Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Working on Wednesday: Alta Mae Slater (1917 - 1986), Teacher - Part 2, In Her Own Words

When the Casa Grande Historical Society mailed the package which brought us the first picture of Alta we ever saw among the other materials sent were her obituary and a long interview photocopied from the local newspaper* which together give us a view of her life in far greater detail than the usual records would provide.

[Casa Grande Historical Society]

Written by the Casa Grande Dispatch's Lifestyle Editor Mary Metzger for her "Bon Appetit" column, it includes several recipes which I may share another time.** Since the interview is an old photocopy, dark and somewhat hard to read, here's my transcription:

Alta Stirs Up Adventure Along With Food
     She spoke animatedly about her interesting experiences as she stirred the ingredients for her Marin Joe Special. She was having guests for dinner and she already had prepared the Cabbage and Egg Salad. A pungent aroma, emanating from a round loaf of freshly baked Patio Bread, filled the pleasant kitchen.
     Alta Norville is a fascinating person. She is a doer--when something arouses her interest she leaves no stone unturned until she tries it. She has been in many parts of the globe--Japan, Belgium, London, Paris, the Middle East--and while there has absorbed much about the world's people by living with them and learning their customs. "I always liked to poke around," she said.
     Originally from Colorado (just outside Denver), she is a graduate of the University of Colorado where she majored in American government, Latin and geography--she  did on the scene "post graduate" work in the latter.
     "When I got out of school there wasn't anything I could do," Alta laughed, "so I had to go back and get teaching credentials. I had six years of Latin and could read Italian with no problem."
     After World War II, Alta was teaching junior high school outside of Ames, Iowa. At that time she met her husband, H.S. "Pete" Norville who had served in the U.S. Navy in China and was working on his degree in engineering at Iowa State University. They were married and after Pete got his degree moved to Alton, Ill. where he worked for Western Cartridge (now Olin Industries). They were there for two years when Pete who was in the Naval Reserves "got a note from the government to report in a week to Korea," Alta said. He was with the Korean Navy while Alta lived with his mother in Missouri and taught school in West Richmond (part of St. Louis).
     When Pete returned from Korea he was assigned to the Navy in Washington D.C. and they lived in Air Force housing at Bolling Field. "I didn't like Washington at all," Alta said, "they had the hottest weather in 85 years and the coldest weather in 100 years. I saw everything that had to be seen and, regardless of what anybody says, military people are not accepted well any place except on military bases."
     From there they went to Japan for three years. "I loved that. We lived in a Japanese house with all Japanese neighbors. Pete sent me to school to learn Japanese. There wasn't any place I couldn't go. I had more Japanese friends than American friends so I saw a different side of Japan. I was the only wife among the Admiral's staff who could speak Japanese," Alta said.
     Their lifestyle changed when Pete was assigned to the Admiral's staff in San Francisco. For five and one-half years they were on the Admiral's party list. "Everytime he had a party, we were there," Alta said, "It really isn't fun to stand there and make sparkling conversation; your feet hurt and it's not glamorous."
     During that time Alta taught in the Oakland school system. She was a specialist in education for the academically gifted. She also was active in the National Council Teachers of English, National Association for Gifted and on the board for national assessment, a group headquartered in Michigan who decide "why Johnnie can't read."
     Meantime Pete decided to go into politics. He ran successfully for City Council in Corte Madera, Calif. serving for six years; two years as mayor. He also served on the executive board of the Association of Bay Area Governments and was president of the League of California Cities, Redwood Empire section.
     In 1961 he joined the Hexcel Corporation which involved a great deal of travel across the United States and later to Europe. Since he was traveling so much when Alta heard that the University of the Pacific was sponsoring an archeological expedition to the Middle East, "I put in for it for kicks and was accepted," she said.
     The whole thrust of the expedition was to follow the Romans out of the Middle East so the group started in Rome. It was at this point that Alta had a stirring experience. The American Council called and said the Pope wanted to talk to some Americans. He was staying at his summer residence at Castle Gondolfo so a bus was sent to bring the group there for the private audience. "I am not a Catholic but I was never so impressed by peace and tranquility as I was by this man," Alta said.
     Conversely Israel was a great disappointment to her because so many harsh things were being done in the name of religion--people being searched before they were able to enter a church. That was in 1972 when America had no diplomatic relations with Egypt so when one went to Israel you couldn't show a passport--one carried a paper that was stamped--for if the passport was stamped in Israel one couldn't go into Egypt. It was a time when men rode shotgun on the buses and kids held machine guns at the ready around the airport.
