Surrounded by lush flowering potted plants, Clara Wavra sat out on her farmhouse porch just west of Brawley, her blue eyes twinkling and her shock of white hair crowning her head, as she visited with her two youngest daughters, Mary Harmon and Barbara Wavra.
Her 105-year-old farmhouse, like its owner, did not show its age as everything was well-manicured, clean, and inviting. Most likely that was because Clara had just celebrated her 104th birthday, and as family custom dictates, relatives of the large clan descended on the Wavra matron’s homestead to have a “work party.”
Clara was the last of eleven children born to her parents, Frank and Margaret Hovley. In 1908, Clara’s parents arrived in Brawley with nine of their children. Clara was born five years later, exactly three years after and on the day of her other Brawley-born sister, Teresa.
Clara’s father, Frank, moved to Brawley because his brother, Peter Hovley, the mayor and a successful real estate agent, sold him on the promise of the burgeoning township. In his marketing of the area, Peter billed Brawley as the “Redlands of the Imperial Valley,” and “The Garden City of Imperial Valley” in his real estate sales brochure.
Clara has happy memories of growing up on the farm north of Brawley with their 80 acres of farmland and fruit orchards as they raised pigs and chickens — even though her family claimed she burned down the homestead when she was three years old.
“I did not!” Clara said, laughing at the tale. “I found the matches and cigarettes of my older brothers who had started smoking in the house. Next thing I knew, we were all being rushed out of the house!”
It was an untimely fire as Clara’s grandparents were soon to arrive for their golden anniversary wedding party at the Hovley’s farmhouse with more family coming from all quarters.
“Everybody had to hustle to rebuild the house before the guests arrived,” Clara remembered.
Clara recalled attending Sacred Heart Catholic School and Mass in a horse and buggy, riding in from the farm with her eighth grade sister driving. The young church had no baptisms until the bishop from San Diego could make the long journey down the hill. Clara was the first child to be baptized at Sacred Heart. Her classmates were mostly cousins, including the Schartz, Guirsch and Mamer families.
After attending Sacred Heart, Clara graduated from Brawley Union High in 1930, and then attended the junior college located on the same campus as the high school. After her first year at the JC, Brawley’s high school principal, Percy Palmer, asked Clara to work at BUHS in the office. She accepted.
Clara was 18, and became a staff of one. She ordered books, took attendance, kept cafeteria records, and recorded and typed school board minutes.
Clara’s husband, Harry Wavra, first visited the Valley at age 17 while delivering household furniture from Oregon for John Mamer. He ended up staying and working for the Mamer family. Eventually, Clara’s father hired Harry and he bunked with the rest of the farmhands in the empty water tower, sitting high over the Hovley property.
“He always said he worked at the farm waiting for me to grow up so he could marry me,” Clara said. “He was six years older than me.”
Clara and Harry’s wedding was February 24, 1936, at 8:00 a.m. on a Monday morning so her teacher friends could attend the wedding and still get to work on time. Then the young couple moved into town.
Clara still vividly recalls incidents of her early time of working at Brawley High. In 1940, the high school boiler blew up and tragically took a life. Also injured was Clara’s sister, Catherine, who had been clerking at the school. Her desk sat one story above the faulty boiler located in the basement.
“Catherine went straight up, then straight down into the newly-formed hole. A senior football star, Robert Minshew, dug her out and took her to the hospital,” Clara recalled.
Eventually, the Wavra family moved back to their own country place and raised their seven children, Katy Criman, now in El Centro; Laura Cole, San Diego; Vince Wavra, Brawley; Joe Wavra, San Diego; Jim Wavra, Brawley; Mary Harmon, Brawley; and Barbara Wavra of Brawley.
In 1958, Clara lost her husband when their youngest daughter, Barbara, was only two. In true pioneer fashion, Clara continued on as mother and father for all of her children. The two oldest girls had left the nest to become nurses, but Clara still labored to seed, grow and harvest the corn, hay, and alfalfa. This she accomplished with the help of her three sons, Vince, Joe and Jim. Her work as a farmer, mother, and high school attendance clerk continued until the farm consisted of just her and her two youngest daughters.
“I remember irrigating throughout the night,” daughter Mary Harmon said. “We had to walk to the head gate and see if the water had come. I started irrigating at 14. Barbara helped and she was 12.”
“We had to shovel out the cement ditch when the dirt started filling up,” Clara remembered.
“One day, Mary and Barbara were cleaning the ditch out and some man drove up. They were pretty young. And he said, ‘I always wanted to see what women’s lib looked like, and now I see.’ I have never forgotten that,” Clara said.
Another day when the two girls were cleaning the ditch, a garden snake slithered down the bank landing half way between the girls. And both of them wanted the snake. Their older brother who was supervising, challenged them saying, “First one to clear their half gets the snake.”
“We started shoveling as fast as we could!” Barbara said.
Clara also remembered her choice of topic for her college speech class was ‘How to Irrigate,’ in which she instructed her classmates how to order water, make sure the land is ready, how to receive the water, and how to keep opening and closing gates as the water was delivered to the field.
At 104, Clara has led a life of remarkable grit, courage, and contribution to the high school and the town she loves so much. As she ponders her memories of working with the teens through their formative years, she said she considers those days one of the hallmarks of her accomplishments.
“I believe I had some good influence over the many students coming through my office,” Clara said. “I remember two boys, Robert and Mark. They were always sick on the same day. One time when they both came to be excused, I told them I was going to call both of their parents to tell them the two were making each other sick. They never were absent together again. The one married into our family, so I am glad I had a hand in turning his life around.”