There were no taboo topics or off limits conversations between Dad and me. So when we struck up a chat about obituaries about a year before his death, it wasn’t as macabre as it might seem. In fact, it was rather sweet. Dad was of the mind that when a person shares their whole story, they are being vulnerable in a worthwhile way. He wasn’t keen on the idea of “his life on paper” reading like a resume, but wanted to be remembered for what he did and why. He wanted to share with the kind of honesty that you find in big, loud families who eat supper together every night, and the openness experienced between old friends who play cards and drink wine on Friday evenings, and then sit next to each other in pews on Sunday mornings. As a cultural geographer, Dad knew that it is the whole of a human being’s experience – where they come from, how they think and feel, where they go, and what they do – that makes them who they are at heart. He was no exception to this truth, and in his case he was also especially resilient and positive. Throughout the course of his 89 years, he repeatedly practiced transforming challenges into hope and hope into the reality of a long and rewarding life.
I was honored when Dad asked me to write his story, and (per his humble instructions) set a few copies on a table at his memorial reception for people to pick up and read “only if they want to.” In honor of this second anniversary of his passing, and because paper copies tend to disappear, I’m being sharing it now in this form.
The Early Years of Dean L. Phelps: a map of the man he became.
Alice Lee McKinney Clogston and Alfred Homer Phelps welcomed their second son, Dean “Louis” Phelps on May 26, 1926.
They brought him home to a small bungalow that Homer and Alice’s father, Fred had built on Magnolia Bluff in Seattle.
He had a quiet early childhood sharing an attic bedroom with his beloved brother Don, who was six years older, and playing in a pleasant neighborhood where his grandparents lived right next door. Life was simple.
“When I was seven, I took the train from Seattle to Portland to spend the summer in Oregon with a friend of my mother’s. That was the summer my parents got divorced. When I came back, they had split up.” The bungalow was sold; thirteen year old Don went to live with Homer in a boarding house in another part of the city, and Dean and his mother moved in with Grandma Carrie and Grampa Fred. Dean was devastated by the sudden fracture in his world.
Later as an adult and well into his tenure as a father, Dean reflected on that time with disappointment. He wished Alice and Homer had been more compassionate toward their sons when the family came apart. The break up imprinted him with an acute awareness of how children are powerless when it comes to the parents and families they are born to and how they are cared for. Throughout his life, Dean was a champion for those who struggle to be heard and seen, especially children. He was quick to offer protection and guidance to his own children and grandchildren. He did not hesitate to offer compassionate perspective and wisdom when it might create a better path, and he was a dedicated advocate for children’s safe and healthy lives. Following retirement from a thirty year career as an educator, he immediately volunteered and received specialized training as a court appointed advocate for young children and juvenile wards of the court in Jackson County. For eight years he read cases, met with court officials, counselors and attorneys, and committed time and focus to children who would not otherwise have had a representative supporting them in the legal system. He stood up for small humans because he remembered what it felt like to stand alone.
A byproduct of hard times, family tornadoes and broken hearts is that by passing through the eye of the storm – many children gain confidence, learn compassion, and recover with a sharp sense for what is good in the world. Such was the case for Dean, as the next years of his childhood would lead him through many unexpected adventures.
To make ends meet Alice took a job selling women’s clothing in a dress shop in Everett, Washington. She lived there during the week and would visit her son and parents on the weekends. After a year, she moved to California to work and left Dean in Seattle. During the three and a half years Dean lived with his grandparents, he slept on the couch in the front room, attended Magnolia Elementary School, made friends with the grandchildren of President Franklin Roosevelt, and got most of his nurturing and attention from Grampa Fred.
A carpenter by trade and New Englander in all mannerisms and style, Grampa Fred “took Grandma Carrie’s gruff personality in stride, and was quiet and matter of fact.” Dean reflected with amusement that his grandfather only had a temper when he was driving his little Ford Coup, and “…. I learned some interesting swear words from him!” Grampa Fred ran the household, cooked all the meals, and loved his grandson with steadfast patience. Together they went to cowboy movies on Sunday afternoons, Pike Place Market for fresh vegetables and dark rye bread, and the occasional Mason’s meeting.
