Maurice Pearson was born in Chicago in 1904. When he was just a year old, his family moved west and settled in Ferndale on 40 acres near the Lummi Indian reservation. Everyone called him Sandy because of his red hair.
After high school, Pearson worked for three years on bridge projects in Ferndale and Everett until he felt he had enough money to pay for his first year at Washington State College. He was the only one of his six siblings to go on to college.
While in Pullman, Pearson first “bached” with friends in an apartment downtown over Johnny Gannon’s Pool Hall. Later, he lived and worked on a dairy close to campus. After graduating in 1929, he married his girlfriend Nell and started teaching in Skagit Valley the first year of the Great Depression. Later he moved to the Columbia Basin and worked with the World War II veterans settling there because of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation irrigation project. He finished his teaching career back in the Puget Sound area. Hannelore Sudermann met with him recently at his home in Bellingham, which he shares with his son Lyle.
Save for college: When I got out of high school, things were not so I could go on to school. So I worked for three years. I went to Alaska and worked on a fish camp one summer. I worked on the Nooksack River Bridge in Ferndale. And I worked on the Snohomish River Bridge in Everett. Some friends of mine had gone to Washington State. After three years I thought I had enough money to get through a year of school. I think I had under $600. I was foolish enough to think I could get through on this. And I did, but I really scrounged. I did outside work, including janitor work on campus. I lived with a Swiss family, a widowed mother and son and daughter. Their name was Koppel (their farm is now a community garden). I worked for my board and room and walked back and forth between classes. I slept in the bunk house with their lead hired man and a dog named Baldy.
Listen to advice: The first summer I started for home a group of us hitched a ride on the freight train. There were three or four of us who found an empty car and there was some alfalfa in the bottom of it. We were sizing the thing up, and the brakeman came along and he said you better pick a car with a steel beam underneath it, he said; some of these wooden cars collapse. We rode the freight as far as Renton. We were told it was safer to get off there than to go into Seattle. The cops in Seattle were a little bit more particular.
Figure out a path: I was interested in architecture and my advisors told me that was not a good choice. They said architects are a dime a dozen. So I went into the industrial arts. Then I found the instructor was a fuddy duddy. So I switched to agriculture and took education courses. I think the impression that most people get of college students is that they spend a lot of time drinking and playing poker… and dating. I had been out of school for three years and I felt I needed to buckle down and… I didn’t have much time for extracurricular activities.
Make exceptions: My senior year, I decided I should take a semester of boxing. It was taught by a student coach by the name of Ike Deeter (the founder of boxing at WSU). He kind of gave up on me as a boxer. He told me once he could coach me all my life and never make a boxer out of me. I had the unfortunate tendency of leading with my chin.
You never know who you could meet: It was during my senior year and I found myself at this dance in Bohler Gym. Someone told me it would be a good idea to dance with one of the sponsors. Well, I wasn’t too anxious for it because I was a pretty poor dancer. I said, “How do I meet a sponsor?” He said, “Well you hunt up Ed Murrow. He is on the committee and he can introduce you.” I didn’t know him. He wasn’t Edward R. Murrow at the time. He was just plain Ed Murrow, a student. I never did find him. If I had been able to predict his future fame, I probably would have kept hunting until I did find him.
Find the right job: I had a major in agriculture and a minor in teaching qualifications. Nell [a friend from before college] and I had just decided to get married… [The school placement office received a wire about Pearson]. The wire said “Was Pearson available for $1,800?” My reply was “Yes.” My classmates were amazed that I was hired sight unseen. At that time Burlington was pretty much a Scandinavian community. Maybe they thought I was Scandinavian because of my name.
It doesn’t all go south at once: It was 1929, the same year the Great Depression—the stock market—broke. At that time prices were going down. It didn’t hit everybody at one time. Some people were not affected for two or three years. As a matter of fact I got a couple raises and got up to $2,000 a year. Then it caught up with us and they started cutting. I got cut to $1,500. When it eased up and they started raising again, and I got raised $5 a month. So I commenced to look for another job. I was at Burlington for six years, from ’29 to ’35. By the time we left, I had saved enough by not buying a house to buy one when we moved.
Start new things: While I was at Burlington, the FFA, the Future Farmers of America, was just getting organized. We chartered a chapter at Burlington. It was a real good place to get started. There was a very good class of farmers there, very good farmland, and a very good class of students. Two of my students later became state presidents of the FFA. I thought that spoke pretty well for the quality of it.
See the country from your car: A job at Enumclaw opened up. It paid $2,000 a year. I thought that would be a good time to buy a new car. I went to Detroit with the dealer, bought a new car and drove it back. In those days you could save enough on the freight of the car to pay for your trip. I bought a Plymouth. I think it was kind of a deep maroon.
Move for your family: I was at Enumclaw for 10 years. But the climate was not agreeable to the boys. Lyle [his son] and his older brother Ken were in school at that time. They had a bronchial condition and were out of school half the time. We asked the doctor if it would help if we moved someplace dry. He said it couldn’t hurt. The driest place we could find was Moses Lake. They didn’t have any ag departments in the Columbia Basin at that time. It was when they were just starting [the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation project to irrigate farmland in Central Washington]. I was there when the veterans were coming in and settling on these farm units. The Veterans Administration had a program they called institutional on-the-farm training. They would pay the veterans for going to school while they settled on these units. The only facility for teaching that institutional on-the-farm training was the high school there. So I inherited this class of veterans. I think I averaged about 17 veterans in a class. We taught them irrigation procedures. And for other things, we had experts come in. We were supposed to spend I think four hours a month with a veteran on his farm. Some were better at farming than others. One, I think, ended up running a car dealership in Moses Lake.
Retirement is just a job change: I retired from teaching in 1960 [at age 55]. The highest salary I ever got was $625 a month. Then I raised cattle. I bought 120 acres west of Lynden and I thought I was going to have a herd of registered Angus. But I found it was too small an operation. So I ended up with what they call a stocker/feeder business. I would buy the calves at the sales and raise them until they had to go to the feed lot. I enjoyed going to the sales. But I made more money on the real estate than I did with the cattle.
Dance when you can: I still go to the senior center every week to dance. I dance one and rest about two or three. I still do the Varsovienne and the three-step. I had to give up the fast dances. I just love the polka, but my feet aren’t fast enough anymore to keep up with it.