The Life of Lu Carter in Napa
Photo above: Lu is the driver of the Red Cross Woody! Her best friend, Mrs. Betty Miller, is her assistant (and wife of college teacher, Clarence Miller).
As teachers of Women’s History, we are often asked, “What is Women’s History? Is it about finding famous women? Is it about finding women who were “the firsts”? Or, is it about the life of the ordinary woman…someone who is usually remembered only in an obituary, whose life may leave no visible traces, but is an essential member of her family and community?
We were so grateful when the chance to examine the life of such a person, Lu Carter, was given to us. Cindy Woolley reached out after reading my earlier article about Napa College Faculty. We agreed that that her mother’s life, with its roots in post-war Napa and its long collaboration with the schools, was important to document.
Iva Lu Johnson was born in 1923 in the most beautiful and scenic part of Utah, Kanab, a tiny town near the border of Arizona. Her father was a rancher, her mother the first social worker in the county. Kanab billed itself as “Little Hollywood”. The red-rock bluffs and monuments were the filming location for many productions in which Lu was an extra. She is included in the movie poster for Best of the Bad Men.
Lu attended Dixie College, where she played softball and earned a degree in Business. After graduation, she began working at the Tooele Army Depot outside of Salt Lake City. Larry Carter was a Lieutenant in the Chemical Warfare Department and she his civilian secretary. They began dating and married on January 13, 1945. That year they moved west and attended Fresno State College. Lu studied Creative Writing and was published in travel magazines.
Larry Carter joined the faculty at Napa Junior College to teach Chemistry in the late forties. The Carters “fell in love with Napa” says Cindy. They built their home at 9 Bonita Avenue in Alta Heights in 1950 where they raised Cindy and brother Crane. Cindy remembers “when my father taught at the old Napa College, where he would take me to sell Girl Scout cookies to all of the teachers. The faculty wives would get together and have luncheons and parties.” Faculty friends included Bob Bernard, Lester Roberts, Clarence Miller, and Bob Van Vuren. The wives had their own club.
After the war, Lu Carter and fellow faculty-wife, Betsy Miller, volunteered for the Red Cross, driving veterans on therapeutic rides around the valley. As we were working on this article, Cindy found a letter to Lu from Fred Jaekle, Chair of the Red Cross Napa County Chapter. He wrote, “Thru your efforts, happiness has been brought to many of the members of the Veterans Home and of the Mare Island group.”
Napa in the 50s was was a town in which Colonial Bakery brought fresh-baked loaves of white bread and glazed donuts to every door, and Stornetta’s Dairy delivered milk to many families, including the Carters. In 1953, Lu Carter worked to establish the first building for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, located on Montecito Boulevard. Her diligence made her the top woman-volunteer with the most hours donated to the creation of the building.
She also volunteered for Napa’s newly–formed, suicide prevention hotline. Cindy remembers, “She wanted to give back to her community and this was something she could do at night. I remember her getting calls in the middle of the night and talking people down from crisis.”
Larry Carter died at home in 1968. A young widow, Lu Carter became the sole support of her family. She had served as the Administrative Assistant to Napa attorney, Pierce Young, and as his campaign assistant during his successful Democratic run for Assembly in the early 60s. Harris Allen, then Principal of Ridgeview Junior High, helped her get hired as school secretary there in 1970. When Bobbie Yeiter became Principal a few years later, the women became dear friends. Twenty years later, they still rode their bikes together to Yountville every Saturday morning.
Dave Wildman oversaw the closing of Ridgeview in 1982. His wife, Nancy, writes: “He took Lu with him as secretary when he moved to Silverado Middle School where she was the Principal’s secretary from 1982 for the rest of her life. When Lu had to retire because of her cancer diagnosis, a stunned Silverado faculty and staff responded with great love and loyalty. They created a film tribute to their colleague. It included such features as a mock raid of “Lu’s Stash Room”, and a re-creation of the hectic moments when everybody was demanding help at the same time: “Just ask Lu”. In a skit, in which everyone wore a Lu mask, a real policeman arrested all of the masked women for running a school without an administrative credential. In poignant scenes, the camera walked to places that Lu had walked, including the lawn where she could view the Coombsville hills.
The heartfelt comments from her colleagues included, “Thank you for being my human alarm clock.” “Thank you for covering my sorry ass for so long.” “You were my personal weather person.” “You are the heartbeat of our school.” “I don’t know what I would have done if you had not been sitting at that desk.” “Not too many people can put up with me, but you did, and you did a good job.” “As usual you had everything under control.” “You just had that knack.” “Without you, we’re like the store when the power goes out. The computers are down. We can’t sell anything.” “Thank you for always being there for every parent who walked through the door.” “You were behind every label and stamp for mailers.” “You were the eye of the storm. You stayed very organized and calm in the chaos around you.” “We’re lost without you. We have lists and lists of things to ask you about.”
The staff dedicated the1995 Silverado yearbook to Lu Carter. She died the following year. The 1997 yearbook featured a tribute to her: This poem was included in its preface.
Dedication for Mrs.Carter
What could we say about Mrs.Carter?
She works very hard,
she’s thoughtful, she’s great!
She comes to school early
and works until it’s late.
No one had done more
for Silverado than she.
Without Mrs. Carter,
we don’t know where we would be.
She answers the phone and
greets people at the front door.
She makes special announcements
and one thousand things more.
You have many roads yet to travel
and much to still do.
Please remember this yearbook
and how much we appreciate you.
Mr. Taylor & Ms. Balestreri
Perhaps the task of historians of women is to re-create the lives of those who went before us – painstakingly, letter by letter, yearbook by yearbook.
Thanks to Cindy Woolley, Dave and Nancy Wildman, and Stephanie Grohs for research assistance. The film made by the staff at Silverado Middle School for Lu Carter can be viewed at www.laurencoodley.com.