Do you have an ancestor who was the first in their family to graduate from high school or attend college? Many of our ancestors, out of necessity, needed to stop school after the 8th grade and start helping in the fields or the family business. On my paternal line, my father, Bobby Gene Shults, was the first to earn a college degree. With the theme of education for this week’s 52 ancestor post, I decided to bring all the records and family stories together to learn more about the factors that led to his degree.
What records can give evidence of an ancestor’s education? In my dad’s case, I used the census, school records, family histories, and photos. Named Bobby at birth, he went by Bob after college, and people often assumed that was short for Robert. One census enumerator even decided to write Robert instead of Bobby. The records reveal many different schools as Bob’s family moved between California, Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma. I made a timeline to sort out the various moves and pieced together the story.
Bobby Gene Shults was born on 16 March 1927 in Sanger, Fresno, California.1 The first census enumeration of his life found him in the household of his parents, Leslie and Ettie Shults, in Merced County, California, where his father farming cotton.2 Les noted in his history that he and Tom Norris share cropped on the Chowchilla River and made a crop in 1930, but the prices were so bad that he decided to move his family back to Texas, where he farmed cotton again. That crop produced 150 bales of cotton that Les sold for $295.00.3
Les moved his young family again – this time to Colorado, where Ettie’s parents lived in Kim, Alamosa County. By this time, Bob was old enough to start school, and he and his older brother, C.H., rode a burro to school. Apparently, the burro had to buck them off the first time they got on him every day. I wrote a fictionalized account of Bob’s time in Colorado based on his recollections: The Adventures of Cowboy Bob: That Blasted Burro.
Bob talked of the one-room schoolhouse in Plum Valley and how the teacher was his dad’s cousin. He was a good student but did use his new knife to whittle on his desk and had to stay after school to learn his lesson. Bob learned to read but then came down with a case of rheumatic fever. He missed several weeks of school, and when it was time for him to return, his dad bought the little burro for the boys to ride since Bob was still recuperating. Ordinarily, they walked the few miles to school, but that was an unusually icy and snowy winter.
Les moved his family back to Texas after the Colorado time and tried farming again. The drought of 1934 did in the crops, and Les and Ettie took their three children on a covered wagon adventure to Oklahoma. The Adventures of Cowboy Bob: The Covered Wagon Trip and the Train is my account of this time.
The Shults family lived in a log cabin outside of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in the heart of the Ozarks. Bob and his siblings attend the school Oil Springs Hollow, and by this time, Bob was in the third grade. The teacher, Mrs. Pence, taught all eight grades, and the desks were just rough wood tables and benches. Bob wrote:4
One time while attending school here another youngster and I were sent to the woodpile to get some wood for the stove and we saw a dog running down the road acting very strange, running in circles and foaming at the mouth. We ran to the school house and told the teacher – she sent some of the older boys to the neighbors house and they got their gun and killed the dog, he was rabid.
In 1936 and 1937, Bob’s dad, Les, served as the school census enumerator for the school district, noting the ages and birth dates of all the students in district 33. He gave his own children’s information and recorded that of the other families. Searching this collection, I found that several of Bob’s classmates were members of the Cherokee tribe, which makes sense since this area was part of the Cherokee reservation with the headquarters in Tahlequah. Likely, the reason for the school enumeration was to see how many Cherokee children were enrolled. In the image below, notice the Shults children on the left and the West children on the right, who were noted as Cherokee.5
Realizing that California offered more opportunities for his family, in 1937, Les returned to Sanger and secured work, then sent for Ettie and the children. They settled into a two-story house, and Bob started the fifth grade in the Fairview School, where there were four grades per teacher. In 1939, Bob had “sleeping sickness” and spent three weeks in the hospital, but never had any ill effects afterward.
About his schooling in Sanger, Bob wrote:
I graduated from the grade school in 1941, the year World War II broke out. Many of my Japanese friends were evacuated to camps. I attended Sanger High School for four years where I was active in football, basketball and baseball. The last two years we were undefeated in our league in football and basketball.
When Bob turned 18 in March of 1945, he had enough schooling to graduate, so he joined the Navy. He earned his High School diploma but missed graduation – instead attending Aviation Machinist School in Norman, Oklahoma. With the war in the Pacific over in August, Bob spend the next year on the USS Antietam and saw China and Guam.
In the fall of 1946, I signed up at Fresno State College and went one semester, studying engineering. I’d forgotten my math so much I couldn’t make it so I quit school and farmed for two years. In 1948, I decided I’d better try school again. This time I signed up for a major in Animal Husbandry and got along much better.
While in college, I joined the Sigma Tau Fraternity and in my Junior year I was President of the fraternity. The following year, we became affiliated with the National Sigma Chi Fraternity.
During my college days, I also served in most of the offices of the Chi Beta Alpha, the honorary agriculture fraternity on campus. In 1951, I was chairman of the Aggie Field Day. this was the big event when all the judging teams from the whole area came to the campus to spend the day and judge all types of livestock and products.
I also ran for student body president but didn’t quite get the job done. I was defeated by Church Moran, one of the football stars. I served on the student council a couple of years and was chairman of the Religion In Life Week on campus.
I graduated in 1952 with a bachelor of Science degree in Animal Husbandry.
I inherited Bob’s yearbooks which are a wonderful depiction of his time on campus. With the Servicements’ Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. bill that Congress passed, Bob joined fellow veterans who used the benefits to get a college education.
Bob’s educational journey didn’t end with earning his college degree. He was a lifelong learner who loved reading and expanding his mind in many different areas. As the first college graduate of his family, he led the way for his descendants.