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Catching Up With a Cover Girl

Darlene Graf was on the cover of Successful Farming magazine 75 years ago this month. See what she's up to now.

In the May 2018 issue of Successful Farming magazine, I wrote an article on the important role of farm women during wartime. It included a photo of our September 1943 issue, with 17-year-old Darlene Graf on the cover. She helped run her family’s Nebraska farm when the hired man left for a Defense job, as many hired men did.

A few days after publication of my story, Cheryl Baker of Tulsa, Oklahoma, emailed me. “When reading the May issue, I was amazed to see the article in the family section, because my good friend, Darlene Harrington, has the same cover framed and hanging on the wall of her apartment. She is the teenage girl, Darlene Graf, featured on the 1943 cover!”

Baker put me in touch with (Graf) Harrington, now age 92, and her daughter, Beth McKay, both of Tulsa. 

INSTANT CELEBRITY

When Successful Farming magazine arrived in mailboxes in September 1943, people took note of the lovely young woman on the cover. “I was famous and I didn’t want that extra attention,” Harrington says. “I even got a few marriage offers in the mail from young men. I got teased so much that it was embarrassing.”

While the original article was accurate, she says a few liberties were taken with the photography on the cover. “I did drive the tractor, but it looked like I was cleaning a spark plug in the picture, which was something I had never actually done. That was posed,” she says. “I didn’t wear a bandana like that, either.”

READY TO WORK

While some girls at the time had never participated in traditionally male farm roles, Harrington says being an only child helped her prepare. “I did a lot of those things already. I got a driver’s permit at age 14 and would truck grain into the elevator in town. I did some tractor driving and helped with the wheat harvest,” she says. “I was also active in 4-H from the time I could start. It was an important part of my life, and it helped prepare me for taking on extra work.”

The demands on Harrington’s schedule didn’t mean she was excused from her household chores, 4-H, schoolwork, and piano lessons. She even found time to serve as Hall County Fair Queen one year and to be the pianist for the county choir at the state fair in Lincoln.

When World War II began, Harrington says everyone just stepped up to do what was needed. “Those were different times,” she says. Even before the war, during the Depression, she says her family did what they had to do. “We always had plenty of food because we had the big farm and chickens. My mother sold eggs and dressed fryers to the ladies in town,” she says. “You worked with whatever you had.”

After high school, Harrington attended what was at the time a state teacher’s college in Kearney, Nebraska. Before she could leave for her freshman year, however, she was called to teach for a year at a one-room schoolhouse in the Sandhills of Nebraska. 

“They were desperate for teachers at the country schools, so they recruited recent high school graduates to teach,” she says. “I wasn’t much older than some of the students, but I had gone to a one-room schoolhouse until high school, so I knew what to expect.”

PERSISTENCE PAYS

While finishing her degree in Kearney, she met Hugh Harrington, a Navy veteran and student at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. “He had no car, so he would hitchhike to Kearney to see me,” she says. His diligence paid off, and the two were eventually married. The new bride got a job at the library in Lincoln, and after Hugh graduated, the Harringtons moved to Houston, Texas.

While her husband worked as a petroleum engineer, Harrington took the junior college classes necessary to acquire her Texas state teaching license. “Then I found out I was pregnant, so I didn’t teach full time, but I did substitute,” she says. “We moved often during the early years of his career, so we lived in lots of small Texas communities.” The Harringtons went on to have two sons and two daughters. “My children are Texans,” she says, “even though we were Nebraskans.”

BACK ON THE FARM

When Harrington’s cover was published 75 years ago this month, she was about to go into her senior year of high school, and her father was renting the farm. “There were a lot of family members who owned the land, and it took Dad years to purchase it all, but he was finally able to own all the land,” Harrington says. Her parents lived on the farm for the remainder of their lives and are buried nearby. “The farm is still there, and I still own it,” she says. “It’s still part of my family.”

While their children were growing up, the Harrington family made regular trips back to the farm in Nebraska. McKay says, “We visited every summer and loved it because we were city kids. We thought it was so great to collect eggs, ride horses with the neighbors, and pick cherries.” 

Once the kids were grown and married, the Harringtons’ grandchildren joined in the summer visits to the farm. About 10 years ago, the family realized the farmhouse, which is where they always stayed, was beyond repair. “It was time to let it go,” McKay says. “My sister secretly went into the house before it was torn down and removed a bunch of the old wallpaper. She used it to make scrapbooks,” she says.

REMEMBERING HER ROOTS

The last time Harrington visited the farm was two years ago, when the family returned to bury Hugh at the local cemetery. “I would love to be able to go back,” she says, “but it’s comforting to know I will be buried there, too.”

Harrington leases her land to a young farmer, and he has children she hopes will grow into the operation. “He emails me updates on the farm and is doing a great job,” the tech-savvy Harrington says. “He said last year was his best yet.”

McKay says her mother shared lessons with her and her siblings that were learned on the farm in Nebraska. “She told us about her life growing up, and she never complained about any of the farm work – except making cottage cheese,” she jokes. 

“Mom has always been very independent, thanks to her upbringing,” McKay says. “She got a degree at a time when many women didn’t. She was a housewife, but she always volunteered and had her own life. Our parents always told us we could do anything.”

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