The local atmosphere during World War II and many aspects of the Amherst Schools’ history were laid out for Steele High students on Feb. 6 — and what better source than Mary Powers-Miller?
Now 91, she served on city council from 1981 to 1989 and taught kindergarten in the district from 1962 to 1992.
She is the daughter of Fred Powers, Amherst Schools superintendent from 1918 to 1956, after whom Powers Elementary School is named. From 1953 to 1962, he also served as the school’s first principal.
“My father was a busy man, especially during the war,” said Powers-Miller. “When he was superintendent he’d also work overnight shifts at U.S. Automatic. That’s what you had to do back then, though. Everything was about conservation and how you were contributing to the war effort. My house had about 50 recipes for hamburgers. There were also rations of gasoline in three categories: A, B, or C.”
“He had young-thinking plans for someone who wasn’t that young,” she said. “His progressive ideas are the reason he was put in such a prominent position. He had the ability to know how things would look five, 10, and 20 years down the road.”
The conversation moved to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and how the feel of Amherst changed as more and more of its young men set off to do battle overseas.
“(FDR) was a capable and attentive leader who inspired confidence,” Powers-Miller said. “I started school the year he took office and he died my first year of college. We had no idea he had polio. He got respect because he commanded respect.”
“There were blue stars in most windows around town,” she said. “That meant you had one or more family members in the war. Then you had a gold star if a family member was killed. I wish there hadn’t been so many of those.”
While attending Baldwin Wallace University, Powers-Miller knew Japanese students who had parents in American internment camps and boyfriends fighting on the American front lines.
“There was so much general disdain toward Japanese-Americans,” she said. “There were a lot of pictures and songs put out that made you hate, and that’s not good. Our boys were doing their job and the Japanese boys were doing theirs.”
Opinions on the atomic bombings of Japan varied greatly among Amherst citizens, Powers-Miller said.
“I know some of the people involved in that whole process hated that part of their life,” she said. “They hated to be involved in it. When I think about it, it was terrible. It was awful.”
“My brother, Harry, worked in occupied Japan after the war was over,” she said. “He said it was a strange experience in that you go into this country where all of this horrible fighting took place, and you find wonderful people. He really liked Japan.”
School district historian Russ Marty is Powers-Miller’s grandson by marriage and invited her to speak at Steele. When students were told about the practice of 15-year-olds falsifying their age in order to fight in World War II, he compared it to modern motivation to seek out a fake ID.
“Can you imagine going that far out of your way to go and possibly die?” he asked. “People today get a fake ID for, I guess you could say, purchasing power. People were bending over backwards to disrupt their way of life. That makes you think a lot about real problems and first-world problems.”
Marty also showed slides documenting how Amherst students collected tons of scrap metal to go toward the war effort.
Miller-Powers said she is glad there’s now more awareness regarding post-traumatic stress soldiers often carry with them long after their fighting days have ended.
“Many of us just didn’t know how hard it was to come back home and get back to normal,” she said. “For many of those boys, that normal never came back. We have a better understanding of that now. They just had to go one day at a time back then. The government should have helped the public understand this better before the war was even over.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.