PENDLETON — Dora Rhodes’ new tombstone gleamed in the mid-afternoon sun.
A knot of mourners gathered in a semicircle around the grave. They prayed and laughed and shed a tear or two. They sang “Amazing Grace” and other old hymns.
By all appearances, the gathering on Saturday, Oct. 9, at Pendleton’s Olney Cemetery seemed a typical farewell for a beloved family member.
Except for one curious fact: None of the 10 people assembled had ever met Dora.
She had died at age 33 almost 100 years earlier on Jan. 6, 1922. The oldest person in attendance was Dora’s 90-year-old granddaughter, Marilyn Williams.
The idea to honor Dora evolved after her two grandsons stopped by Olney Cemetery to find their grandmother’s final resting place. They located the grave but the headstone had vanished.
Jack Rhodes, a retired newspaper editor from California, and Don Rhodes, a retired banker from Washington, decided to have a new grave marker made. Then they made plans for a small ceremony to honor the grandmother they’d never met. Eight other family members joined them around the grave on that sunny, breezy Oct. 9. Officiating was Pastor Patty Nance, of the Hermiston First United Methodist Church.
Jack Rhodes, the unofficial family historian, shared what he had uncovered about Dora’s short life as the mourners stood near Dora’s new gravestone.
The upshot, Jack said, is that it was miraculous that Dora was ever born. When her father, John Jacob Davis, was a baby, his parents, David L. and Eliza Davis, took him on a perilous journey from Iowa to California where they planned to search for gold. The family traveled by boat and mule to Old Panama City where they aimed to board an ocean liner called Golden Gate bound for San Francisco. When they couldn’t procure tickets, they instead boarded the Victorine. The ship, Jack explained, was skippered by “the quintessential evil ship captain.”
According to writing by Dora’s uncle William Murray, the dishonest captain sold a good deal of the provisions. After 25 days, the rations were nearly gone. Each day, adults each received a small biscuit and half a pint of coffee for breakfast and half a cup of tea for supper. Babies got nothing. John Jacob’s parents and uncle gave him pinches of their biscuits and a mouthful of coffee every day. According to his uncle, the infant “spent his awake time crying for something to eat or drink.”
The passengers spent time unsuccessfully trying to trap rats on the ship or fished for boobies. When they hooked one, they ate meat, blood, entrails and almost every other part. They buried at sea the 10 passengers who starved on the journey. After more than 78 days at sea, they made it to San Diego and a couple of months later to San Francisco. John Jacob, Dora’s future father, had survived. Dora’s birth hung by nothing more than a slender thread during that desperate journey.
“If things had turned out differently, Dora would never have been born,” Jack said, “and neither would any of us.”
Dora had a short, but eventful life. Born in Pendleton in 1888, she married as a teenager. At age 15, with her father’s permission, she wed Willam Waddle, 26, and gave birth to son, Chester, and daughter, Ida. Waddle eventually abandoned the family and she married Arthur Rhodes, a popular auto mechanic and they eventually settled in Hermiston.
In 1922, Dora died at St. Anthony Hospital at age 33 after a long illness. The death certificate specifies the cause of death as pernicious anemia with the complications of flu and hysterectomy. According to the East Oregonian obituary, mourners at a Pendleton mortuary filled every seat at her funeral.
Jack said he imagines the anguish Dora felt on her deathbed, fretting about her two children.
“She undoubtedly worried about what would become of them after her death,” he said. “I wish she could know that her kids went on to live such happy, meaningful lives. She was their angel and she gave them the wings to survive.”
Dora’s son Chester, Jack and Don’s father, was 17 when his mother died. His stepfather took Ida and headed to California. Chester lived on his own. He attended Hermiston High School and the University of Puget Sound, earning money by doing ranch work. He worked as a teacher and eventually became superintendent of schools in Chehalis, Washington.
Daughter Ida graduated from a technical school in Oakland, California. She worked as a telephone operator before marrying and raising two daughters with her husband Merle West.
Midway through the graveside ceremony, Don, age 85, read Psalm 23 from the family Bible.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” he read, “I shall not want…”
Afterwards, he mused he wished Dora could observe the celebration of her life.
“I hope that somehow she will feel our connection spiritually today,” he said.
Jack said he missed the presence of his grandmother, who would have been 56 when he was born and 47 at Don’s birth. Though none of them would ever hear Dora’s laugh or the sound of her voice, he said he is sure she would have been a central part of their lives.
He spoke directly to his grandmother.
“All of us are here because of you and all of us are in your debt,” he said. “We love you. Rest in peace.”