Lately I have been rereading my book, the one about
my mother and her family, looking for errors, awkward sentences, etc., and I
discovered a really interesting story that I just have to share, even if it
means interrupting the story of my dad’s life.
In the chapter I just finished editing, my mother Wenonah
is telling about a time when she was ten. It would have been about 1923. During that year her older sister,
Kaliteyo, who was thirteen, had a toothache. The toothache kept getting worse,
until a swelling developed under her jaw. One day she was riding a horse across the yard, forgot to duck and a tree branch struck her right
under the jaw, knocking her off the horse.
Kaliteyo wasn’t hurt by the fall, but the limb of
the tree punctured an abscess that had extended from the root of her sore tooth
completely through her jaw bone. I remember the scar. Grandmother ran outside
when she heard the commotion, and saw pus and blood running down Kaliteyo’s
Well, Pauls Valley didn’t have a permanent dentist
at the time – that’s the reason Grandmother hadn’t gotten help sooner, but
after seeing the huge abscess she knew she had to do something. It just so
happened that a dentist had just rolled into town, in a Pullman car. I found a
picture of the car in a Pauls Valley. Centennial brochure.
The dentist’s name was Dr. Laird, who lived with his family in a Pullman car which
he moved from town to town. When he came to a new town, he would have his Pullman
car rolled off onto a side track and stay there until he saw as many patients as needed him. Then he would move on.
My mother told me that Grandmother let her go along
when she took Aunt Kaliteyo to see Dr. Laird, so she got to see the inside of
the Pullman car. She told me that the inside was really fancy. It
had beautiful velvet drapes with tassles on the pull cords, and elegant rugs
Oh, by the way, Dr. Laird pulled Kaliteyo’s tooth,
and her jaw eventually healed, even though it took a long time and a lot of
follow up visits to Dr. Laird.
The other thing that my mother mentioned was that
Dr. Laird had a daughter who played the harp. She told me that she heard her play
and that she was very good.
I found out a little more about Dr. Laird from a brief note on the
Pauls Valley Centennial brochure. It says there that Dr. Laird’s daughter, whose name was
Mignon, went on to become a professional dancer in New York City. I didn’t look
into the story any further at first. It did strike me as funny to imagine
Mignon running and leaping through a railroad car, trying to practice her
But on rereading my chapter, I got curious about
Mignon’s career, so I “Googled” her. Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? The
first thing that I encountered was the Mignon Laird Municipal Airport, in
Cheyenne, Oklahoma. She had an airport named after her!
Digging deeper I found a book about the Katy
Northwest Railroad which describes a local service they ran from town to town
in Oklahoma. The book says that Dr. Laird used that service to move his Pullman
car from town to town. Also, according to the book, Dr. Laird did a lot more than
pull teeth. He put on “medicine shows” by which I suppose they mean he sold
some kind of tonic which was supposed to heal whatever ailed you, and part of
the show was Mrs. Laird and Mignon giving readings and singing, and Mignon
playing the harp. It might have been at one of these performances that my
mother heard Mignon play.
In looking for information about Mignon’s career, I
found a blog by a lady named Laura Haywood about the “Ziegfield Club” which was
a group of ladies in New York who had performed in the Ziegfield Follies, and who
would get together from time to time to reminisce. Ms. Haywood attended some of
the club’s meetings and got to know Mignon Laird, who was one of the club’s
charter members. Mignon’s told her that her act consisted of dancing with her
harp, which she somehow managed to play at the same time.
Mignon was also part of the cast of a broadway show
called “Who Cares” which played for 32 performances in 1930.
Finally, I found on the New York Public Library site
a spectacular photograph of Mignon, playing the harp and dancing in the
Don worked hard in his classes at OU, but he also
worked hard to excel in sports. He not only went out for basketball, but also
track. He ran the mile, the mile relay and he threw the javelin.
Don was exceptionally strong in his arms. He had
boxed since grade school, and he worked on improving his arm strength. He told
me once that he used to do 300 push ups every night. When I was little I asked
him why he didn’t have big muscles like weight lifters, and he told me that
they weren’t a strong as they looked. He said that he had beat one of the
weight lifters at OU in arm wrestling.
