by Karl Wirsing/SEFS
Seventy-two years ago, a young woman named Ellen Lois Johnson arrived on the University of Washington (UW) campus to begin her undergraduate studies. She didn’t realize it when she applied, but Ellen would be one of the first two women ever enrolled in the College of Forestry—now the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences—and four years later, in 1948, she would become the very first to earn an undergraduate forestry degree from UW.
Ellen attended Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, where she first learned about the College of Forestry. “I had read about [the forestry program],” she said. “They had books on different professions, and forestry sounded like it was very interesting, so that’s what I decided to do.”
After she finished school, Ellen ended up marrying and having five children with one of her forestry classmates, Ed Hooven. They eventually settled in Corvallis, Ore., and both worked for many years at Oregon State University—Ed as a professor and forest wildlife ecologist until he passed away in 1978, and Ellen as an assistant to the manager of the College of Forestry’s McDonald-Dunn Research Forest
Last month, on December 5, 2016, Ellen passed away a couple weeks shy of her 92nd birthday. We were enormously grateful to have had a chance to catch up with her the previous year, and some of her memories of college—nearly 70 years after graduation—were still as poignant as the day she got tossed into Frosh Pond on Garb Day.
Ellen grew up in Spokane, Wash., and started school during an era of tremendous change. The country had been at war for several years, and many of her new classmates were World War II soldiers taking advantage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the G.I. Bill. It provided, among other benefits, cash payments for tuition and living expenses for returning veterans. “All those fellows coming back from the service were quite a shock to the professors,” said Ellen. “They were used to having classes full of little high school graduates, but here were these seasoned veterans. In one of my classes, the professor came in and started talking about the weather, and a voice came from the back of the room, ‘Cut out the baloney and start teaching.’ Those veterans wanted to get in there and get going and get on with their lives!”
The professors and students in the College of Forestry were also adjusting to the first two women among their ranks. Ellen had enrolled at the same time as one other female student, but her classmate later transferred to a different school. The next year, though, another young woman, Priscilla Lewis, joined the program, and it took a little while to integrate them fully into the system. Priscilla, for instance, had to lobby to be allowed to participate on a field trip with her male classmates (“Coed Wins Equality; Will Accompany Boys on Trip,” wrote The Daily), and she would later join Ellen as a charter member of a women’s group (“Forestry and Engineering Fems Unite”) that formed to provide support to women in male-dominated fields.
Some challenges of being a female student were less curricular in nature. While studying down at Pack Forest one quarter, Ellen remembers a brazen professor who actually propositioned her, offering her a good grade if she’d spend the night with him. “I was so flabbergasted, so I said the first thing that popped into my head, which was to say that would be too hard.”
That kind of behavior was definitely the anomaly, says Ellen, and she survived the class without further incident—though maybe not without penalty. “I had been getting A’s and B’s, but I got a C out of the course. That was pretty nasty.”
Scraps of History
Throughout her time as an undergrad, Ellen kept a scrapbook and collected scores of handwritten notes, programs, flyers and newspaper clippings from The Daily, including the headlines quoted above. One of her daughters, Louisa Hooven, recently scanned and made digital records of those pages, and the photos and headlines capture powerful scenes from campus life in the mid-1940s—frozen moments that feel as fresh and immediate as the day they were published.
Lois, above, experiences some of the ‘rough’ treatment of Garb Day festivities. Though men showed their stuff by growing a beard that week, the “Coed Beardless,” one article advertised, “will have a chance to show their skill when they take part in the cigarette rolling contest.”
Ellen saved articles that cover everything from news from the war (“Jap Attack on U.S. Not Wanted”) to a humorous campus advice column (“Cleo’s Campus Clinic: for problems of the heart, mind and conscience”); and from school activities (“650 Coeds Pledged in Record Rushing Week”) to social news (“Jeanne Simmons, Navy Man Engaged”). There are scribbled notes, including invites to pledge at several sororities (Ellen accepted at Delta Zeta), and a program for a local production, “Khyber Pass,” a “dramatic operetta” staged by the Associated Students of the University of Washington in cooperation with the School of Music and School of Drama.
Also prominently featured are campus stories about the annual Garb Day festivities and shenanigans, which Ellen and Priscilla experienced firsthand. Back then, the celebration lasted a full week and included several notorious events and traditions, from logger sports and logrolling in Frosh Pond (now Drumheller Foundation), to the culminating dance—known as the “Loggers’ Brawl”—in the Forest Club Room of Anderson Hall. During the week, forestry students were required to grow a beard by the time of the dance or risk getting tossed into Frosh Pond. Ellen, of course, had a rather unfair disadvantage, but that didn’t spare her a dunking. “It was a beard-growing contest,” she said, “and of course I lost that one, so I got thrown into the pond. All in good fun!”
She didn’t go down alone, though. Ellen grabbed onto the wrist of the boy who pushed her in and dragged him right in with her. Priscilla wasn’t quite so lucky when she arrived the next year. The Daily was on hand for her dip into Frosh Pond and recorded the moment—and the annoyance in her expression (captured below)—with a big photo and story, “College of Forestry Girl Student Pays Penalty for No Beard.”
Captured among Ellen’s clippings, as well, is her budding romance with Ed. They met on the first day of class when Ed sat a row in front of her, and soon their names started appearing together in print.
In one short article, “Forestry Club Holds Elections,” the new officers of the Forestry Club—now the Forest Club—are announced, including Ellen as secretary and Ed as treasurer. Then, when Garb Day rolled around, a story noted that the two had teamed up for the double bucking contest. “My husband-to-be was on the other end of a crosscut saw, and the contest was to see who could saw through a log the fastest,” she said. “We didn’t do all that well.”
For the History Books
“That’s been a long time ago,” said Ellen, yet her story is still as vibrant and important as the day she first stepped onto campus. She helped open a door through which thousands of women have since followed, and today more than 50 percent of students at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences are now women.
That’s quite a change—and quite a legacy—for Ellen’s pioneering role in our history.
Photos and clippings © Courtesy of Louisa Hooven and The Daily.