Growing up in Westwood during the Great Depression, Marjorie Simmons (B.A. ’48) says she had a wonderful childhood. Despite the difficult times, her father’s steady employment by the railroad protected the family from the nation’s crippling unemployment. An only child, Marjorie spent many afternoons flying kites with friends where the Mormon Temple stands today on Santa Monica Boulevard and attending organ concerts in Royce Hall with her parents.
By the age of six, Marjorie had discovered a passion for music that endures today. Dreaming of playing the piano, Marjorie “came home from school one day in the first grade and found a piano in the living room,” she recalls. “I was overjoyed.”
Recognizing and encouraging her daughter’s talent, Marjorie’s mother arranged for private lessons. By the time she was a teen and at her teacher’s urging, she had moved on to a master teacher who required 3-4 hours a day of practice. At the suggestion of her junior high music teacher, Mr. Donald Palmer, she had learned to play the string bass, which allowed her to participate in orchestras at both Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High and University High Schools.
One of her happiest memories was of going to area music festivals and playing in the All City Orchestra. In her senior year, Marjorie entered a competition to play with the LA Philharmonic. She was one of ten finalists, but ultimately did not make the cut. “It was definitely a good thing in hindsight,” Marjorie reflects. “Being a professional pianist can be very isolating and incredibly demanding.”
It was also in high school when Marjorie first heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II.
“I remember sitting in Uni High’s auditorium,” she says, “listening to Roosevelt declare war on Japan. I was in tenth grade, and one of my best friends who was Japanese was taken away to Idaho. A number of shops started closing. The hysteria was incredible.”
Many of Marjorie’s male classmates graduated early to enlist or were drafted and sent overseas. With the birth rates low when Marjorie was born, she says that “they needed every young man they could get.”
In the fall of 1944, Marjorie enrolled at UCLA. “The California Master Plan was in effect,” Marjorie explains, “and students could attend kindergarten through university without paying any tuition. My parents had hoped I would attend UCLA, and I was fortunate to be able to go.”
Reflecting on the admissions standards to attend UCLA in those years, Marjorie says, “When I went to UCLA, it was a piece of cake to get in. All you needed was a B average and a few other requirements.”
In 1944, Marjorie paid $29 per semester, which covered all student fees, tickets to games, and other social activities. Marjorie continued to live at home. Describing the campus as “bucolic,” she remembers the heavily forested areas up by Sunset Boulevard and the open fields of South Campus. She also remembers Westwood as being less developed and more like a true village, without the high rises that stand on Wilshire Boulevard today.
According to Marjorie, Westwood had a covenant in the 1940s that prevented Latino, Black and Asian families from living in the neighborhood. For those who were welcome, there were the Fox and Bruin Theaters, the “incredible” Campbell’s Bookstore on Le Conte, which sold a Nancy Drew mystery for 50 cents, and Tom Crumpler’s Ice Cream Shoppe. An outdoor amphitheater where the Medical Center is today was used for UCLA graduations and other events.
Academically, UCLA was very rigorous, especially when compared to Marjorie’s experience at University High School. “I didn’t feel well prepared for that level of study. I had to really work for it,” she says. Considering becoming a scientist, Marjorie began college as a chemistry major but “nearly flunked out” in the first year. On the first day of class, her physics professor told everyone to look to his or her left and then to the right. “Only one of you will still be here by the end of the semester,” Marjorie recalls the professor saying. While she completed the class, she decided to change her major. She considered Spanish next but was “bored to tears,” and took just enough credits to complete the language requirement.
It wasn’t until sophomore year, when taking an English survey course with Dr. Margaret Carhart, that Marjorie found the right fit. “I absolutely loved it,” she says of the course. “It was such a complete u-turn in my life from what I had been doing. The English major was perfect.” In addition to the material, Marjorie appreciated the strong faculty in the English Department at the time, including one of two full-time female professors, Dr. Lily Bess Campbell, who Marjorie found “amazing.”
Outside of her studies, Marjorie continued to develop her talents as a pianist and her love of music by playing the organ at her home church to earn some extra spending money and continuing to attend the noon organ recitals in Royce Hall that had been a staple of her childhood. She also minored in music and played string bass in the University Orchestra.
