INTERVIEW WITH OLLIE LERUM
Interview with Ollie Lerum - June 8, 2015
Interviewed by Bill Collar at the Seymour Museum
I was born in June 12, 1925 in Modena a crossroads in Buffalo County. I lived there until I was 4 years old. My dad died when I was 2 years old. It was the nicest farm in the neighborhood, but it also had the biggest mortgage. The mortgage was held by a cousin of my dad and he foreclosed when my mother couldn’t make payments. I don’t think he could have done anything different and I don’t blame him for that. So we moved to another small town, Nelson in Buffalo County across the Mississippi from Wabesha, Minnesota. I went to grade school there for eight years, my mother remarried and we moved to his farm in Pepin, County. It was in Little Plum Valley and we were the last farm in the valley.
In those days you could go to any school you could get to. Pepin did not have a bus so I went to Durand as a freshman, then we moved from Little Plum to three miles from Pepin and they had a bus so I went to Pepin High School. They had one bus but it had two routes. I traveled on the early route. They would pick us up at Hicks Valley and take us to school. We had to pay $1.75 a week to ride the bus. I graduated from Pepin High School in 1943. Of course, in December of 1941 the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. I remember that day. It was a nice sunny day in the fall and we were squirrel hunting, we came in to my cousin’s house looking for something to eat out of the pantry. My cousin turned the radio on and they were talking about Pearl Harbor, so we listened to that and that changed a lot of people's lives. Our immediate thought was that we were going to kill Japs. In fact, I used up one of my nine lives when we went back out hunting. We were going up this hill and my cousin ahead of me said “If I saw a Jap I would shoot him.” He had a hair trigger on his pump gun and as he turned around his gun went off and it almost hit me.
I was kind of a history and geography nut so I knew where Pearl Harbor was. I liked those kind of courses, but I had no idea how it would affect people. I graduated from high school in 1943. We got out of school a month early so the rural boys could help on the farm. During the winter months we went to school six days a week to make up for it. That made for a long week. My parents were in the process of getting the farm going so I stayed and helped. I had one younger brother who was a freshman. So he wasn’t a lot of help on the farm. I did all the bull work.
The original plan was I was going to go to Stout because I liked mechanics and woodworking, but Pearl Harbor put an end to that. In 1944 two of my brothers were missing. They were gone. My older brothers never moved with the family. The book tells about their experiences when the war started. Everybody wanted to be in the navy or air force. That ended enlistments so they could fill the manpower needs of all branches of service everything went through the draft board. That fall of 1944 I volunteered to be drafted and to change my classification from 2C (Agricultural) to 1A which meant I was eligible for the draft. They sent us to Milwaukee for physicals. Many of those who went along were rejected for one thing or another. Thinking back, that is when the government found out how great the need was for rural health care. So many had rotten teeth, or other ailments that got them rejected. That changed a lot of things in our country.
Now we are in 1945, I went to Milwaukee for induction, and then they sent us to Fort Sheridan where we were issued our clothes. After that I was shipped to Camp Livingston in Louisiana. So I got my basic training in the swamps of Louisiana. This was a difficult time for some people. Then I signed up for officers training. Back in Hick’s Valley I didn’t get to see many people. So here I am, thrown in with a bunch of people, with a couple hundred in a company. Some of them I liked and others I didn’t. The person who really impressed me was the company commander. He was really astute, intelligent and a great leader. He didn’t seem to do much, but he saw that things got done. So I thought “that’s what I would like to do.” My goal was to become a company commander.
So I went to officers’ school in Fort Benning. Basic training was tough, but officer’s school was twice as tough. But it was really good leadership training. The army had top notch instructors. Something I would use the rest of my life. It was well organized and hands on. We would sit in the bleachers and listen to a problem and then find a solution. Even in my working with farmers, first of all you need a plan and then you have to execute it. That’s where most people fall down - they don’t analyze it. What went right and what went wrong. I always said I had to avoid getting on a committee because I would end up as chairman. The military was actually a good experience. I learned that “no” means “no”. Some people never learn that.
I graduated from officer’s school as a second lieutendent. There were over 200 in the initial class, but only 89 graduated; the rest fell by the wayside. By that time the Japanese had surrendered and that is what saved me. I was relieved when President Truman dropped the bomb. Otherwise I was being trained to head to Japan. The soldiers who fought in Europe were also headed to Japan. Many had already received their orders. They had gone through hell in Europe and now were expected to fight in Japan.
