Skip to main content

Who is Nora Sterry?

Our school is named after a wonderful woman, Miss Nora Sterry. 

 

 

The following is a reprint of an article that appeared in the March 5, 2006 edition of the Los Angeles Times.  You can also scroll down and read about the history of our school.

 

In 1924 Los Angeles, a Scourge From the Middle Ages 

By Cecilia Rasmussen 

 

It was a warm, summery day in late September 1924 when a group of Mexican immigrants began to congregate outside a boardinghouse on Clara Street, north of what is now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and west of Vignes Street. It was a small, bustling, mostly Latino community near downtown, where the Twin Towers jail complex now stands. 

Folks were listening to Jesus Lajun’s comical story about his detective work in tracking down an overpowering and nauseating odor beneath his house. He had found a decaying rat, he told them; he picked it up with one hand and threw it in the trash. 

A week later, Clara Street was in mourning. Lajun’s daughter, Francesca, 15, was dead, a victim of what the coroner called double pneumonia. 

Then, a neighbor, Lucena Samarano, who was six months pregnant and had cared for Francesca while she was ill, miscarried and also died. A few days after her funeral, attended by a host of friends, Samarano’s husband, Guadalupe, died. Within six weeks, the only survivor of the eight-member Samarano family was 14-month- old Raul. 

The man who had found the rat, Lajun – also spelled Loujon – was nursing a bloody cough and a painful, egg-sized swollen gland in his groin. By the end of October, he too was dead. 

An ambulance driver who transported the sick became ill and died. So did Father M. Brualla, who had administered last rites to several victims and said Mass at Lucena Samarano’s funeral. Within days, a dozen more deaths occurred in the neighborhood and in the Belvedere district on the east side of the river, according to Dr. Robert S. Cleland, a former Los Angeles County Hospital pathologist who colorfully described the events in a 1971 article for Westways magazine. 

Doctors suspected meningitis, influenza, pneumonia, even typhus. But the culprit was something more insidious that had inspired fear since before the Middle Ages. 

Plague had crept into San Francisco in 1900, probably carried by fleas on rats aboard a ship that had stopped in China. Fearing financial devastation if word got out, city and state officials kept the port open and covered up the outbreak as best they could. 

Newspapers, including this one, largely cooperated. “No Genuine Plague: Sensational Stories Are Without Foundation,” blared a 1900 Times headline. San Francisco officials explained sending an army of exterminators throughout the city as just a “precautionary measure.” 

The disease smoldered in San Francisco until the epidemic ended in 1908, after 280 cases and 172 deaths, according to author and Wall Street Journal reporter Marilyn Chase in “The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco,” published in 2003. 

But that didn’t mean the end of the plague in the United States. The disease moved from San Francisco rats to ground squirrels and other wild rodents and spread into the Sierra, the Rocky Mountains, and the Southwest. It reached Oakland in 1919 – and Los Angeles in 1924. 

But no one considered the possibility of plague at first, according to Dr. Helen Eastman Martin in her 1979 book “The History of the Los Angeles County Hospital.” 

Then, on Oct. 30, nearly a month after the disease had claimed its first victim, Los Angeles County Hospital pathologist George Maner looked through his microscope and identified the killer bacterium: plague. Maner, who had never worn gloves during autopsies, started wearing them right then, Martin wrote. 

Health officials acted fast, placing a strict quarantine on an eight-block area around Clara Street, bounded by Alameda Street and the Los Angeles River and Macy Street (now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue) and what is now Rondout Street. Macy Street Elementary School was included. A six-block area in the county’s Belvedere district was quarantined too; people there had attended Clara Street funerals. 

Armed police officers and World War I veterans patrolled the roped-off boundaries, where they distributed food to more than 2,500 penned-up residents. 

The disease was equated with ethnicity; the low-income quarantined neighborhoods and other slums were deemed a menace to public health. 

“Some newspapers referred to the plague as being a Mexican disease,” said Bill Estrada, a curator at El Pueblo de Los Angeles. The plague “only fanned the flames of racial attitudes that had been around a long time. Poor Mexican immigrants were accused of bringing unsanitary conditions with them.” 

Although antibiotics didn’t exist yet, an anti-plague serum had been developed in 1894 by Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. But Los Angeles had none. Five hundred doses were sent from the East Coast but arrived too late to be of much use to the dying, according to Martin and a Times article. Only one patient received a hundred doses were sent from the East Coast but arrived too late to be of much use to the dying, according to Martin and a Times article. Only one patient received the serum, Martin wrote; it’s unclear whether he or she survived. 

Once in a human host, the disease becomes either bubonic plague or the more contagious pneumonic plague, which is transmitted through coughs and sneezes. 

Inside the quarantine lines, strangely garbed medical professionals set up a temporary lab and gathered blood samples from barrio residents. A few resisted. Many distrusted the police, who were holding them against their will. 

In early November, Macy Street school Principal Nora Sterry tried to enter the area. When guards stopped her, she appealed to health officials and the mayor, who also refused. 

“They can’t keep me out,” she told a Times reporter. “All my children are in there. And if you see the flag waving from the mast in the Macy Street schoolyard tomorrow morning, you will know I am in there.” 

Sure enough, the flag was waving by morning. 

Sterry gave residents hope and inspired them with her courage. She opened the school kitchen, where she cooked for the community – which had been limited to rations brought in by the police. She organized musicians who lived inside the quarantine area to serenade nightly. 