On weekends, Marjorie went to the Santa Monica beach with friends or up to the mountains in the winter to experience the snow. She attended all of the football games and enjoyed the UCLA/USC rivalry. “There was a big parade when UCLA beat USC,” Marjorie remembers, “And everyone marched through Westwood Village down to Wilshire. They had to reroute traffic; the equivalent would be ‘total chaos’ today.”
During the summer after her freshman year, Marjorie got a job working in the hosiery department at the Bullock’s in Downtown Los Angeles. Nylons had been rationed throughout the war and were quite expensive. Marjorie remembers it being hard work. “That job firmed my resolve to get an education,” she says. “Women, even those with children, were on their feet all day doing somewhat boring work, and I knew that if I wanted more for myself, I had to graduate.”
It was also in this job – while selling a woman a pair of size 11 nylons – that Marjorie got word of the war’s end.
“The store closed and people poured out into the streets,” Marjorie recalls. “There were traffic jams everywhere. I took a bus home. Later a group of us went downtown and then walked up and down Hollywood Boulevard. Everyone was cheering and singing and overwhelmed with joy. It was an amazing day.”
When Marjorie returned to campus in the fall of 1945, UCLA had switched from a three-semester system during wartime to the standard two-semester year. She also had to adjust to the influx of male students returning to campus from combat. “UCLA had almost been a girl’s college during the war,” Marjorie reflects. “All of a sudden all of these vets came back, taking advantage of the GI bill, and a lot of them were more motivated than the rest of us. They knew the value of their education.”
By her junior year, Marjorie had decided to become a secondary teacher and began taking education courses. When considering her initial motivation to pursue this career, Marjorie explains, “The options for women at the time were to become a secretary, nurse, or teacher. I found teenagers fascinating and thought I would enjoy the interaction with students of that age group, and I did.”
According to Marjorie, the secondary education curriculum in the 1940s had a large psychology component and emphasized the influence of the environment on child development and learning. She remembers the faculty being particularly concerned about high school graduation rates and emphasizing the significance of quality educational opportunities as a means of “saving” low-income students in struggling communities. The curriculum also required that students build a strong foundation in all English-related subject matters, including theater and speech. “It was a very well-rounded education for those going into teaching,” says Marjorie.
Marjorie returned to her own alma mater, University High School, for her student teaching. There, she taught under Mr. Luzerne W. Crandall for 10th grade English, and Mrs. Elizabeth Heaton for music appreciation. She enjoyed going back and working with the same teachers she had known as a teenager, and she found the training valuable, particularly Mr. Crandall’s advice that a teacher should
“Get the respect in the classroom first, and the love will follow.”
Marjorie graduated from UCLA in the spring of 1948 and completed credits for her teaching credential in the spring of 1949. The University Placement Office, at the time, was offering positions in remote locations in the Central Valley or far north. Her student teaching mentor, Mr. Crandall, suggested she look into the placement services of the California Teachers’ Association. They secured an interview at Newport Harbor High School, where Marjorie happily taught English for six years, which included music appreciation once a week for the 10th grade. In addition, she accompanied a girls’ chorus and coached the string bass section of All Southern California Orchestra. She also played in a community orchestra.
While at Newport Harbor, Marjorie married and she and her husband eventually moved to Fullerton. After six years, she retired from teaching to focus on starting a family and raising her children. Although she never returned to public school teaching, she accompanied children’s choirs and was the organist at First Presbyterian Church, Fullerton, for 43 years. She also taught piano to children and adults in the Fullerton area for 34 years, which she says had special appeal, as it offered her the opportunity to work one-on-one with her students and develop close relationships. Guiding her pupils and sharing in their musical growth was deeply rewarding for Marjorie. She has been active in Music Teachers’ Association of California and American Guild of Organists, both of which provide master classes for teachers and a variety of scholarships and enrichment activities for students.
Marjorie looks back on her time at UCLA with great fondness and says she used her education training nearly every day as a private instructor.
“UCLA taught me so much – how to think, how to reason, how to adjust to unexpected situations, all of which are vital in the classroom and in life.”