Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book Review: Family Is Forever: High School 1950-1954

The third volume of Shirley Skufca Hickman’s autobiography

By William Silveira

On July 25, my wife, Marylin, and I drove to Porterville to join Joe and Shirley Hickman for lunch. I had taken a speech class from Shirley in my junior year at Tulare Union High School (1958-1959). Shirley had just graduated from Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, and this teaching assignment in Tulare, California was her first.
    Shirley was a breath of fresh air at Tulare Union. She had a lot of energy and took on a lot of work – teaching speech, drama, dance, and English. In addition to instruction, she supervised play rehearsals (junior and senior plays), dance recitals, and attended student speaking engagements. She carried it off well; in addition to being a well-liked instructor, she became a mentor to some of her students. We stayed in touch after I graduated from high school. Shirley went on to teach at other schools. Shirley and Joe became good friends of mine and Marylin’s. It is in this light that I review Family Is Forever: High School 1950-1954.

Family Is Forever is the third (and Shirley tells me the last) volume of her autobiography. The first volume, Don’t Be Give Up, covered Shirley’s life in the then coal mining village of Crested Butte, Colorado. Shirley’s father, Steve, worked as a coal miner for the town’s single employer, Big Mine. The second volume, Is Everybody Happy Now? [reviewed March 13] covered the period from 1947 to 1950. In it, Shirley told how the Skufca family left Crested Butte in 1947 and moved to Gunnison, Colorado, where Shirley entered junior high school. Family covers Shirley’s high school years. But within that seemingly innocuous time period, Shirley tells us of the death of her beloved father, in 1952, of silicosis. One does not recover from silicosis. The effects are much like those of asbestosis. If you are exposed long enough to the silica dust, the fibers enter your lungs and eventually kill you. Steve was 45 years old and had been the idol of his wife and three daughters.
    Steve was not a complainer. His daughters could see that the painful effects of the disease were growing worse. But because Steve did not complain and continued to work, despite pain and disability, right up to the very end of his life, they did not appreciate that his death was imminent, and his death came as a great shock to Shirley and her sisters. They grieved together and they grieved separately, and eventually each individually and collectively came to terms with it. I admire Shirley’s courage in revisiting the time of her father’s death in this book. She gives the reader a very good picture of the emotional effect of Steve’s death on herself and her whole family. And we are given, too, a very good picture of how the family pulled together after Steve’s death to overcome the financial difficulties they encountered.
    Shirley and her sisters may not have been prepared emotionally for their father’s death, but this book and her two earlier autobiographical volumes show that they were prepared to support themselves financially and to be independent in spirit. Because they had a strong work ethic and ability, the family was able to stay together after Steve’s death and make ends meet. Uncle Billy helped when he paid the mortgage on the family home for them. Shirley and her sisters graduated from college and each are successful adults.

While this book is titled Family Is Forever, it covers much more than family relationships. What emerges from these pages is a picture of a small town where people look after and care for each other, not only neighbors, but even one’s high school classmates. The teachers at the school encourage the students to learn new skills with just enough of a push to help them fly on their own.
    According to Wikipedia, the town of Gunnison had a population of 2,770 people in 1950. The high school had about 200 students. Shirley’s graduating class had 54 students. Two dropped out in their senior year. Yet this small school competed well across the state in athletics, music, drama, and speech. The classmates supported each other. There is no hint in the pages of Shirley’s book of cliques or other forms of invidious behaviors often present in this age group. Shirley has remained life-long friends with many of her classmates.
    Gunnison High School emerges from these pages as a Rocky Mountain “Happy Days.” Was it? For Shirley it was. And I believe that it was for all the classmates she mentions here. I’m glad Shirley has brought it to life for us to experience vicariouly. There are those who might sneer at small schools in small towns. But this small town and this small school were part of a larger caring family and had many noteworthy successes that are worth remembering.

I was aware when Marylin and I had lunch with Joe and Shirley, that Shirley had recently published Family Is Forever. I purchased a copy from her on the occasion and on returning home I immediately began reading it. I have a hard time putting down one of Shirley’s books. She tells a good story. But I must admit there were a few places where I thought “enough already” with the dress descriptions. I finished the book the next day and several days passed before I realized that Shirley was telling us about her life from her perspective then. From the perspective of a high school girl, how she dressed and how her dates dressed were important.
    In my Wikipedia research, I also learned that Gunnison stands at 7,703 feet altitude and that it is one of the coldest places in the United States. The lowest temperatures, even in midsummer, can fall below freezing. Now I understand just how cold Gunnison could be and that Shirley did not exaggerate the cold she experienced growing up there. It is no climate for hot-house flowers, and the Skufca girls were not hot-house flowers. Shirley was determined to come to California, where it was warm. And I’ve never heard her complain of the heat here in central California – no matter how torrid.
    Shirley came to California to teach. She has touched the lives of many, many students. The school settings here were not the “Happy Days” of Gunnison. Like all that had not daunted Shirley as she was growing up in Gunnison, Shirley was not daunted by what she found here. Shirley did her best and succeeded in giving her students the opportunity to experience the same kinds of success she experienced in Gunnison. We are the better for it. And anyone reading this book will be as well.

Copyright © 2016 by William Silveira


  1. Good review. Kids, me included, forget teachers had lives long before we met them. With age I look back at some special teachers I had and wonder what happened in their life that made them so special?

  2. This is all quite inteesting to me. I vaguely remember Shirley, from my part in the Junior Play. The interesting connection, though, is this: my wife, Esther, attended high school in Durango (52-56) and college at Gunnison (56-61). There is a fair chance that she and Shirley met.
    Crested Butte has had an interesting fate. It was a classic derelict company town until a small ski area was built there. Many years later, the owners of the area bought some cheap "Pomalifts" to take skiiers to the very top of the Butte, from which they can descend by any life-threatening route that amuses them. Today the town has overdeveloped into a flashy resort, which every year hosts an international extreme skiing competition. And (don't tell anyone) in the summer the surrounding mountains are extremely beautiful, with some of the best wildflowers I've seen anywhere.