Children in the 1930s Hoped to Become Nurses & Pilots

W. Paul Reeve, Yvette D. Ison
History Blazer, February 1995

The 1929 Stock Market Crash that plummeted the United States into the Great Depression also affected Utah quickly and severely. By 1932 farm income had declined from $69 million to $29 million. More than a third of Utah’s work force was unemployed at the depth of the depression, and in 1934 Utah ranked fourth nationally in the number of citizens on relief.

Certainly people’s dreams and aspirations were also affected by such widespread economic despair. However, it seems that children along the Wasatch Front still maintained hope for a better life. In 1936 Salt Lake City schools conducted surveys concerning the future aspirations of their students. Some responses reflected the extracurricular activities of the children.

For example, many children at the Ensign Elementary School belonged to the Junior Red Cross program. They frequently visited the nearby Veterans Hospital where they sang on several occasions and also made menu cards and nut cups for the patients. Not surprisingly, almost half of the girls in Alice Page’s kindergarten class aspired to be nurses, and one girl even planned on being a doctor. Mother and teacher were other top choices among the girls. The largest percentage of kindergarten boys hoped to be airplane pilots, but policeman and doctor also ranked high. Results were similar among fifth graders at the Ensign School. Almost half of the ten- and eleven-year-old boys wanted to be pilots. One boy wanted to be an insurance agent, while another, Neil Holbrook, hoped to one day be a radio announcer. Nurse was still most popular among fifth-grade girls, but others aspired to be singers, teachers, stenographers, or dress designers.

The first-grade children at Columbus School had a wider range of goals. Eugene Crowton and Eugene Moray both wanted to be inventors. Jay Crawford wanted to be a judge, and Kenneth Martin hoped to coach football someday. Most of the girls chose nursing, teaching, or motherhood as their future plans. In contrast, Ruth Scarlet hoped to be an elevator operator and Marine Jensen specifically wanted to be a farmer’s wife.

Aspirations became even more diverse among the high school students surveyed. At West High School most of the senior boys wanted to be either civil or electrical engineers, but others were more descriptive. For example, George R. Morgan wanted “to have a good job and travel;” Donald Nelson hoped to “join the Navy and go places;” and Dean L. Phillips dreamed of becoming an “outstanding tennis star.” As for Frank Gilmore’s aspirations, he simply commented, “frankly I have none.” Almost opposite to Gilmore in response was Bob Fugal who hoped to be a “Jack-of-darned-near-all-trades.” Equally ambitious among the girls was Lael Woolsey who wanted to be an author, poet, and artist. Other senior and junior girls hoped to be telephone operators, actresses, secretaries, airline stewardesses, and beauticians. But perhaps it was Kathryn Lee’s aspiration that best echoed the hopes of many in the trying depression years of the 1930s. She just wanted “a happy home and family.”

In addition to compiling rosters listing the future goals of students, the Salt Lake School District conducted an Ideal Boy and Girl Contest to decide who would be the models for the children represented in the statue located on the west side of the Salt Lake City and County Building. Among the contestants for Ideal Boy was Russell M. Nelson, a future leader in the LDS church, who wanted in 1936 to be a world traveler. J. William Fehr, another candidate, hoped to be a pilot as a fifth grader at Jefferson School; later he became editor of the Salt Lake Tribune and a licensed pilot. Though the contest was close, Frank Wilkins was chosen as the Ideal Boy. He later achieved his goal of becoming an attorney and also served as a judge in the Third District Court and on the Utah Supreme Court.

Patricia Van Derck was chosen from the Ensign School as the Ideal Girl. Though her announced goal was to become a nurse, she later became a schoolteacher in Missouri.

Both Patricia and Frank took daily trips to the sculpting studio of Torlief S. Knaphus. The statue he created represents the two youngsters gazing upward in aspiration. Though their faces grew older, the statue has continued to preserve their youth for almost 60 years. Their gaze gives viewers, symbolically, a snapshot of the hopes and dreams of some 33,000 students who made the statue possible.

The idea of creating a monument dedicated to the children of the city became a reality when school district officials agreed to take on the task. Because of the Great Depression few funds were available for the project and students were asked to donate pennies, nickels, and dimes to the project. For many families the request for fifteen cents from each student was all that could be spared under the difficult economic circumstances.

Both the statue and the rosters listing what the students wanted to be when they grew up provide keen insight into Utah society in the 1930s.

Source: Rosters compiled by the schools in 1936 are archived in the Utah State Historical Society Library.