‘It was just a new place’

Virginia Bryant and Lillian Miller tell stories of Laramie’s changes during the past decades.

JEREMY MARTIN/Boomerang photographer

The Great Depression; World War II; the booming ’50s — most of us remember these from history class, but two Laramie friends remember them first-hand.

Virginia Bryant and Lillian Miller were both born in 1915 — Lillian is turning 101 this month — and both University of Wyoming graduates have quite a bit to say about their time in Laramie.

“We actually met in college during Lillian’s senior year,” Virginia said.

The two met through their husbands, who were both in the College of Commerce.

“We were dating our future husbands and they said, ‘Let’s get together and spend a weekend up in the mountains,’” Virginia said. “So, we went up to the Snowy Range Lodge, and that’s where I met Lillian.”

The two women didn’t stay in touch — they only met during Lillian’s last year at UW, after all — but were surprised to see each other at the Regency Retirement Residence when Virginia moved in 2009.

“We used to go up to the mountains when we could,” Lillian said.

Still, that was a bit of a treat during the late ’30s, Virginia said.

“Nobody had money during the Depression,” she said. “About the only thing you could do on a date was go to a movie. Of course, they had dances at the university, but other than that, there wasn’t much.”

Neither are Laramie natives, but both ended up in Laramie during a tough time.

“I grew up in Niobrara County on Bar Six Ranch,” Virginia said.

She attended UW during the height of the Depression, enrolling in 1937, after deciding college was the best route for a career.

“It was depression time in the ’30s — that’s when I was growing up — I was born in 1915,” she said. “What to do for a job when I was out of high school? We decided that being a teacher would be the best thing to do, because my mom didn’t want me working in a restaurant as a waitress.”

Virginia saved up money through four years of teaching after earning a basic teaching certificate right out of high school. Eventually, she had enough money to enroll in the education program at UW.

She didn’t put the degree to use right away — she married her husband Edward right after graduation in 1941.

“My husband had a job in Washington, D.C., so that’s where I went,” she said. “We were there for two years because war broke out in ’41 and that changed everything. He went into the service, and I went home to the ranch to teach for four years.”

She taught at the smaller country schools with first graders up to eighth graders — a difficult job, Virginia said.

“It was hard teaching them — they each had different needs and schedules,” she said.

After the war, Ed was offered a job at UW, but first had a quick stay in Hawaii.

“He was sent to Hawaii at the very last year of his service to help them decide what to do with all of the government equipment they left on all the islands,” Virginia said. “It was a clean-up job — what to do with all of the built airplane runways as they recaptured each island and the barracks on the islands.”

Virginia and Ed came back to Laramie after their Pacific stint for 14 years, where they raised their two children.

Ed’s heart condition eventually drove them from the high altitudes to a warm, dry and low area — Arizona.

“He worked at Arizona State University part-time until his heart surgery,” Virginia said. “(The doctors) said if he didn’t have the surgery, he’d live for about 2-3 more years.”

Open heart surgery was a new development when Ed had his operation in 1965, making it a risky decision — Ed was 50 at the time. But, in the end, it was well worth it.

“After that surgery, he lived 42 more years,” Virginia said.

While he was recuperating from the procedure, two former UW graduate students he taught years before approached him with a business idea.

The Bryant couple went back to Washington, D.C., where most of the company’s clients were. Ed served as president until 1978. The company, today known as Westat, had nearly half a billion dollars in revenue in 2013.

Eventually, the couple came back out West.

“He wanted to come back to be closer to home, closer to Wyoming where we all had family,” Virginia said. “He died in 2008, and then I came here, because my grandson lives here.”

Virginia’s two children died, leaving her grandson Eric as closest family in Laramie.

“(Eric’s) mother died when he was born, so I raised the kids — took the baby home from the hospital and raised him, so he’s like my own son,” she said. “And that’s why I’m here. I came back here in 2009. It’s nice to be close to family.”

Lillian is a Wyoming girl through-and-through. Born in Greybull, she also came to Laramie after enrolling at the University of Wyoming. She also had a tough time paying tuition and worked through her attendance

“I worked my way through college — worked in the cashier’s office,” Lillian said.

However, working through World War II was a bit tricky, she said.

“I do remember that women weren’t supposed to work during the war, so my boss told me to not tell anyone I was there,” Lillian said. “Because if jobs were available, they were for the men who were 4-F.”

Being 4-F is when a man was medically unable to join the military.

However, her husband Frank worked at a bank during and after the war, and the two never left Laramie.

“Well, I had a job and thought, ‘Might as well,’” she said.

The gradual changes to Laramie and UW during Lillian’s life made it difficult to notice big differences. However, Virginia was surprised when she returned after decades on the East Coast.

“It was fabulous, the changes,” Virginia said. “The university had grown so. There were new buildings, the city had expanded — it was just a new place.”

When they were in college, nearly all of the buildings on campus were circled around Prexy’s Pasture, the two said. Nothing farther away had been built

“They were just building the Union when we were there,” Virginia said.

Lillian lived in Hoyt Hall during her time in college and knew a lot of the girls living there, who ended up voting her as the first University of Wyoming Homecoming Queen in 1939. Lillian and Virginia actually served as marshals for the Homecoming Parade in 2015, riding in a Model T.

Virginia’s first family car was a Model T, but she still owns and uses the first car she bought herself — a Honda. In fact, both Virginia and Lillian drive in town, as they live independently and not in an assisted living home.

Lillian moved in when Regency first opened in 1994, she said, about a year after her husband died. She loves it and doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

“I didn’t like living in a house alone, and I’ve never been sorry I’ve moved here,” she said.

Although they both went to UW concerts and events and went to see relatives out of town, the 100-year-old women can’t make it around quite as easily as before. However, Virginia did get a knee replacement in 2015 and helps her walk much easier.

“One doctor said, ‘You’re too old. You can’t go through that surgery — you’re 99 years old,’” she said. “But I went to another doctor who said, ‘Oh, you’re not too old. Maybe in years, but not in body.’”

Both women offered secrets about living to 100 years.

“I’ve always had a positive attitude, even during the Depression,” Virginia said. “My parents always said, ‘We’re going to make it through this Depression.’” And we were always tight — I was one of seven siblings.

“All my live, I’ve taken care of myself, I’ve never smoked or done anything to abused my body,” she continued. “And I just enjoyed life.”

Lillian had a little different answer.

“I say, it just happens.”

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