By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
Going through thousands of letters accumulated in his father’s old footlocker, Joe Boyles came across one small bundle of letters tucked into a corner, set apart from the rest. At first, once he realized they weren’t letters written by his mother, he thought about just throwing them away.
But a voice began speaking from those letters, a voice belonging to a young teenaged girl from Monroeville, Ala., at the height of the Great Depression – 1936 to 1938.
Those letters became the basis for a short, non-fiction story penned by Boyles in 2005, Forever Young: The Story of a Depression Era Judson Girl.
At the Aug. 10 meeting of the Rotary Club, he read excerpts from that story as he talked about the remarkable young girl who wrote the letters, and the friendship that began between two teenagers who met at camp one summer, nearly 70 years ago.
Louise Florey was a bright, attractive, dark-haired young girl, with a twin sister, a younger sister and a younger brother. Her mother was a widow who was raising four children in Depression-era Alabama, a woman who somehow kept things together for her children.
Louise was doing well both in school and in 4H, well enough to earn a spot in the National 4H Camp in Washington D.C. It was at that camp, during the summer of 1936, where Louis would meet fellow camper, Joe Boyles’ father, Eugene. The two struck up a friendship that would continue over the next two years, through the exchange of dozens of letters, and follow Louise to Judson College for girls in Marion, Ala., where her hopes and dreams for the future began to take shape.
In September of 1936, as Louise was entering her freshman year, she wrote excitedly about how beautiful the college campus was, not very far from the Marion Military Institute for Young Men.
The students were awakened every morning by someone ringing a triangle loudly in all the dorms; the college newspaper was called, appropriately enough, The Triangle.
At that time, the freshman classes at most colleges were set apart for a period of initiation, and Judson was no different. The freshmen, known as “rats,” were required to wear tennis shoes, huge hair bows, and the color red as they carried books for the upperclassmen. A few months later, Louise was one of the upperclassmen, gleefully greeting a new wave of “rats” on campus.
The letters reveal other glimpses into a time long past, a time when movie tickets were 35 cents, when the death of movie star Jean Harlow at age 26 would come as a shock to a young girl, when the moody, unpredictable Rhett Butler of the wildly popular bestselling novel, Gone With the Wind would capture her imagination long before Clark Gable made the role his own. It was a time when the mere prospect of having telephones in the dorm, although it didn’t pan out, was a cause for great excitement.
Louise loved to imagine that she was on “dates” with Eugene, even though they lived well over 300 miles apart. “Let’s make it a date,” she would write of a movie coming out; they would both go alone at the same time on the same day and pretend they were on a movie date with each other.
As she imagined what her life would become and what she would do after she graduated, she also imagined the children she would someday have, and like her friends, she had already picked out names for them. She would save all her letters that she received from all her friends and one day read them aloud to her grandchildren.
During the long, hot summer of 1938, Louise was on vacation from college, visiting a cousin in Alabama. On a hot afternoon, just shy of her 19th birthday, she was drowned in a swimming accident when she and her cousin were washed over the spillway of a dam.
Eugene never saw Louise again after that summer at 4H Camp; during the two years following, his only contact with her had been her letters that he so carefully saved. The letters would never be read aloud to grandchildren; they would remain silent until their discovery decades later, when they would speak to a new generation and afford a rare glimpse into a time long past – like a snapshot taken by a girl, who would herself remain forever caught in that time, forever young.