Faces In the Crowd: Althea Frayer

January 24, 2019

Growing up, Althea Frayer never imagined that she’d spend most of her career surrounded by school children.
Her dad, Kenneth Overmyer, was a bus driver, and the thought of dealing with loud, obnoxious, students on a daily basis was – in the beginning – quite terrifying for Althea.
But in the spring of 1969, she gave it a go.
Hired initially as a substitute cook for Marion High School, Althea spent the next 40 years – 30 in the high school, 10 at the elementary – in the lunch room, providing generations of local students with a good hearty meal, and a sound listening ear.
In addition to her family of schoolchildren, Althea and her late husband Red (Lavern) raised their own two kids, Dixie and Kenny, from their home in Winterfield Township.
Members of the VFW for the last 55 years, Althea and Red dedicated a great deal of time to honoring our nation’s veterans. Before his passing in the summer of ’18, Red held the title of Quartermaster of the Marion VFW Post #6015, while Althea continues to serve as the senior vice president. Together, the couple spent countless hours honoring the gravesites of local veterans by compiling a database and placing flags for each and every veteran.
We spoke with Althea recently at her home, where we talked about cooking and the cafeteria; we talked about Red, the VFW, and what the Marion community means to the Frayer family. We found out that Althea – or Ellie, as many know her – is much more than just another face in the crowd.

Althea Frayer

Althea Frayer

Marion Press: Were you born and raised here in Marion?
Althea: No. I was born in St. Johns; my mother was from St. Johns, and my dad was from Marion. I wanna say that they [my dad’s family, the Overmyer’s] moved up here from Ohio between 1907 and 1912. Somewhere in there my dad’s family moved to Marion. He went to the Beebe School west of town, and he went to school here through the eighth grade.

MP: When did you first move to Marion?
Althea: Red and I moved up here in ’67; the state highway department transferred him up here.

MP: So where did you go to school at?
Althea: Well, I started school in Cadillac. Somewhere along the line, when I was little, my folks moved up here and I started at Cooley School in Cadillac. I went to Cooley through the second grade, and then we moved to Lansing. I went through seventh grade in Lansing, and then they bought a house in Holt, and I went through the 11th grade there. And then I graduated from McBain.

MP: So you graduated from McBain?
Althea: My husband and I went to the first adult ed classes that McBain had. And we graduated with that senior class – there were six of us that graduated – and we even walked down the aisle with them, with gowns. It was awesome. I had disappointed my dad – he said that I’d never finish school. I said: ‘Someday, dad. Someday.’ He was so proud.

MP: How did you meet your husband, Lavern (Red)?
Althea: Well, he’s known me since I was born. There’s six years difference between us. His aunt married my uncle – my mother’s brother. So we shared an aunt and uncle, even though we weren’t related. And they raised him and his brother. And whenever I wasn’t in school, I was at either my aunt and uncle’s, or my grandpa and grandma’s – because they were right around the corner, out in the country in the St. John’s area.
We moved around. I didn’t realize how much though. When Red and I got married I lived in Holt. And then we went to Battle Creek, and then to Marshall. Then we moved to Mason. And then while he was working in Mason we moved back to Holt on a piece of my folks’ property until we moved up here in ’67.

Red, Althea, Dixie and Kenny.

Red, Althea, Dixie and Kenny.

MP: Tell us about your family.
Althea: I had my daughter, Dixie, she went to school at Marion; so did my son, Kenny. Dixie passed away of cancer in 2011. And Kenny, he drives semi. He’s based out of Minnesota. During his time off, he comes home for a week and stays here.

MP: Do you have any grandkids?
Althea: Yes, I have a grandson and granddaughter. My grandson lives in Mancelona, and my granddaughter lives in Gladwin.

MP: And you have a lot of children who you could consider your kids during your time spent [as a cook] at the school. When did you start working at the school?
Althea: My dad drove school bus for Holt. I was a nurse’s aide before we moved up here; worked in a nursing home for four years. And I didn’t want to drive to Farwell or Cadillac – I was thinking about the winter; thought ‘nah.’ And my dad said, well you should go apply to drive school bus. I said there ain’t no way I’m driving school bus: maybe if I could handcuff ‘em to the seats and tape their mouths shut it might work!
And it was getting to the point where we were needing the second income back. So, I just stopped at the school – I remember I was coming back from Cadillac – and Rachel Miller was in the office, and she interviewed me. Of course, when I worked at the nursing home, I was like a jack-of-all-trades: I worked in the kitchen in the morning for breakfast; I was on the floor; worked in the beauty shop one day a week.
A couple days later, Rachel called. Della Baker was the cook, and Rosie Watkins had been her partner but she had broke her leg that February and she never came back. JoAnne Chamberlain had finished out the year, but she had a young son and she wanted to be home with him. So they hired me – it was supposed to be as a sub – but I worked right from day one, because Rosie never came back.

