involved developing and printing photos from the bombers.
“You could see the flak and trace the bomb drop,” she said. “You got the whole story on those huge rolls of film. We didn’t want to ruin a roll of film because the fellows were risking their lives.” She was on duty the day the U.S. B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan during World War II. “We were asked to work late and told we had some special film coming in, she said. “We were not allowed to talk to anyone and we were under armed guard. Until (photos of the devastation) came up on the printer, we didn’t understand why. You could see the (bomb) drop and every frame would be closer, and the tail camera would capture the devastation. The devastation to the land was so much more intense. We were used to seeing buildings knocked down, but what we saw there was just blocks and blocks of devastation. It was so much more intense.”
Continuing Service to Others
She was discharged from the Army the day after Thanksgiving 1945. She returned to Oklahoma, where she married her best friend’s uncle, Syl Meek. “He met me at the train,” she said. The couple married in 1946 and had two children. Moving to Edmond, she spent the next few years working part-time as a second-grade teacher and a substitute teacher. When her children were 15 and 11, she returned to school to earn a master’s degree. A job teaching sixth grade soon followed. It was a position she would keep until 1973, but she continued to substitute until she turned 90. These days, Mrs. Brown can be found at the OU Medical Center in Edmond, working as a volunteer. She was named “Volunteer of the Year” in 2012, and she is passionate about working at the hospital, with no plans to slow down. Her secret to staying young-at-heart? Swimming! A skill she learned at Turner Falls in Davis at age five.
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