As each and every one of Dean’s own grandchildren will confirm today, his loyalty to them was unflappable. He knew all of their unique personalities and interests. He attended every recital, art show, soccer match, swim meet, performance and opening that he could. He would move mountains for their safety and happiness, and was arguably one of the best friends they will ever know. The foundation for the calm and devoted grandfather whom all of us knew Dean to be may well have been laid by Fred.
Grandma Carrie, whom as Dean described “was not unkind, but not very warm and fuzzy,” worked in the downtown Seattle Bon Marche as the manager of the ladies lingerie department. He remembered being a rather embarrassed little boy waiting for his grandmother to get off work, sitting in a corner amidst the brassieres, girdles and pantyhose. “I probably knew more about ladies underwear, particularly the fat ladies’, than any eight year old should have.”
The absence of “hands on” mothering in his early boyhood never seemed to cause Dean any rancor. He was quick to acknowledge that both his mother and grandmother were doing the best they could to take care of their family during difficult times. However lacking in day to day care they may have been with the little boy, he was proud of both of them for working at a time in this nation when it was rare for anyone to hold a full time job, let alone a woman. Later, he always expressed great admiration for women pursuing any profession she could dream of. He was a vocal defender of equality in all things. He encouraged his children (one son and four daughters) that they could and should do anything as equals, and gave Jeanie tremendous support as she pursued her education and career along with motherhood.
Dean would see his father on Friday nights and the occasional Sunday when Homer would drive his son out to the Boeing airfields to watch the planes fly in and out. “Once, because it cost $3, my father got a ticket for both of us to fly over Seattle and look down on the city. That was the beginning of my geography mania; I could look down and see Lake Washington and Lake Union, the Puget Sound and the mountains, and Mount Rainer from up above! It was an open biplane with the pilot sitting in front, and I sat in back next to Dad.” Those days were some of the last that Dean would ever spend with Homer until Dean became a grown man with his own family.
In the summer of 1937 Alice came back. She had been working in Palm Springs in the clothing business and had met and married met Lloyd English – a supervisor in a refinery on the island of Aruba. She arrived in Seattle and declared that Dean was going with her to join Lloyd in Aruba. “There was a little trauma…my parents had a horrible blow out…there were lots of tears.” Ultimately, Dean left Seattle. “I said goodbye to my good buddy – my grandfather. It was the last time ever I saw him and the only time I’d ever seen him cry.”
Dean and Alice traveled East by train. They first stopped in Washington, DC. where they received a personal tour of the White House (thanks to Dean’s friendship with the secret service agent who had watched over Magnolia Elementary buddy, “Buzzie” Boettiger Roosevelt). “We saw the entire place, and the oval office, but the president wasn’t there.” From DC they went on to New York in order to buy all the necessary items to furnish a house in the tropics, and Dean got his very first bicycle that would be shipped to Aruba. “My step father felt that everything should be first class so he insisted that mom buy me a suit. We went to Brooks Brothers. It was quite an experience for me!” They then boarded a Grace Liner passenger-freighter ship and sailed from the Port of New York City.
The trip to the Caribbean marked the beginning of one of the most positive years of Dean’s childhood. On the ship, he would recall with a grin, he savored the joys of shrimp cocktail, and being one of only two children among many adoring crewmembers and passengers. When the orchestra onboard discovered that his favorite piece of music was “The Donkey’s Seranade” from the classic movie The Firefly, they played it for the delighted boy every night before dinner. He soaked up the joy.
Aruba itself was a magical place for an eleven year old. He remembered being taught to swim by his step father in a small lagoon, learning to walk barefoot on corral, biking and running around in shorts all over the island with friends, and starting to be curious about girls. Phys Ed classes included swimming in the warm ocean every day, and he particularly appreciated his social studies teacher in the small colony school. This was the teacher who introduced he and his classmates to map reading and encouraged them to think about the changing world. They discussed Europe at war, the advancing movements of Hilter, and wondered togther was might happen next.
