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January 7, 2013

From Rags to Riches: A Child from the Depression is Rich on Life

McALESTER — As the first to awake, this 9-year-old girl began her day by walking to work alone. A young girl robbed of her childhood, the Great Depression to blame, Allene Williams was forced to grow up sooner than any child should.

Like many children in the 1930s, Allene said she spent her summer days working to earn an income for her large family.

Allene’s father worked for the Works Progress Administration and brought home an income of 50 cents per day while her mother stayed home and took care of the 11 children, Allene said.

Allene grew up in a two-room house that did not have a radio, clock or beds for everyone. She said three to four children would sleep in one bed. To tell time, a stick was placed in the yard and was used as a sun dial, she said.

Sometimes the family didn’t have enough money for food.

“We did not have much money for school clothes either, so I got my first job at the age of 9,” Allene said.

Her job was to take care of a 6-month-old boy alone while the parents went to work, she said.

“I walked two miles to work 10 hours a day,” she said. “I got paid $1.25 every two weeks.”

She said she saved a lot of the money from her job to buy material she used to make her and her siblings’ school clothes.

At the age of 12, Allene began working for a family who lived a block away from her house. For 50 cents a day, she assisted in cleaning the house and washing dishes, she said.

At the age of 14, she worked for a family who paid her 50 cents a day and gave her their niece’s old clothes, she said. Similar to previous jobs, she had to clean house, can vegetables, pick beans, and clean the floors, Allene said.

“You did not mop with a heavy mop,” she said. “You mopped with a dried-out mop and when that dried you’d put Johnson’s paste wax on [the floors] with your knees. When that dried, you rubbed that with a wool sock.”

Allene said the floors could be so clean and shiny she could see her reflection in them.

When World War II began, the hardships seemed to subside, Allene said. Her dad was able to get a good job at the Naval Ammunition Depot, now known as the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, and she got a job helping another family. She said she worked for this family for 54 years.

“I was going to school, too,” Allene said. “I graduated high school in 1950. In September 1950, I got married at the age of 19.”

After graduating high school, Allene’s parents got divorced. Her father’s alcoholism played a large part in this, so her grandmother moved her mom and the rest of the children to Lawton, Okla., she said. Her mom got a job working in the cotton fields and was forced to take two of her younger children with her as she picked cotton, Allene said.

“I went up there and I brought home the two babies because I didn’t want my momma dragging them up and down the cotton rows and getting bit by a snake,” Williams said. “I raised them until they got out of high school and college.”

After raising her siblings, and after she had been married for 12 years, Allene Williams said she and her husband had their only child, Alicia Williams. When her daughter started the second grade, Allene Williams said she decided to go to college.

“I wanted better for my daughter,” Allene Williams said.

In 1968, Allene worked for KIBOIS Head Start Program, she said. This program gave its workers the opportunity to go to school for a maximum of six hours per week. She attended Eastern Oklahoma State College for four years and graduated in 1973. After graduating, she began taking classes for four years at Kiamichi Technology Center.

“During that time, I decided I wanted to take up psychology,” Allene said. “I chose that because I wanted to understand human behavior. I didn’t understand a lot of things going on in my life, and I wanted to understand.”

After declaring a major, she took classes from the Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma, University of Central Oklahoma, Southeastern Oklahoma State University and East Central University. After 10 years of diligent dedication, she graduated from ECU with a degree in psychology, she said.

“My daughter graduated high school the same time I graduated from college,” Allene said. “We took pictures together with our caps and gowns.”

Growing up with the hardships she had to endure meant graduating college was a big accomplishment, Allene said.

“I was the only one out of those 11 children who went to college besides my sister that I sent,” Allene said.

Not having the easiest life early on did not stop Allene from having a great attitude, Alicia Williams said.

“She has always made people around her laugh,” Alicia said. “Once you meet her, you never forget her.”

Alicia said her mother never meets a stranger. It does not matter wherever they go, Allene knows someone there.

“My dad and I just hated that,” Alicia said “It meant she would, of course, be talking to them for what seemed like forever.”

Allene’s personality and attitude show no signs of the life she lived, said Haven Copeland, loyal friend to Allene.

“She always carries a smile with a terrific attitude right behind it,” Copeland said.

Allene goes every Saturday night to Roseanna’s Italian Food where she rolls silverware. Everyone who works there loves and respects her, he said. Once she sits in her spot, the staff caters to her, bringing anything she wants, Copeland said.

“She always has me pull her car to the ramp and help carry her food and walk her to her car every Saturday night,” Copeland said. “She is always so grateful and thankful.”

Copeland said Allene has impacted his life during the seven years he has known her. He said she has made him feel needed and appreciated in times when he did not.

“She makes sure to thank me a lot when I help her to her car, but really it is me who owes her the ‘thank you’ and she doesn’t even know it,” Copeland said.

Anna Prichard is an Agricultural Communications student at Oklahoma State University and is also the reigning Miss McAlester.

She is the daughter of Michael Prichard and Katrina Prichard, and the niece of Liz Prichard.

For more on this story, see the print or electronic editions of the McAlester News-Capital. Click here for print edition home delivery or click here to see the Smart Edition for your computer, tablet, e-reader or smartphone.

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