High school photo of Althea.

High school photo of Althea.

MP: And you worked at the high school from ’69 until 2000. What was that like, dealing with high school kids in the lunch line?
Althea: I enjoyed it. Especially when I got over being scared of ‘em – they used to petrify me. But I got over that. There were different ones who would come out and talk with me. I look back, and a lot of them were kind of troublemakers at school, but they would come out and stand there and talk with us, and they were staying out of trouble. They’d come and visit with us, and talk with us – in the morning, before school they’d come visit; their lunch hour, they’d hang around. It was really nice to feel that you were helping somebody.

MP: Do you ever miss that?
Althea: Yes. Sometimes, yeah. I subbed for almost 10 years afterwards, until one day I thought: Why are you doing this? You retired because you hurt. I would come home, and I hurt so bad that I’d cry. But I did most of my subbing at the elementary, which was entirely different. And I thought – and I had chances to switch and go down to the elementary, but I never wanted to – and I thought, why didn’t I?
I enjoyed the little kids too. I enjoyed it at the high school, I really did.

MP: What was your favorite part of working at the high school?
Althea: Probably just getting to know different students. Just visiting with them and listening to them. A lot of them just needed to be listened to; just needed somebody to listen. And we done that quite a lot.

MP: Who were some of the cooks you worked with?
Althea: I started with Della Baker, and then she retired. Then Ruby Keehn. I just had lunch after church Sunday with Ruby at the restaurant and I asked her: ‘Ruby, how long did we work together?’ And she said 17 years. And I enjoyed it; I learned so much from her. Not just cooking, but she taught me how to sew – my mother could never teach me that because I wanted nothing to do with it. Ruby could talk to me on the telephone and walk me through something. Her, and Hazel Marsh, and Dorothy Robinson, and us.
And when Ruby retired, Nancy Christie took her place. And we had the dishwashers who started then: JoAnne Toth, Betty Morgan, Dorothy Robinson – she would sub when one of the cooks was out. We all worked together.

Red and Althea.

Red and Althea.

MP: What were some of the things that the Frayer family enjoyed doing?
Althea: We were pretty involved – and I still am – with the VFW. We’ve belonged to the VFW for 55 years. We liked to snowmobile. Red would go up to the school when they’d present the flags during the sporting events. Sometimes I’d go with him and watch him. Sometimes I’d go to the basketball games, even though I was never into basketball.

MP: And you’re still very involved with the VFW, right?
Althea: Oh yeah. I’m senior vice [president] and I still do the voice of democracy and the patriot pen. I’m still the chairman for that. Bob Friend is the chairman for the men, and I’m the one for the women.

MP: What is your favorite thing about being a part of the Marion community?
Althea: I think most of the people in Marion are friendly. If you need help, they’re there. They say hi to you; you’re not a stranger for very long.

MP: Well you can’t be a stranger, there are too many kids from school who will recognize you!
Althea: Nope, I couldn’t. In fact, the other day I was thinking about that, thinking: Boy, those were good days.
If you would’ve told me before I started working for the school that I would enjoy the kids and all that – I would’ve told you that you were crazy! Yeah, I really enjoyed most of ‘em.

MP: What did you and Red enjoy doing for fun?
Althea: We bowled. Actually, he’d bowled longer than I have. I’m not a good bowler, but I love to bowl. So he bowled on Wednesday nights with Norm Robinson, Dale Williams, and Jim Ashe for years, until Jim died, and the team just kind of broke up. Well, there’s a Wednesday morning league that’s mixed – men and women both. Red and I bowled on this other team, and we got our own team with two special needs boys, and a couple older gentlemen. And after Red passed away, they talked me into coming back. They said: ‘We lost Red, we don’t wanna lose you, too.’
And I thought, oh boy. And then I sat here and thought all summer: If I don’t go back to the team, I’ll never go. So I told them, yes. And I’m glad I did. They call me grandma, and they used to call Red, Red Skelton. The name of our team is the Patriots. We bowl up at Parkview Lanes in Cadillac.

MP: Who have been your role models over the years? What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Althea: My mother and father, Kenneth and Hazel Overmyer. They taught us to always tell the truth. If you don’t, it’s going to bite you in the butt. I found that out once! They always seemed to give me good advice. And as far as learning anything, probably Ruby Keehn. Sewing, or cooking, or stuff like that, she’s a good teacher.


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