Oral History of Geraldine Johnson Emmett
Written By: Jessica Hilleboe
Geraldine Johnson Emmett Interviewed Conducted By: Jessica Hilleboe on March 1, 2008
Geraldine Johnson Emmett is a woman with vibrancy and spunk. She has lived through some pretty amazing hardships while still keeping a smile on her face. Her story is truly one of a kind, growing up in the times leading to the Great Depression. Gerri tells tales to this day of her wonderful childhood right on the streets. She informs everyone she comes in contact with that she wasn't a city girl. Her mother raised to be an independent, outspoken, courageous woman.
Gerri was born in 1914, making her 94 years old at the time of the interview. She grew up in the Gilbert area all of her childhood. Her mother was the postmaster, and her father owned a little restaurant called "Mick's Café" that was right on Gilbert Road. Gerri, as she's known today, grew up playing right on the streets of Gilbert, with everyone keeping an eye out for each other. People would make judgments saying nothing good would come of her because mothers didn't work then, but her mother did. Gerri had only one brother whom she was very close with, Saul. She used to swim in the ditch bank and have picnic lunches and dinners. She remembers the entire community getting together to quail hunt and having large picnics.
Since her mother was the postmaster during her entire childhood, Gerri didn't have traditional ideas growing up. Both her parents were very family-oriented and never went anywhere without the kids. She describes how her father would never go anywhere without them because he had nightmares of them burning alone in the house or something like that, but her mother was an independent woman and might have left them at home. She wasn't the typical housewife. Gerri describes how her mother, father, brother, and she would all get in the car and just start to drive. Once they were on the road they would all just start to sing: brother was tenor, mama was soprano, daddy sang bass, and Gerri came with a little alto. She describes some her fondest memories being with the family she was very close with. To this day she still believes that her parents' generation was the best we've had; they did, after all, support them during The Great Depression.
Gerri went to elementary school in a tiny school that looks likes the "Alamo." It used to be next to Gilbert High School during her times. She attended that school from first grade all the way up until high school. She explains that since her mother worked during her childhood years, she would go over to her grandmother's house after school. She would do her homework and play with all of her cousins, who would also go over to grandma's until everyone's parents would pick them up, and take them home. It was there that she would spend many days running in and out of ditches and playing hide-and-go-seek with all the other children of the neighborhood. Gerri described that time period to be very free and refreshing. You wouldn't ever have to worry about anything happening to the children because everyone was a family in her community.
Gerri depicts The Great Depression as an easy time, not because her family was rich, but because everyone had the love and support of the community. It wasn't just one family that was having hardships. Everyone could relate to the troubles around.
Gerri was able to accomplish some amazing things in her time in Gilbert. Graduating as Valedictorian and State Track Champion in 1932, Gerri was pretty accomplished at a very young age. She received a full ride scholarship to Arizona State Teacher's College in Flagstaff, Arizona. Gerri had been born in Ripley, Iowa, and moved to Arizona when she was just five years old, so the snow was a bit of a culture shock for her. She remembers just thinking how beautiful it was. Her friends up in Flagstaff even made her eat some of it because she just thought it was so pretty. For her to receive a scholarship during that time period was almost unheard of, especially since Gerri is a woman. It's exceptionally commendable that she worked so hard, it truly paid off in the end. She says that getting a college education was the greatest thing that had ever happened to her. Geri is a hard working woman who deserved everything that she received.
While attending college in Flagstaff she met a man named Cecil Emmett and fell in love. But her story includes another man, the Governor. Gerri had only known one Governor until she was 21 years old, Governor Hunt. Her dream was to vote for him to stay as Governor so she decided to write him a letter asking him to run just one more time so she could vote for him. While in college Gerri had a note on her door telling her to call the Monte Vista Hotel because Governor Hunt wanted to speak to her. She thought it was a gag. Everyone assured her however that it wasn't a joke, and he really wanted to speak to her so she called the hotel and asked for his room. She explains: "He had a little high squeaky voice" and this is what happened: He said, "Geraldine is that you?" I said "Yes sir, it is and it's really you." And he said "Yes, I thought maybe you'd like to go home for Thanksgiving and I was going to be up here. I got your letter, and I'm sorry I don't think I'll run again for Governor. But, I'd like to drive you back down to your home if you'd like to go." But Geraldine was already in love with another man and couldn't risk him getting snatched up by some other woman in her absence. So she let the Governer ride alone and decided to stay with her true love Cecil.
After already completing her life long dream of attending college there was just one thing left to do: teach, just like many other women in her time period. And she did so for 43 long years. Gerri held
jobs all over Arizona. She taught at a Navajo Reservation her first year out of college. It was while she was in Tombstone teaching the war broke out. It was World War II and all the men were joining to fight for our country. Her husband, Cecil joined immediately after Pearl Harbor's bombing. So Gerri was left in Tombstone to teach and raise her baby boy alone. She decided to move back to the Phoenix area with her son and teach in Scottsdale, which was tiny at that point. There was only one school during that time, and she was the acting principal. She taught there during the war until Skipper Dick the Superintendent of the high school asked her to come be his registrar. She did that until the end of the war when her husband came home and together they moved to Phoenix. Gerri taught in Phoenix for the 30 plus years of her life. She taught high school and junior high there, and she claims to have adored it.
Gerri depicts a life of happiness all around for everyone. She did the things she needed to while her husband was away at war and when he came back they were even happier to just be with each other.
Gerri lived and still continues to live a very simple life. She grew up in a small town but still achieved great things and then she moved to a larger city to meet her future husband. She moved to a strange city alone just to support herself and her infant son. Her family life was quite simple. It was just her husband, her son, and herself. Everything she did, Gerri did for her family. Having good family values was instilled in her at an early age; you can guarantee Gerri brought those ideas into her own home. She has written a few books, one specifically titled Life after Ninety, a copy of which is kept at the Gilbert Historical Museum. Gerri has since moved to Prescott to be closer to her dear cousin Dawn who helps take care of her.
Geraldine Johnson Emmett is truly one of a kind. She's not only a figure to admire as a woman, but also as a member of Arizona. Gerri has continued to break strides in the way society views women. It started with her mother but Gerri has made a conscious effort to continue in her mother's footsteps. Although she no longer teaches, I believe her influence will last a lifetime on the students she has taught over the years. There is a reason for her living well into her nineties, and that's her true passion and zest for life. All of Gerri's recollections come together at love, family, and education. Gerri will forever have a place in everyone's hearts who she comes in contact with. Mrs. Emmett is one of the most authentically inspirational people our generation will ever hear about.
Photos courtesy of the family.
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