Since the war was over they shipped me to California to get prepared for the occupation. We stopped in Japan and took on supplies and then ended up in Korea. When we got to Korea we came in during the night and dropped anchor in Inchon. The port there has mud flats. During high tide it looks like ocean. During low tide the ships stay in the channel and they close the locks to keep the water in. I remember seeing the mud flats and the coast of Korea. It was really a sickening sight. Korea was a different kind of country when compared to the United States. The trees never matured because they cut them for fuel. It’s a different type of country. I ended up in 31st infantry which was part of the 7th division. We were stationed in Seoul and basically we were the government. Japan had been occupying Korea and now we took over. The Koreans then viewed us as the occupiers and disliked us. That is true with any country. Can you imagine an occupier coming into Seymour?
The army was reducing, they had a system set up with points and the people with the longest record of service were discharged first. The 7th Division soldiers were the ones that came through Okinawa and you know what that was like! The Japanese looked at that as homeland and that was a tough fight. I was in company A of the 31st infantry of the 7th Division. I ended up as the company commander. We were short of officers and I was a second lieutenant and company commander. That was a good experience since you are the mother you have to see that they get clothing and something to eat and if they do something wrong you have to handle it. I was in active duty long enough to get through college at River Falls and then I joined the reserve and was inactive after I got out of active duty. I was in the inactive reserve while I was in school. I was fortunate and just missed the Korean War. We had a regimental commander who was a friend of the adjunct general in the state and the general was a friend of Eisenhower. The commander we had was bucking for a promotion and he wanted to get us called up. The rest of us weren’t enthused about it; especially me. I’d been to Korea and didn’t have very good memories. It was a tough place to fight a war.
I thought Truman did the right thing when he relieved MacArthur of his command during the Korean War. If he would have gotten to the Yalu River the Chinese would have come in with all the power they could muster. It would have been a real blow up in my opinion. When I was in Korea We were still friends with the Chinese. How things change.
My brother Adolph was in that period when Hitler was flexing his muscles in 1939. The US was wavering on when to get into the war. So they set up the draft where a person would serve for a year and then go on inactive duty. That’s when he was drafted and when Pearl Harbor was attacked he was called back to active duty. My oldest brother enlisted in the air force in 1942, his name was Harold. He piloted a B-17 and was shot down while bombing Germany. When he crashed he broke his leg. He was captured and spent some time recovering in a German military hospital.
At the same time, my brother Pete who is a year and a half older than me, enlisted in the air force. He was a tail gunner on a B-24. His plane was shot down while coming back from bombing the oil fields in Romania. They parachuted out and he was almost to the ground when a German fighter pilot spotted him and shot him in the leg. The Yugoslavian resistance fighters rescued him and took him to a hospital. Unfortunately, there was no penicillin then and his leg got infected and he died. The village had a funeral for him. The women gathered enough cloth to make a flag for his coffin. He was buried there and after the war he was brought back to Pepin. I had to write this down in book form because those people deserve to be remembered. I’m no hero, but if anybody was, they were.
Arnie was drafted in 1942 and he was sent to the Aleutians. Most people don’t realize that the Japanese occupied American soil. Well, they should have just left them there. After the fighting was over in the Aleutians he was sent to Europe and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
When my dad died, Mart was 13 months old; he went home with my Uncle Martin and Aunt Christine who lived in Minneapolis. They didn’t have any children and eventually they adopted him. He never came back home after that. He never lived with the “overall bunch.” He ended up as an only child in Minneapolis. He joined the navy. I’ve forgiven him for that.
My youngest brother graduated from high school in 1946 and enlisted in the army. Most people view the war as from 1941 to 1945, but it actually went longer because of the occupation of the defeated countries. The army sent him to Korea where he served for two years.
After the war, my plan was to go to school. I returned to the States in November of 1946. I remember, I went deer hunting actually I was on furlough, I didn’t get discharged until the 10th of December. There was a local kid going to college at River Falls. He had an old Pontiac and came home every weekend. He said “why don't you ride with me?” At that time a grocer in town offered me a job cutting meat for $25.00 a week. That was pretty good money back then, but I had my mind made up to go to school.
I thought if I took the job I could use my training and get enough money to buy a couple beers, actually more than that, but that wasn’t my kettle of fish. I had an old 1930 Chevy that was my brothers and he was in Korea so I packed up my things and headed to River Falls in his car. They signed me up and I was in class the next day. That was the second of December. I was fortunate they were on quarters and the second quarter had just started. I actually started school before I got out of the army. I stuck with it and graduated on June 30, 1950. I started teaching the next day, July 1 in the Appleton vocational school.