Apparently Don didn’t quit fighting at OU, and from
what I can gather he was short tempered and used to push people around. I
didn’t find that out from him. It was Jim who told me that Don's brother Boyd had pulled
him aside once or twice to tell him that he couldn’t keep bullying people and
succeed as an adult.
Don still spent his summers in Fay while he was in
college, and he was something of a hero there, especially after he made the
basketball team. When I went to stay with my cousin Bud in Fay, his dad, Uncle Check,
told me that Don worked at a dairy one summer, and that he could unload ten
gallon milk containers out of a truck without taking down the tailgate. I guess
working on the farm helped Don stay in condition. He told me once that the
hardest work he had ever done was to dig a well by hand.
Don at Aunt Laura's Dairy in Canton, Oklahoma
(Cousin Marvin Gunning on L, Laura on R, Don next to Laura)
One summer Don had a job surveying for the county,
and he told me a funny story about an old farmer he met that summer. What Don
was supposed to do was to measure the dimensions of each farmer’s fields. He
had a chain of a certain length, and he was supposed to walk along the fence
line and count the number of chain lengths on the sides of each field.
Don said as he walked up to one farmer’s house, he
saw the farmer sitting out on his porch in the sun. The man told Don that the
sun was good for his arthritis. He said that his boys worked his farm now, because
he hadn’t been able to work for several years because of the arthritis. Don asked if any of his boys
were around, that he was going to need someone at the other end of his chain.
The old farmer said his boys weren’t there, but he’d try to help.
Don said that the old farmer walked slow, but they
eventually walked around every field, and the farmer kept going, even though the chain was
heavy and sometimes Don was almost dragging him along. Don said he was feeling
guilty about putting the old farmer through such a hard day’s work when they
finally got back to the house, but to his surprise the farmer had a smile on
his face. He thanked Don for putting him through the work out, and said that he
hadn’t felt better in years.
I don’t think Don continued his boxing matches after he went to college, but he didn’t lose his
self-confidence. Uncle Check told me another incident that happened at a rodeo they
went to together. Check said they were sitting in the first row, and that one
of the cowboys tossed a bucket of water on the ground in front of them, splashing mud up on their pants. He
said that Don said something to the cowboy about what he could do with his
water, and the cowboy said, “Why don’t you make me?” At that point Don stood up
to his full 6 ft, 4 inches, and started to climb over the fence. The cowboy
I used to try to imagine what Don was like in school. The stories I heard of him as a young man portrayed him as cocky and belligerent, a person totally different from my father. I never once heard Don raise his voice, let alone lose his temper. He was
always calm, gentle, and understanding. He never seemed to assert himself, but people respected his opinions. He was well
liked by everyone who knew him. He was a supervisor in his job, and he was elected to positions of leadership elsewhere. He
was on the vestry at church, and he was president of the Petroleum Accountants’
Association of Oklahoma.
Don did tell me one story about why he had changed his personality.
He said there was a boy at OU, a member of the track team, who admired Don for
his prowess in sports, but Don considered him a pest, so he bullied him and
tried to run him off. He said that in spite of Don's attitude though, the boy kept trying to make friend with him, so he gradually decided that he was wrong. He told me, “I just decided I didn’t want to be that kind of person anymore,” and he and the young man became friends.
This story is another example to me of Don’s ability to change.
I think that was the most remarkable thing about my father. A lot of people try to change or improve their personalities, but very few are able to accomplish it. Don did, not just once, but over and over again.
Here’s a letter that Don wrote to his dad in Enid
the summer after his sophomore year in high school. As usual he was spending
the summer in Fay. His mother was there too and also his little brother Everett. His
older brother Boyd had stayed in Enid with Grandfather that summer. Boyd had just
graduated from high school, and had a job in town.
To: Mr RB Gunning, 803 E Elm, Enid Okla., June 10,
From: Don Gunning, Jn 11, 1931, Fay Ok.
