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107-year-old Miami alumna reflects on her college years

Fearn Winkle, Mowrystown High School, alumni, 107 years old, teaching certificate program

Back when ice cream cones cost a dime and Oxford had a movie theatre — when the seal didn’t exist and the library was in Alumni Hall, a girl from a small town in Ohio moved to Oxford to attend Miami University and enroll in the brand-new two-year teaching certificate program. Coming from a graduating high school class of just five, Miami seemed like a dream to Fearn Gerber (then Fearn Winkle) in 1930. 

As a young girl, Fearn split her time between school and helping on the family farm. Although she enjoyed driving the horses and riding on the running board of her father’s Model T to deliver milk (35 cents for a week’s supply) to the other families in town, nothing compared to her love for reading and learning. 

She went to a high school with only three faculty members and nothing in the way of a library, but she read everything she could get her hands on. Most of the time, she was limited to textbooks, a book of Bible stories and the day-old Cincinnati Post that was mailed to her house. Still, her love for learning grew, encouraged by her father.

When she graduated from Mowrystown High School, she had dreams of becoming a business woman. Her parents were only one of two families in Mowrystown that sent their kids to college, but Fearn’s father thought education was incredibly important.

Fearn’s older brother encouraged her to look at the teaching certificate program at Miami. Her initial application was rejected; the university said that the cohort was full. Later, though, a space opened up, and they provided her a spot in the class and a room in East Hall. 

“It was a wonderful experience for a little farm girl,” Fearn said. “Miami was a beautiful place to me … I felt like I grew up when I got there.” 

While juggling all of her classes, Fearn paid her way through school by working odd jobs for the university. She briefly washed silverware, graded papers for a psychology professor and proclaimed herself as one of the fastest servers for Old East’s formal dinners every night. The fancy dorm dining is a far cry from the centralized dining halls of Miami today. She also served as a hall bellhop, where she was responsible for keeping the boys out of the girls’ building and conveying their messages for them. 

While performing her bellhop duties one day, four brothers from the Sigma Nu Fraternity came looking for girls to take a walk with. Fearn noticed the wonderful weather outside, found someone to cover her shift and went on a walk with the gentlemen. The next day, one of the brothers called after her again. 

After picking her up outside of the church where she sang in the choir, the pair attempted to play tennis. Neither of them really knew how to play, but they both enjoyed themselves. 

Fearn and her beau, Fred, continued to see each other, taking walks and talking on the banks of Tallawanda creek and occasionally splurging and splitting a Coke.

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When Fearn graduated at the end of the year with straight As and moved away, Fred continued to court her. 

The only problem?

He didn’t have a car. 

Desperate to see her, Fred struck a deal with the milkman who drove part of the way to her house in Mowrystown, Ohio, and helped lift the milk cans in exchange for a ride. 

When Fred graduated with his engineering degree a year later, Fearn borrowed her dad’s car to attend the commencement ceremony. The same day, they decided to drive to Indiana and get married. 

The depression was at its peak, and money was hard to come by. Fred spent his last 10 dollars on the marriage license, leaving the hotel bill to Fearn’s saved income from her first year of teaching. 

Although Fred eventually got a job at the steel mill, and cash became a little bit easier to come by, Fearn didn’t want to give up her teaching job. But in that time, there was a rule that prevented teachers from being married, trying to offer the few jobs to those who had no other support system. Unwilling to accept this, Fearn and Fred kept their marriage a secret from everyone except her parents for about a year. 

When they finally went public, she was dismissed from her teaching position. Before too long, however, the principal came to her house. They had too many third and fourth graders, and they needed an extra teacher for a combined class. After that position, another teacher position was needed. Then another. Eventually, she was back to working full-time at the Middletown schools. 

She taught until about 1950, when she and Fred built the house where she still resides. Over the next 60 years, Gerber became the matriarch of a family that now includes 3 kids, 12 grandkids, 17 great grandkids and 20 great-great grandkids as of next month. 

At the age of 107 Fearn still lives independently and continues to tell stories and teach those around her. Although she stopped driving around four years ago, she still listens to books that the library sends her on CDs. She loves to sing and even led a singing group at the care facility where Fred lived until his passing. 

 “It’s been a busy, good 107 years,” Fearn said. “God has been so good to me.”