Bertha and JF McDole, Pioneer Teachers

By Mary Kasulaitis

This is the story of two pioneer teachers in Southern Arizona. They were the kind of tenacious self-sufficient teachers that used to be prevalent in the rural schools of Arizona. Of necessity, they were tough, and they didn’t let a little hardship get them down.

John Freeman McDole was born in Ohio in 1854 and attended Northern Ohio Normal School (Teachers College). He began teaching in 1877. In a a few years he married Sophia Wehrmeister and they moved to Kansas and then Nebraska where John practiced other professions and they had four children: Bess, Mathew, Hugo and Ruth. Shortly after Ruth’s birth, Sophia died. John then married Sophia’s sister, Bertha, and they had one son, Paul. John went back to teaching briefly and then he and the two older boys moved to California where he raised cantaloupes. In 1909 they all came to Tucson. Initially he worked for the railroad but then he went back to teaching until he retired in 1928. In those years he taught at Pesqueira School, Amado, Tanque Verde, Bolivia, Zinc and finally Arivaca School where they taught 3 years (1925-28) and then John retired.

Bertha was a force in herself. She had to be, because for many of the years that she and John were married they were separated, for economic reasons. Born in Ohio, she also attended Northern Ohio Normal School and began teaching in about 1876. She put in 18 years in Ohio, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. After her sister Sophia died, she married John Freeman McDole in 1893 and they raised their son and his four children. They came to Tucson in 1909, when John got a job with the Southern Pacific railroad. Apparently they kept a house in Tucson while going hither and yon to teach school. In her “Reminiscences of a Pioneer Teacher in Arizona, 1910-1930,” Bertha said she realized she would have to teach again, so she sent her credentials to Phoenix and received a life certificate to teach in Arizona. A job was advertised at Rillito (between Tucson and Marana) which she secured. After having taught in a nice high school in Missouri, she was shocked at the conditions. She remembered, “Away we sped across the desert for about two miles to a shack, the dirtiest place that I was ever in. I think all the flies for ten miles around had come to greet us. I slept in a bed with a girl about 12 years old whom I think had not had a bath since she was born. The next day I managed to get a room (of my own) about 10×5 feet, no door, just room enough for an Army cot and a few pegs to hang my garments on. I made a little coffee and ate a little canned stuff that I had brought from Tucson…There were no textbooks, only ones that had been discarded from Tucson schools. was a terrible experience…the next year I went to teach in the Amado school, on the Antonio Amado Ranch. The school was in a ramshackle old ranch house infested with mice and rats, quite an improvement on the Rillito school. I was there alone. In the east end of the house was a room for me, at the west end was the schoolroom. There was a better class of children. Mr. Amado retained the middle part of the house where he and his wife stayed from time to time to look after the ranch. One night the horses on the ranch seemed to make a terrible noise. I looked out and saw the hay barn was on fire. I dressed, took my revolver and my flashlight and went to the nearest Mexican shack. I could rouse no one–the fire was raging, the horses stampeding. Finally I fired my gun. At once the whole shack was alive. The fire was finally put out but Antonio never said ‘thank you’ to me.” Bertha went on to teach in Tucson schools and also Tanque Verde, Pantano, Vail, Arivaca and the Las Moras ranch school belonging to Joe Ronstadt, in the Baboquivaris just north of Sasabe. Ronstadt was a great supporter of education. Bertha commented that he let John, who had retired, come help her teach and told them all about the historical background of Las Moras. She said, “It was the most enjoyable school we ever taught at, excepting Arivaca.” Unfortunately she didn’t elaborate on that! Bertha retired in 1930 after 20 years of teaching.

John passed away in Tucson in 1937 and Bertha in 1942, and both are buried in Evergreen Cemetery. They had been active in the founding of First Christian Church in Tucson.

In the meantime, the children were busy with their own lives. Eldest daughter Bess McDole Prather said, ” My mother and father were both teachers and they believed in women doing things. I never learned to cook or sew when I was growing up.” (Arizona Republic, Oct 22, 1973) She did other things. She and her husband moved to Casa Grande in 1920 and Bess lived there the rest of her life (except for the last years in an assisted living place in Scottsdale.) She taught elementary school, had three sons, divorced, opened a women’s accessory store, got involved in politics, was the Postmaster in Casa Grande for 27 years, retired and became a stockbroker. She became involved in women’s rights and issues, using women’s clubs as a platform, but went all the way to the national level in many of her fields of interest. She was a feminist. She lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment with Alice Paul. She helped Margaret Sanger organize birth-control clinics. She was ‘Woman of the Year” in Casa Grande in 1962. She was a Parliamentarian, which is “an expert in rules of order and the proper procedures for the conduct of meetings of deliberative assemblies.” A list of Bess’s accomplishments would be very long, all because she followed her parent’s advice to “do things.” Bess spent her last years in an assisted living place where she ran the library for the residents and read every book before she allowed it to be on the shelf. (Perhaps she didn’t realize that Librarians aren’t supposed to censor the collection!) She passed away in 1981 at the age of 96. Her three sons and their descendants survived her. There isn’t room here for the exploits of the other children, but needless to say, they were “doing things” as well. It’s a family tradition.

My thanks for these stories go to Rev. Jean Rogers of Tubac, who is Bess’s granddaughter and who does things.

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