Jean Sybil McElrath
At a glance:
Jean Sybil McElrath was born June 8, 1917 in the mining camp of Chloride, Arizona to Mabell Paddock McElrath and Fenton Morrill McElrath. The family settled in the small town of Wells, Nevada in 1924, where Jean lived in the same house until her death on October 7, 1967. She had two sisters, Anita Cory and Marjorie Klein, and one brother, Thomas W. McElrath. Her father died in an accident in 1936, which left her mother to raise the four children alone. She graduated from Wells High School as valedictorian of her class.
At the age of sixteen she developed progressive rheumatoid arthritis. In spite of the best treatments available to her, by 1938 she was unable to walk and shortly became bedfast. Except for treatments sought in Idaho and surgery in Kansas City, Missouri she seldom left the house for the remainder of her life. She was hospitalized from time to time. Her mother and older sister Anita took the greatest responsibility for her round-the-clock care, but many friends and the rest of the family helped in other ways.
By 1950 she had lost her sight and by 1958 she had become so paralyzed and weak that she began using an electric typewriter which she nicknamed "Simon Legree." She taught herself Braille and members of her family made Braille caps for her typewriter keys. She had a special typewriter table made which fit over her bed so she could type while lying down. Beside her was her telephone, her main contact with the outside world. She also had a radio within reach. Eventually she had tape recorders to document the enormous amount of resource material she collected for her writing.
Her mother and sister, Anita, helped organize, proofread and type up the items she sent in for publication. She received Talking Books from the Library of Congress and enjoyed listening to them. Friends and family often read books to her. She would often record brief reviews and critiques of the books in her private journals. There at her hospital bed in her room she set up a "newsroom" where she received news items and information of all kinds and sent it out by phone to the appropriate newspaper, if it were a news flash, or typed it up for publication in a feature article, book, poem or story. She often "scooped" other reporters because of the loyalty of her sources of information. She usually knew of news before it broke, but she was very careful to always verify her stories. Sometimes Anita would transport Jean in a station wagon to the scene of the story on a gurney nicknamed "The Zephyr."
She was loved and admired by the residents of her town and the surrounding ranches and mines for her great writing talent and the courage and graciousness with which she faced a life of pain and disability. She received a constant stream of visitors who came to bring notes, stories, news items or to just discuss the enormous range of things that interested her. She had an unwavering admiration for and an understanding of all her fellow Nevadans, but most of all of the people of Wells, which became highly publicized through her writings. Many people from other towns and cities also came to know her and communicated with her by phone, letters, tapes and personal visits. She recognized the sound of their voices or their steps when they entered her room.
In January, 1966 she wrote in a letter, "As for the word 'handicap,' it seems to me that to the person concerned, a handicap is pretty much a matter of attitude. It depends, too, I'd say, on what you are trying to do. Nearly everyone is handicapped in some way. Hardly anyone is handicapped in every way. Personality handicaps can be much greater than physical ones. They're more difficult to recognize and acknowledge. And, while it doesn't pay to spend time brooding over a handicap, one does have to face the thing, acknowledge it, before one can try besting it. "Let's say, too, that whatever way one finds around a handicap, would give one a feeling of accomplishment and usefulness. 'Boondoggling' will not do. It is an insult to adult self-respect."
Her memory was remarkable, as was her gift for writing. She especially enjoyed the stories of "old timers" which she collected and retold with humor and compassion. Her readers, unless they knew her personally, did not realize that she was blind and an invalid, because her writing style was so visually descriptive and humorous. She painted vivid pictures of the beauty of Nevada, brought to one's senses the smells of flowers, rain on the desert sage, the majesty of distant mountains and the magic worlds of children at play.
She never lost her thirst for knowledge. After high school she took correspondence courses in journalism and free lance writing. She had tutoring in Latin and Spanish. Until she lost her sight she read omnivorously. She especially enjoyed classical music, which brought her a lot of comfort. The thing that brought her the most unhappiness was that she had to depend on others so much when she wanted to be independent and free. She had dark moments of self doubt, but those were never communicated to the world outside her family or private journals.
Famous people such as Joel McRae, the movie star who had a ranch in Ruby Valley, became her friends. She received recognition from Governor Grant Sawyer. Robert Laxalt, author, professor, and Director of the University of Nevada Press, was one of her mentors and was instrumental in getting Aged in Sage published. In the foreword, he wrote, "In this book, author Jean McElrath has done a remarkable thing. Not only has she breathed life into fine old stories that would otherwise have been left to die, but she has done so with a true storyteller's gift of narrative, with kindness, and a deep understanding of the people she writes about."
She received many awards but the highlight was when she was named Distinguished Nevadan in 1965. She was transported to the University of Nevada, Reno, where she accepted the award in person from her gurney. She was then forty-eight years old, had been unable to walk for twenty-seven years, and blind for fifteen years. At that time she received a congratulatory telegram eight feet, three and one half inches long with signatures from her friends. Her modesty and humor are illustrated by her comment that this had a good human interest story in it, but she didn't feel comfortable writing about it.
She received the National Certificate of Award for the State of Nevada from the United States Commission for the Celebration of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of George Washington, 1932; 1954 Winner - American Association of University Women, Nevada State Division, Pioneer Nevada Woman Essay Contest; Distinguished Nevadan award, 1965; Most Valuable Correspondent from the Salt Lake Tribune, 1954-1961; Certificate of Merit from the Nevada Press Association, 1966; Rose Award from Nevada Future Homemakers of America, 1967.
She was president of the Girl Scout Association (1946-56) and was an Associate Intermediate Troop Leader for three years. She belonged to the Nevada State Historical Society; Nevada Federation of the Blind; League of Women Voters; The Westerners (Los Angeles Corral) and the National League of American Pen Women.
Her honorary memberships included the Nevada Peace Officer's Association, Nevada Cowboy Association, Wells Business and Professional Women's Club, Elko Soroptomists, Northeastern Elko Historical Society, Wells Chamber of Commerce, Parent Teachers Association, Wells Chapter of the Future Farmers of America, and the Elko County Cow Belles.
In September, 1967 she told the editor of the Nevada State Journal that he should get someone else to do her job. When he refused to accept her resignation she wrote that she would try to continue, but signed the note "Square Wheels." Soon she was sent to the hospital in Elko, Nevada where she slipped into a coma, and as the editor of the Nevada State Journal wrote on Oct.7, 1967, "Saturday morning death claimed Jean McElrath, newspaper reporter, author and, indeed, Distinguished Nevadan."
There were many eulogies and testimonials to her. At a testimonial dinner in Wells on October 26, 1967, the Chamber of Commerce presented a check for $500.00 to the Wells city librarian as a memorial to Jean in the hopes that a book could be compiled from her writings in "Tumbleweeds." This was indeed accomplished through the efforts of her family and friends, who edited and published the book in 1971.
Biographical sketch by Esther Early
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