In Dean’s personal world, “next” meant leaving Aruba. A year later Lloyd resigned his job in the Caribbean and he, Alice and Dean returned to New York on a tanker. There, Lloyd bought a brand new ‘39 Ford in New Jersey and little family drove cross country to Beverly Hills, California.
Dean’s career path was probably laid during that brief, but important time in Aruba. The social studies classes were the beginning of a life long passion for cartography. He loved studying maps, drawing them by hand, and teaching others how to interpret them. Jeanie once said, “Your father read map books the way most men read Playboy Magazine.” The early travels so far away from his Pacific Northwest roots by car, train, and boat had sparked his mind. Once in Southern California and after moving from one neighborhood and school to another, he grew savvy to the way people and cultures influence their surroundings, jobs and communities. With little control over his environment, he realized that he could control a good natured attitude and be a thoughtful person. He wasn’t afraid to strike up conversations with anyone, from any walk of life, and had a manner that invited new friendships as easily with peers as elders. There was something special about him that fostered unique relationships, and his teen years were no exception. From pumping gas for the Fonda family and jogging with legendary Jessie Owens, to making friends that would span over 75 years, Dean’s love of people grew. He was a natural human geographer.
When the U.S. went to war, Dean was going to Santa Monica High and working after school. With only the tiniest bit of sarcasm, he reminisced “My first job was as a pearl diver for the Newberry’s Five and Dime: I washed dishes at the soda fountain for .25 cents an hour.” Then with the eventual wartime labor shortage, 17 year old Dean went to work on weekends for Shell Oil as a relief manager at various gas stations around Santa Monica. He liked school and was a decent kid who made occasional mischief like “decorating” the statue of Myrna Loy in front of Santa Monica High. If you look in his senior year book, you’d see that he briefly took his stepfather’s sir name, English.
This was also when he changed the spelling of his middle name “Louis” to Lewis because he’d always wished he had been named after the great Northwest explorer, Meriweather Lewis. His senior year, Lloyd took a job as a carpenter in Alaska. Dean and his mother then lived alone together until high school graduation in 1944. The marriage between Alice and Lloyd would end a year later.
After graduation, Dean enlisted in the Navy with hopes of becoming a pilot. He passed all the tests given to him in Jacksonville, Florida, but the Navy had other plans. “They said ‘Oops! We don’t need anyone to fly places now, we need people to do other tasks on the planes.’ So I said I’d like to learn aviation mechanics, and they replied, ‘Oops! We closed that school, you can be either a radio man or an ordinance man – and you WILL be an ordinance man.’” So off he went to school in Memphis, Tennessee to learn how to handle weapons in airplanes where he finished at the top of his class. He was next sent to Corpus Cristi, Texas for training in amphibious aircraft maintenance when “One day I got a notice to go to the personal office. They said, ‘Do you still want to fly?’ So, I got up my gear, got a trip to Allentown, Pennsylvania and began to attend Mullenberg College.”
Then the war ended. He was next bounced to a six month assignment on Kwajalein Atole in the Marshall Islands, and as can be imagined, he was a 19 year old who was frustrated and ready to be done with “duty.” This was not the service he had seen his brother Don experience. Don had enlisted in 1937 and made military life as a Medical Coreman, seem glamorous to his younger sibling. Dean’s first month on Kwajalein he worked as a draftsman, the next month he packed and repaired parachutes. By his third month he was learning to use a sewing machine to make canvas bags, burlap curtains for the nurses quarters, and altering officers’ bermuda shorts. When asked one day if he wanted to fill in for an absent crewman on a life boat, he jumped to escape the tedium and served his final three months as a member of a sea rescue crew. There he finally got to make a difference, and received special commendation for being part of a lengthy and dangerous rescue at sea where everyone was successfully saved.
