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A proud prairie woman shaped my education more than a century ago

Education was made a priority in Amy Choate-Nielsen's family more than a century ago.
Education was made a priority in Amy Choate-Nielsen's family more than a century ago.

I never paid much attention to the educational traditions established by my family until I had children of my own.

Education, however, was a constant theme growing up. We favored museums over the beach when we were on vacation. We did homework all summer long. Each of my siblings skipped a grade, sometimes two. And we invested more time in honors societies and extracurricular clubs at school than in working part-time jobs.

My parents worked hard so that we could focus on learning. And they went out of their way to provide the best educational opportunities available. No wonder I feel so much pressure with my own children.

There was a time my brother and sister attended private school in Tulsa, Okla., instead of public school, even though our family was never flush with money. Legend has it that Sofia Coppola, daughter of the famous movie director Francis Ford Coppola, went to the same private school as my brother and sister while her father filmed "The Outsiders" and "Rumble Fish" in Tulsa.

At some point, maybe at the end of some school day when my parents were picking up the kids, Francis Ford Coppola and I crossed paths. I was 2 years old at the time, so I don't remember anything, but the story goes that he thought about using me in one of his films. He pulled some of Sofia's toys out for me to play with, but I was afraid of his beard and wouldn't talk to him, my parents say.

Just like that, my big chance at becoming a famous child actress was gone. Funny how some of my life stories feel as though they never happened at all.

Maybe that is why I am so fascinated by the stories of my ancestors. The onus of obtaining a valuable education began with them, after all. As much as my parents shaped me, my father's parents shaped him. And perhaps my grandfather's parents were the ones that began it all.

The Choate family has ties that wind with intricate complexity all through Oklahoma's wheat rows and oil fields. But we weren't always there.

My grandfather, Irvan Choate, was born in 1901 in San Saba, Texas. His grandfather, Gabriel Choate, migrated to the area from somewhere around Tennessee in the mid-1800s.

When the Choates arrived, Texas was a sparsely populated place — a wild frontier — but Gabriel found a woman to marry named Martha Jane Rainbolt, and they had 12 children (half of whom died close to birth). Gabriel joined the early Texas Rangers and built a stone home with his bare hands as a protection during the Texas revolution, the Mexican-American wars and an ongoing conflict with the native people of the area.

They lived a daring life on the Texas frontier — a life that was carried on by my great-grandfather Austin Choate. Austin was a rancher who liked to cook meat and beans for the other cowboys on their long cattle drives. He and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Simmons, lived with their 10 children, one deceased, in the rock house Gabriel built. My uncle says that's how my grandfather, Irvan, learned to cook.

Irvan and his twin brother, Earl, were 9 years old before there were enough people in the area to form a class at school in the early 1900s. That was unacceptable to Mary Elizabeth, so she convinced Austin to load up the family's belongings in 1912 and drive to Ada, Okla., where there was a teacher's college. She wanted the children to get a proper education.

They sold the rock house and traveled to Oklahoma by way of a wagon, drawn by a donkey and a milk cow. In the end, Irvan was the first and only of his siblings to finish grade school, earn his bachelor's degree and graduate from Ada's only public university.

My uncle surmises that Austin never planned to stay in Oklahoma. He most likely expected the family to go back to Texas, my uncle says, which is why he only brought the donkey and the milk cow instead of a team of horses. But, as life goes, they never returned, and our family's Oklahoma roots were planted.

Now I can see the power of Mary Elizabeth's decision. It shaped her own family and generations after, but I doubt she knew at the time how far-reaching their move would ultimately be.

I may do things a little differently with my own family — more time at the beach than the museum, less time doing summer homework and skipping a grade won't be mandatory — but when it comes down to it, I'm still just like my parents. I'm like Irvan and his wife Fleeta. I'm like Austin and Mary Elizabeth. Whenever the need arises, I, too, will do what it takes — wagon, donkey, milk cow and all.

The tradition continues.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.