By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

People person

Marcus Larson/News-RegisterAfter retiring from the state, Speer sought out a retail job for fun and found her niche at J.C. Penney. In addition to working for the McMinnville store, she enjoys growing flowers and making crafts.
Marcus Larson/News-RegisterLongtime J.C. Penney worker Verdella Speer, left, helps shopper Debbie Mosher with her purchase. Speer said she enjoys meeting people through her job.
Submitted photoIn 1937, 7-year-old Verdella Fields Speer, front right, poses with other students at the Wheatland School. After eight grades in the one-room school, the Wheatland resident continued to Amity High School.

She wanted a job in retailing. “I wanted to work with the public, get to see people and talk to people,” she said.

As a teenager in Wheatland, she and her sister knew a woman who worked at Woolworth’s. Whenever they had the chance to go to Salem, they visited their friend at the store. It seemed like such a fun job, Speer recalled.

She remembered that for decades, even as she worked in the state Corporations Division office and, later, on the Oregon Blue Book. Both were interesting jobs, she said, but they were lacking the kind of public contact you get in retail.

When she retired in 1995, at age 65, she told herself, “I’m going to go find something where I work with people.”

By that time, Woolworth’s wasn’t around anymore, but Speer found just the kind of job she was looking for at J.C. Penney. “The people are wonderful,” she said.

Speer, whose maiden name is Fields, was born in Wheatland on May 9, 1930. She was the fourth and youngest daughter of Smith and Marie Fields. In addition to older sisters Thelma, Leta and Macil, she had a baby brother, Austin, who trailed her by two years.

A few years ago, she put together a book about her early days in Wheatland.

“We felt the effects of the Depression,” said Speer, the last of the five Fields siblings still living. “We had nothing. I wanted my kids and grandkids to know about that.”

She and her family lived just north of the road drivers now take to reach the Wheatland Ferry. Speer and her siblings knew it as the “Market Road” when they walked down it to the Willamette River.

They liked to skip rocks or wade in the shallow water at the edge, or ride the ferry across and back.

One day, Speer and her brother accompanied another little boy to the river. He threw something out into the channel and tried to swim out to retrieve it, but got caught up in the current and drowned.

That was the last time Speer ever set foot in the water.

Mostly, she played around her home, or in the fields and woods nearby. Her place was surrounded by Clyde Lafollette’s walnut and peach orchards, as well as tracts of filberts, boysenberries and wild berries.

Wheatland also had a walnut dryer and a community hall, both built by Lafollette.

“We climbed trees a lot,” Speer recalled. “We didn’t have many toys, but we had cards and checkers. If someone had a ball, we’d find a stick for a bat. Sometimes we’d have an old tire, and one person would get inside while the other would roll it through the walnut orchard. Or we’d step on tin cans and have races.”

She has fond memories of those simple activities, and wishes she saw today’s kids doing things like that, rather than bending over computerized games or phones.

“We had to invent most of what we did,” the great-grandmother said. “We had to be creative.”

While the Fields’ children played a lot, they also had work to do.

They helped care for the family’s cow, chickens and pear, apple, cherry and walnut trees. They also canned fruit, and everything else they could, so they’d have supplies for winter.

“Dad would buy a gunnysack of corn that we’d shuck and can,” Speer recalled.

What they couldn’t can, grow or make themselves they bought from the Hopewell or Grand Island Junction stores. During World War II, they used ration stamps to buy sugar, she recalled — or gas pumped from a glass-topped pump in Hopewell.

Occasionally, her dad would take them into McMinnville. While he took care of business, she said, “We’d get to look around. Not buy, but look.”

She loved going to the nickel and dime store, Rutherford’s, or J.C. Penney, which had two floors and used a pneumatic tube to shuttle money from one floor to the other.

From September through June, she and her siblings, along with other Wheatland children, walked up the Market Road to their school. The one-room building was on Wallace Road, across from what now is Maud Williamson State Park.

The park had not been created at the time. It was just a wooded tract that served as the perfect place for the community’s annual Easter egg hunt.

The Wheatland School building still exists, but in a different location. It was moved to Hopewell and turned into a home.

Back then, the school served all eight grades.

When Speer’s brother turned 4, he went there too — becoming the first-ever kindergartner — because he needed a place to stay during the day. Their mother had just died of cancer, and their father, a laborer, took whatever work he could find.

Usually there were 15 to 20 kids in the school. One teacher provided the lessons, adapting them to the grade level of each student.

“I liked school,” Speer recalled. “At school, I got to see other kids,” in addition to the ones from her neighborhood.

A wood-burning stove heated the place. On really cold mornings, Speer said, everyone gathered around the stove while they studied reading, penmanship, arithmetic and other subjects.

Sometimes, the Wheatland kids caught the high school bus, which dropped them off at their school before continuing on to Amity. After eighth grade, they attended Amity High School.

Speer was one of four Wheatland School students graduating from eighth grade in 1944. She went on to graduate from Amity High in 1948.

Not long afterward, Speer married her first husband, Ken Anderson, guitar player in a band that played for old-time dances at the Wheatland Community Hall. They moved to Marion County.

Later, she would marry John Speer. He died in 1998.

She raised three boys and three girls. Two of her kids, Bill Anderson and Alisa Owen, live in McMinnville. Daughter Cynthia Bliss lives in Happy Valley and daughter Kathleen Petersen in Turner. Son Ken Anderson makes his home in Salem, and her other son is deceased.

Speer said her kids tease her a little these days. While daughter Kathleen is getting ready to retire from the state Employment Division, the matriarch of the family keeps on working nearly full time.

“My kids say I’m raising the bar,” she said.

“I love the work,” she said of J.C. Penney. “I like talking to people, being on the move, getting the job done.”

She started in the women’s department in Salem, where she was living at the time.

After her husband died, she moved to McMinnville in 1999 to be closer to some of her children. But she kept commuting to work in Salem.

Although she worked at J.C. Penney in Salem, she frequently shopped at the McMinnville store. She liked the clothes there — she often buys for her four grandchildren and five great-grands — and it was closer to home.

“Every time I came here to shop, I’d see Brent Carefoot,” she said. “When I figured out he was the manager, I asked if he had an opening here. I kept pestering him every time.”

Two years ago, Carefoot finally said yes and Speer transferred to the McMinnville store. She usually works about 36 hours a week, including every other weekend.

She runs the checkout counter, keeps the women’s section neat and returns items left in the fitting room to the sales floor. She also answers questions.

People ask where to find a certain item, what the sale price is or whether the store is among those J.C. Penney plans to close.

The answer to the latter is no, she said. The McMinnville store is here to stay.

Sometimes customers ask for her fashion advice.

“I’m honest with them,” she said. “I have to recognize that each one has her own likes and dislikes.”

Speer said she buys a few things for herself, but doesn’t worry about being too tempted. “After two or three weeks, you get over the ‘need’ to buy everything,” she said.

She enjoys the changes in seasons, when new clothes come out. Back-to-school brings in families with school-age kids, and spring brings shoppers who smile at the bright colors.

One of her favorite parts of the working year is the day after Thanksgiving, when J.C. Penney and other stores open early to accommodate big crowds of shoppers.

“Black Friday has a bad reputation, but it shouldn’t,” she said. “The people are ready for the lines and they’re shopping at an unusual hour. It’s almost a party mood.”

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or

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