Years later, Dean the “Academic and Practical Pacifist” would say this about his time in the service: “First, every time you make a decision, the military puts a footnote on your choice. Second, it was mind numbing.” Nevertheless, Dean held his fellow veterans in the highest esteem. His beloved brother would go on to became an officer, but then died in 1953 in a fire on an aircraft carrier. This heartbreak was deeply felt by Dean as were the sacrifices made by all men and women serving our nation. He was morally opposed to humans making war on one another.
When he returned home, Alice was working as a manager for a writer’s school on Hollywood Boulevard. “She had no place to put me.” So he was taken in by the LeBel family, whose son Jim had been a friend since aged 14.
The summer of 1947 Dean and Jim drove to Jackson, Wyoming to work on a ranch 12 hours a day for $15 dollars a day and all the food they could eat. At twenty years old Dean’s goal: to earn as much extra money as he could before returning to Los Angeles in the fall to start college at UCLA.
Fall came and for a short time he rented a single room in West L.A. for $25 a month. “I was trying to live on my GI stipend of $50 a month. After paying rent, $25 for food didn’t go very far…and I couldn’t really afford to lose any weight.” Motivated by hunger and determination to succeed in college, he accepted an invitation to pledge to Kappa Sigma Fraternity. “It saved me from starving because I got breakfast and dinner along with a roof over my head!” Classes began and friendships were made. Knowing how Dean so loved good food and hearty second helpings, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he was still committed to attaining three square meals as quickly as possible. Before long he had landed a job as a hasher (dishwasher and food server) at the Alpha Phi sorority house where – after working his shift – “I got a free lunch, and the best thing that would ever happen to me: that’s where I met a pretty brown eyed, dark haired girl named Jeanie….”
With a full belly and soon a very full heart, the life of the man we all knew – was launched.
And for those who still wonder: What did he do? How did he use all those lessons from the first twenty years of his life to make the next seven decades so remarkable and meaningful?
The rough timeline* looks like this:
June 19, 1948 – Married Jeanette
1950 – Bachelor of Arts in Geography, UCLA
1955 – Masters in Education, University of Minneapolis – St. Paul, Minnesota
1958 & ‘59 – Geography teaching fellow – University of Minneapolis
1959 to 1962 – Geography teaching fellow – University of Wisconsin – Steven’s Point, Wisconsin.
1962 to 1985 – Professor of Geography at Southern Oregon College in Ashland, Oregon
1962-1980 – Recipient of numerous Danforth Scholarships for study and teaching abroad, including sabaticals to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Mexico
1971 – Co-authored book “The Rise Of The City: An Urban Approach to World Geography.”
1973 – Guest professor and lecturer at St. David’s College in Lampeter, Wales, U.K.
1977-1980 Elected Ashland City Councilman and a vital participant in the restructuring of Siskiyou Boulevard in Ashland, the installation of safe bike paths in Ashland, and a key mover in the creation of the Ashland Youth Hostel. 1983 – Doctorate of Education, University of Oregon
1984 – Final professional education sabbatical taken working internships for the City of Eugene, Oregon Planning and Development Office, the Jackson County Landuse Office and the City of Ashland, Oregon.
Ongoing – Member of The Oregon Council for the Humanities
1985 – 1993 – Volunteer service with Jackson County COSA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) as an advocate for women and children in the courts system as well as COSA’s juvenile program.
1962 – 2015 – Dedicated parishioner of Trinity Episcopal Church, Ashland, Oregon. Held numerous jobs, including: Senior Warden, Meals on Wheels Coordinator, member of the Outreach Committee, and Jeanie’s tireless right hand during the years that she was Trinity’s secretary. (Note: He was an especially proud Episcopalian (that’s redundant) who loved attending all services, singing loudly, welcoming new parishioners and being kind to all, and actively participating – for as long as he was able – in the church community.)
Dean canvassed for issues that he belived in and voted every election. His politics were openminded, inclusive, considerate and leaned liberally.
He especially prayed for a peaceful world, equal justice and education for all, humanity at its best, and was not afraid to defend the underdogs of our world. Even up until a week before his passing he was engaging in conversations with friends about the homeless of Ashland and how to support everyone’s needs.
Dean cared about us and showed it daily. He had integrity and heart throughout a very full life