FREMONT — When she looks at the Life magazine photo, LaVonne Dahl knows how blessed she and her siblings have been.
“I’m very fortunate because we got help and our mother could keep us,” said the Scribner woman.
The photo shows a young woman sitting amid her children outside their home in 1939. The woman is holding a baby. Nearby, a little girl and a little boy look off into the distance, while another girl faces her mother.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of that photo taken because the children in it were among the first in Nebraska to receive what was called Social Security’s Aid to Dependent Children.
Had their mother not received $54 a month in aid after their dad died, the children might have been placed in an orphanage, because their mom couldn’t have afforded to take care of them.
Eight decades later, three of those children -- now great-grandmothers -- recall the times and the story behind the photograph.
Dorthea Dale, the young mother in the photo, was just 27 years old when her husband, 29-year-old Robert Dale, died.
Dale had been laid off from his job on the railroad when he got a job at an insulation company. Cement dust from the company got in his lungs and he died of pneumonia in the spring of 1939, during the economically miserable times of the Great Depression.
The Dales’ children were very young. Robert was listed as being 6 years old in Life magazine’s August 1939 issue. LaVonne was listed as 4; Ramona, 2, and Carolyn, 4½ months old.
In the photo, Robert is dressed in overalls. LaVonne’s hair is pulled up in pigtails. A large metal washtub and a wooden bushel basket hang on the front of the house, reflecting the hard work of an era before modern conveniences.
The black and white photograph was among several in an article about Social Security, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Aid to Dependent Children was created to help families, where fathers were deceased, absent or unable to work.
Life magazine explained that Dorthea got a one-time lump sum payment of $22 after her husband died. Through Aid to Dependent Children, she also received $54 each month.
“Over 700,000 children in 300,000 American families are now receiving such aid,” the magazine stated, adding that all but eight states were participating in the program at that time.
Had their mother not received the aid, the women said they might have grown up in different families.
“I don’t know if our grandparents would have let that happen, but they might not have had a choice,” said Carolyn DeBaets, now of Burwell.
After the photo appeared in Life magazine, Dorthea got several letters from people wanting to adopt her children, said Ramona Einfalt, now of Gering.
But letter-writers only wanted some of the children. DeBaets, the baby of the family, said none of the letter-writers wanted an infant.
DeBaets also thinks she probably spent more time with grandparents than the other children, because she was so young.
“I only weighed four and a quarter pounds when I was born, so I probably was a fussy baby,” DeBaets said.
That would have been even tougher on her mom.
Even so, the women said their mother didn’t want to give up her children for adoption.
And Dorthea would persevere. The women remember their mother as a strong person and a hard worker.
Dahl said their home was always clean. DeBaets recalls that Monday was laundry day. Ironing took place on Tuesdays. She was a good cook and a seamstress, who made all of their clothing, including undergarments.
Like most mothers of that era, Dorthea didn’t work outside the home, at first, but later worked at a grocery store in North Platte, where the family lived.
Einfalt remembers their mom always having at least two jobs. Dorthea did laundry and ironing for other people. She sold Avon products. At one time, she worked at a dime store.
Dorthea also would be one of the first women to work at the local post office during World War II, when men went off to war.
She could have lost that job when men came back from the service wanting employment but was allowed to stay on, selling war savings stamps, which could be redeemed for war bonds.
Dorthea was employed at the post office when Louis Frager was driving a cab part-time. Dorthea walked to work, but he’d stop and pick her up. They fell in love and married. The two had a child together, but that baby only lived 14 hours.
The women have good memories of their stepfather.
“Best thing that ever happened to us,” Dahl said.
“We were very fortunate that a man took on four kids, especially in those days,” DeBaets added.
Dorthea and Louis were married more than 30 years, before his death in 1979. Dorthea was 98 when she died in 2010.
In the meantime, her children grew up and had their own families.
Robert Dale married and had eight children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He died in 2018, but decades earlier got four copies of the 1939 issue, which he purchased for $1 each.
Einfalt said she later bought two extra copies for $15 each at antique shows for her children.
Dahl graduated from high school and met her future husband, Duane, through her brother. Duane, who’d served in the U.S. Air Force in Korea, asked LaVonne to marry him the second day after they met.
“I said, ‘I guess so.’ He went home with my brother and I to meet my folks and they liked him,” Dahl said.
The Dahls married in 1953 and had three children, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He died in 1987. She never remarried.
“Nobody could treat me as good as he did,” she said.
Einfalt graduated from high school. She married and had two sons. She later divorced. She remarried Russell Einfalt nine years later and they’ve been married for 46 years. She has two children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
DeBaets graduated from high school and married. She and her husband, Bob, had two children. He died in 1966 in a car crash. She remarried and had two more children and divorced.
She and her current husband, Larry, have been married 27 years. DeBaets has 10 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, two stepchildren, six stepgrandchildren and two step-great-grandchildren.
Before her death, Dorthea didn’t tell her children much about the difficult years of the 1930s.
But the women believe they’ve had good lives.
They are grateful for the Aid to Dependent Children. Without it, the women believe the probably would have been separated and don’t know if they ever would have found each other.
They’re grateful for the magazine that documented a moment in their collective histories.
“It’s part of our history,” Einfalt said.
What do the women tell their children about the time surrounding the 1939 photo?
“That’s what we had as the beginning of our lives,” DeBaets said. “And they all know where we all ended up in the long run. Everybody survived it.”