I got the job through the school. I had a degree as a vocational Ag teacher and I also had a science and math degree. There was a need for better trainers for veterans who came back and wanted to farm. The school had two other instructors, but they had a waiting list and they had to get the veterans trained in four years before their eligibility expired. I was at the Appleton Vocational school for four years. The program for veterans ended after four years and I was out of a job. It was a very successful program most of the men purchased a farm of about 80 acres. Many of the farms were worn out and not very productive. My job was to teach them to bring the farms back to life.
That is the kind of students I had, these were bootstrap operations. I started out with 25 students and ended up with 30. I practically lived with them teaching scientific farming techniques. Twice a month I visited each farm and taught them how to keep their books, do income taxes, and essentially run the farm. It was rewarding work. It was a precursor to the farm business program. At that time the size of the vocational district was the city limits, so they only served the residents of the city. Kaukauna also had one, but the rural areas were not in the district. Neenah-Menasha, Oshkosh all had vocational districts with in the city limits. One of the board members asked how many farmers are in the city of Appleton. The answer was none. So when the federal program ran out I lost my job.
I applied different places from Sturgeon Bay to Freedom and even the manager of the feed mill position was open. So it's 1954 and the Seymour job opened up. What got me the job was that the director of the vocational school called the superintendent of the Seymour School, Pachett, and recommended me. They didn't tell me this but I figured it out. You see I applied for the feed mill job in Seymour. Well my neighbor, Lester Krahn, was on the feed mill board and on the high school board. I stopped to see him. He was taking corn out of the crib and loading in in his truck to take it to the feed mill like they used to do in the old days. He said “we had a school board meeting last night that lasted to 2:00 AM and we fired the Ag. teacher. Why don't you apply for that job?” I said that sounds like a good idea. I asked who I should apply to and he told me that Tony Weyers was the clerk and I should speak with him. When I approached Tony he asked how I found out about the job opening because that decision was made at 2:00 this morning. I commented that I had my ear to the ground and picked up the information. I never did tell him about my conversation with Lester Krahn.
Tony said, “You have got to go to the superintendent.” He asked me the same question and gave me an application. I filled it out and didn't hear anything. I was getting worried, we had two little kids and I needed a job. So I contacted the superintendent and he told me it was his first day back on the job. He had the chicken pox and had been out of the office. He promised to send me a contract tomorrow. If I remember correctly the contract was for $3,400.00. I was getting $4,400.00 in Appleton, but I was happy to get the work.
There were two Ag teachers at Seymour. I stayed at Seymour until 1967 when the state was organized into a series of vocational technical districts. Outagamie was in district number 12. When I was at the high school I taught two night classes and Harold taught one to young farmers. Eventually those classes were taken over by the vocational schools. Harold and I worked together for twelve years. He came two weeks after I did.
Then I went back to the vocational school and started a number of on the farm programs. I was there until I retired. It was a total of 25 years at the Tech and 12 years at Seymour, 37 altogether. In the meantime I purchased 11½ acres out where my farm is. I was going to build a house out there but, I went to the bank and they said "we don't like to loan money to school teachers because they don't stay here.” He was right, teachers often went to Green Bay or Appleton or somewhere where the salary was better. At that time they didn't have a salary schedule and contracts were negotiated individually. You bargained with the superintendent or the president of the school board depending on who was running the place.
I saw many changes during my life. In the early days it was the effect of electricity on the farm. We never had electricity until 1942. I grew up with no running water and an outdoor bathroom. We had to get our water from a spring that was 1,500 feet away. In Hicks Valley the REA, a Roosevelt program, came through in 1942. We always had a radio even when I was a kid, but we couldn't play it too much because the battery would wear down. We used to listen to the Lux Theater, Fred Allen and a variety of programs.
Every time I turn on the tap water I give thanks. The good old days really weren't that good. But, I've always said that you need a little adversity in life. I really thrive on adversity. It made me humble and has given me more appreciation for life.
We played softball as kids and when I was in high school all they had was basketball. Really that is what kept me in school. I was a pretty good basketball player. We were kind of the recreation center in the area. We had a hoop on the outhouse and when the haymow got empty we put a hoop up there. All the kids played. Then of course, we had the hills so kids were always sledding and skating during the winter months. I didn't grow until I was a junior in high school and I got to be 6'1 and was the top scorer and rebounder. We played upstairs in the old opera house. The free throw lines intersected and the ceiling was low so you learned to not put too much arc on the ball. We only won one game my sophomore year, but then we picked up speed and as seniors we were respectable. We didn't win the championship, but I think we were second.
This is the fourth book that I have written. My previous books were:
"Osborn Almanac" (1995)
"Dog Track In My life (2002)
"Teaching The Salt Of the Earth In The Lion's Den" (2005)