And Sterry, who was also a Red Cross volunteer, persuaded residents to submit to the blood tests. Most were healthy and eager to get to their jobs outside the quarantine area. 

She rented a bedroom from a resident because, once inside the quarantine area, she wasn’t allowed to leave. 

The scourge abated with the quarantine, which was lifted on Nov. 13, after nearly two weeks. 

Ecstatic residents showered Sterry with flowers from their gardens. Children gathered their pennies to buy her a gold medal, which she pinned on her dress, The Times reported. 

Thirty-seven people had died. 

The city and the county of Los Angeles embarked on a $50,000 rat extermination program in 1924-25, burning and demolishing many of downtown’s run-down buildings. Martin wrote that “157 rats and five squirrels [were] found to be plague infected” in rich and poor areas, including downtown, Beverly Hills and the harbor. 

Semi-retired attorney Leonard Smith, 87, who lives in Newport Beach now, remembers the fear of the plague and the fires. 

“I was 6 years old, living in Boyle Heights when my mother grabbed me and my brother and took us to the west bank of the river, where we watched the fires on the east side of the river” in the Belvedere area, he said in a recent interview. 

“My mother wasn’t afraid [of the plague] because she had the utmost faith in garlic,” he said. “She hung a bag of it around my neck like a necklace to ward off whatever it was – spirits or rats.” 

Sterry continued to crusade for better housing, piped-in water, and sewers in her school district. In 1931, when state legislator George Bliss of Santa Barbara proposed legalizing the segregation of Mexican children in public schools, she objected. The Senate quashed the bill. 

In 1934 she was appointed to the Los Angeles County Board of Education, serving until her death in 1941, at 61. Within weeks, Sawtelle Boulevard Elementary School in West Los Angeles rededicated itself as the Nora Sterry Elementary School. But no photograph of her hangs there today. 

Southern California’s rat and squirrel populations continue to be a major pool for the plague and the most common source of it in humans. Fleas can move from rodents to pets and then to people. Earlier this year, Santa Monica killed squirrels in Palisades Park to reduce the number of plague-carrying fleas. 

 

Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times

 

 

ONCE UPON A TIME

Our School’s History

In the June 1954 issue of the “Wee Bruin” the Editor, Juanita Trujillo and Assistant Editor, Clella Goodson wrote an article about the history of Nora Sterry Elementary School. This is a reprint of that article.

 

(Note:  We wish to thank Miss Lois Henderson, of the West Los Angeles Independent, for securing many of the facts about Sterry’s history.)

 

“Sometime next year Nora Sterry School will be modernized.  This will be the first real change that has taken place on our buildings in a long time.  Because the buildings will be “rehabilitated” we thought everybody might like to know something about the history of Nora Sterry School.

 

Stephen Taft Helps Settle This Area

Nora Sterry School was founded by Stephen H. Taft.  He also founded West Los Angeles about the same time, in 1898.  That means our school began about fifty-six years ago!

Mr. Taft came to California from Ohio.  His wife’s health was bad so he thought she would feel better in this climate.  He was in charge of the Pacific Land Company.  He sold the lot to settlers and then found that a school was needed for the settler’s children.

 

First School Built in Sawtelle

The first school in Sawtelle had only one room.  It was at the corner of Sawtelle Boulevard and Massachusets Avenue.  Miss Goldsmith was the first teacher.  The school was ten feet wide and twelve feet long.  It had a custodian, too.

 

Sawtelle was named after W.E. Sawtelle who took over the Pacific Land Company after Mr. Taft.  Sawtelle grew so rapidly that in 1899 the people knew they needed a much larger school.  The settlers then decided to buy the lot on Santa Monica where the library is now.  They bought the lot for $600.  It would cost a lot more than that now.  The people built an eight-room school on the lot.  The school was called Sawtelle Public School.  

People say that the town was very friendly and the people were like one big family.  Oregon Avenue now called Santa Monica Boulevard was a very dusty road in those days.

 

School Burns Down

In 1912 something surprising happened.  The school burned down.  The children thought they wouldn’t have anyplace to go to school, but they were wrong.  The children attended classes all over town, in churches, basements, and other places and never missed a day.  Two years later a new building was erected.  It is the kindergarten building on Sawtelle Blvd. right next to the main Nora Sterry Building.

 

New Building Erected

Later on, Sawtelle became part of Los Angeles.  In 1923 the main building was built and Miss Gertrude Prior became principal.  A little later the first auditorium was built and the PTA had enough money to buy a projector.  

The north classroom building was built in 1930.  Then in 1940 all of the Nora Sterry buildings were built.  They are standing now, with the buildings in their same places.

 

Name Changed

Miss Nora Sterry, former principal, helped to establish the Flower Guild Nursery School that is on the north end of the school grounds.  Miss Sterry was a wonderful principal, and she passed away in 1940.  Then the people wanted to show their appreciation for Miss Sterry’s wonderful work, so the name of the school was then changed from Sawtelle Public School to Nora Sterry School. 

 

Mr. Grimes, Principal for 14 Years

Mr. Grimes, our principal, became our principal about fourteen years ago.  Mr. Grimes says, “Our present day school is a typical Los Angeles School, teaching the basic subjects with emphasis on participation, interest, and a flexible program of learning by doing.”

 

Sterry a UCLA Teacher-Training School

In 1930 Nora Sterry became a training school for UCLA student teachers.  It is still a teacher training school for UCLA even today.  The UCLA students who want to become teachers come to Sterry during their fourth year of college or after they’ve graduated.”

FullSizeRender