     From Lebanon they went to Egypt where the expedition worked with the University. Alta saw everything there was to see. "I rode a camel but I didn't go inside the sphinx because I have claustrophobia. We stayed in the winter palace at Luxor and saw the Valley of the Kings with the chief archeologist of the University of Cairo," she said. At the Sheapherd's Hotel there is a plaque stating Napoleon stayed there. "Cairo was the only city in [sic] was in that I have been literally frightened," Alta said, "we went into the market and there were so many people there you couldn't move. You're in a country with no diplomatic relations and all those people are saying 'buy this' and the beggars. Plus the fact that housing in Cairo is at a premium; yet the [sic] City of the Dead where they keep their dead and don't have a place for the living."
     From there they went to Iraq where they were met by the Belgian Council since America had no diplomatic relations with Iraq. "That was the high point of the trip," Alta said, "we went to Babylon and worked with the English archeological expedition."
     The next stop was Greece. Alta had studied Greek in school. "We saw all the things you read about. We saw where the Romans went. Greece is a clean country but this was around the hippy time and there were so many 'flower children' around the airports," she said.
     From there they went to Paris. "The best thing about Paris is that it was clean," she said. It was there she endured a humiliating experience. "Since we had come from Iraq we were body-searched," Alta said. "This is a really scarey [sic] business. There was this hard-looking woman and you don't say 'don't touch me' to her." They were looking for drugs. As a matter of fact when they returned to Oakland their luggage was searched for the same reason.
     It was ironic that after all she had been through on the trip when she returned home she stepped out the door of the back porch and broke two toes.
     The following summer Alta had a complete change of scenery--she applied for a fellowship to the University of London offered by the National Council of Teachers of English and got it. "You name any of the things to do with English literature and I have seen it," she said.
     When she returned home for the fall term at school, Pete told her the company was sending him to the Hexcel facility in Belgium for six weeks. "Away he went but the six weeks stretched into six months," Alta said, "so when he came home in April he asked if I could get a leave of absence from school to go to Belgium with him." She did and they moved into an apartment in downtown Liege. They were the only Americans there since most Americans lived in the suburbs. They joined the Liege Recontre (a group of Belgians who could speak English) and met all kinds of interesting people. Alta made a lot of trips with the Belgian women in the group--one of the husbands owned a bus company--Antwerp, the Austrian palace, even went to England.
     When there was a request for someone who had no accent to teach English in the University of Leige [sic] Medical School, Alta took the job on the condition that she would do it without pay. No one understood this but Alta wanted to be free to leave if Pete came in and said, "Let's go to Milan or wherever." She also tutored girls in English who were students at the University.
     Alta and some of her Belgian friends also were involved in a stint of brass rubbing--one pays a fee to rub the ancient brass plaques on floors or in the walls of churches and cathedrals. "You name it, anything in Europe we did," Alta said. That included attending a Givenchy fashion show in Paris after Alta had seen an article in the Christian Science Monitor on how to get to a couturier. "It was a gorgeous show," Alta said, "the cheapest thing in it was a raincoat priced at $1,500." One was not supposed to make sketched at the show but Alta did so she could describe the clothes to her friends when she came home. She also went behind the scenes and talked to the American models.
     When the Norvilles returned to the United States in 1976, Pete helped put up the Hexcel ski factory in Reno; then helped move the corporate headquarters from Dublin to San Francisco. Then they discussed where they would like to locate on a permanent basis where Hexcel had a plant. Since they had been coming to Casa Grande off and on since 1966 they decided this was the place they would like to come.
     Once they moved here, Alta read in the Dispatch about a meeting of the University Woman "and that opened the door for me," she said. She is active in the Casa Grande branch and first vice president of the state organization; serves on the Board of the Casa Grande Library, is active in the Casa Grande Valley Historical Society; the Silent Witness program and the Oasis Garden Club[.]

*The photocopy cut off the final digit of the year the piece was published but consulting a calendar proves that Friday, January 14, 198_ would have to be 1983, three years before her death.
**During our meet-up with my aunt and cousins last weekend they confirmed that Alta was definitely NOT a good cook.

© 2016 Copyright, Christine Manczuk, All Rights Reserved.

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