Dear Father: Well I guess I had better write you a letter. I meant to
write you sooner but this is the first time I have had a chance. I have plowed
and howed a lot while I have been here. We milk ten cows. I ran the whole row
this morning, but I got done and it is raining now. I saw Mamma Sunday a little
while at Fay, but don’t know when she will come out here. Gene went to town
yesterday and Everett came out with him. I am learning him a lot of things, he
can’t milk a bit. He tried to last night and barely got the bottom of his
Somebody down here died and Gene went to help dig her grave this morning
at 8 and didn’t get it done until one thirty. This rain is getting worse and it’s
hailing a little bit. Everett saw Virginia Parks Sunday and they had quite a
time. How is Boyd? I wish I was up there with him. If you ever see a job up
around there between now and time for school to start I would be glad to come
home. I like this all right but I would rather be up there with you and Boyd.
Is Boyd going to Norman (OU) next year? Tell him to write me a letter & tell me what he has
been doing. Write a letter to me and tell me all the news and how you are. I’ll
write every time I have time. Harold is sending a letter in the same envelope
to Boyd. (Harold was one of Don’s cousins)
Your son, Don.
Scrapbook 9, P 1
I probably should have put this letter into the blog
about Fay or into the one about Don in high school, but it does fit here too because
it shows Don’s attachment to his brother Boyd. I think Don’s respect for Boyd
is partly what inspired him to turn down his football coach’s plan to keep him
in high school another year, and to go on to college instead.
Anyway, in the fall of 1933 after he graduated from Enid High, Don did enroll at OU,
and he moved in with his brother Boyd. Boyd
was quite enterprising. He had to be, because his father couldn’t afford to
send his sons to college charging 15¢ per haircut. When Don got to OU in Norman,
Oklahoma, Boyd had established two sources of income. He worked as a kitchen
boy for the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house, and he also operated a laundry
and cleaning delivery service for the sorority houses. When Don arrived they
expanded the laundry service, and Don also went to work at the sorority house
Don and Boyd, about 1940
Don majored in business, and went out for basketball.
After watching Don play at the first practice, OU’s basketball coach at that
time, Hugh McDermott, pulled Don aside and told him not to waste his time, that
he would never make the team. But Don had decided he was going to play
basketball at OU. He had overcome obstacles in high school football, and he
figured he could do the same in college. Don worked hard all that year,
improving slowly and refusing to give up, and by the start of basketball season
his sophomore year, he had made the team.
Paying for tuition and for room and board at OU was
tough, but with hard work and determination Boyd and Don kept themselves in
school. Working around sorority girls was a definite plus. Boyd dated one of
Kappa girls, Eleanor Adderhold, whom he later married, but Don decided that he
couldn’t afford to date. When he became a star on the basketball team several
of the Kappa girls asked him out, offering to pay the expenses, but he
turned them down. He wasn’t going to let a girl pay his way.
That didn’t dampen the girls’ spirits though. The
sorority sisters all went to his games, sat together and cheered for him. They even made
up a little ditty for him:
To our athlete
So big and brave
About you constantly
We all rave.
OU Basketball Team - 1937
Don in back row, 3rd from left
Boyd's girl friend Eleanor was a tall girl, and she was on the Kappa
basketball team. Don watched her play, and then offered her some pointers.
Since she was tall she got a lot of rebounds, but when she came down with the
ball, the girls from the other team would take the ball away from her. Don advised
her to hold the ball in close to her chest, to stick her elbows out sideways
and to swing back and forth to force the other girls back away from her. She tried it,
and it worked! She had no more trouble losing her rebounds. In fact, the other
girls started calling her “Elbows Adderhold.”
Eleanor, with Don, Grandmother and Grandfather Gunning
My dad has always been my hero. I admire him for so
many reasons, and these stories are starting to illustrate some of them. When I
was little I admired him most for his athletic prowess and strength, but as I
have grown older it is his other qualities that amaze me the most. First was
his determination. He made the OU basketball team and became a star through
grit and determination, even though his coach actually discouraged him. Second
was his ability to make up his mind and to stick to his decision. He decided
that he couldn’t afford to date in college. Sounds reasonable, given his
circumstances, but how many guys could have carried through on it? I certainly
couldn’t, especially if I had been a campus hero, actually being asked out by