Verna Hitchcock; What To Do When Life Gives You Lemons

"I guess you'll just have to shoot me" was Verna Johannesen’s reply to a desperate man who said he’d shoot her if she didn’t give him money. 

 As the first Albany County welfare director and during the Great Depression (1933-1937), she was responsible for distributing public assistance payments, but when this man threatened her, all the funds had been expended.

 Verna Rebecca Johannesen (Hitchcock) was born in Idaho Falls, Idaho, in 1896.  She first came to Wyoming from Chicago in May 1929 to be the University of Wyoming State Home Demonstration Leader.  

 In spring 1930, she met Laramie architect Wilbur Arthur Hitchcock who had lost his wife, Gladys Corthell Hitchcock, five years earlier. Wilbur had four children aged nine through 15: Wilbur Eliot, David Niles, Clinton Arthur, and Elinor (Mullens).  He proposed soon after they met and they were married on November 1, 1930 at which time she resigned her position because of a University policy against employing married women.  While on their honeymoon, during a drive in Long Beach, California on the morning of November 11, another automobile hit and tipped their car onto Wilbur’s arm, badly crushing it.  After emergency surgery, he remained unconscious and died of shock at 4 a.m. the next morning.

 With the children’s approval, Verna stayed at their 262 N. 9th St. home and raised them with funds from Wilbur’s estate.  Wilbur and Gladys’ families were helpful, especially Evelyn Corthell Hill (Gladys’ sister) and her husband John A. Hill (Dean of the College of Agriculture), then living next door.  However, after three years, it was clear she needed to work. 

 She became Albany County welfare director and taught adult education classes for the State Department of Education and the University College of Education.  From 1937-1939 she earned a Psychology Master’s degree, after which she was promoted to Assistant Professor.  In 1942, she again became Wyoming Home Demonstration Leader as Associate Professor and later Professor until 1951 when Verna became Head of the UW Division of Home Economics for the next 11 years.  Had she not had the great misfortune of being widowed, she might not have gotten this administrative position.  During those years, with the help of her niece Alice who lived with them while a UW student, Verna became active in many national and international organizations and traveled extensively in this country and Japan.

 Verna also was active in Laramie as a charter member of Zonta, a worldwide professional women’s service organization engaged in UNICEF projects in developing countries. Verna chaired Wyoming UNICEF (1951-1962) and helped establish the Wyoming Federated Women’s Clubs’ Family Life Conferences.

 When Verna retired in 1962, she used some of a cash gift she received to establish a scholarship, which still supports Family and Consumer Sciences women students.  She continued to be active in community and professional organizations including service as president of Albany County Democratic Women and international work for UNICEF. 

 Verna received many honors including the President’s Citizens Advisory Committee on the Fitness of American Youth, naming of the Hitchcock (home management) House, an honorary Quealy Award, a Certificate of Recognition from Epsilon Sigma Phi (agriculture and home economics Cooperative Extension Service honorary), the Wyoming Department of Public Assistance and Social Service Board-Member-of-the-Year award, a Laramie Community Service Award, and an honorary Doctor of Science from her alma mater, the University of Idaho. 

 On January 18, 1990, after 63 years in Laramie, Verna Hitchcock died at age 93.  Friends and family remembered her as being a cheerful, upbeat woman, loved and respected by everyone, whose life passion was to make a difference by helping others. 

By Judy Knight

(Caption:)  Verna Johannesen and Wilbur Hitchcock on their wedding day in 1930, posed on the front steps of the house he designed at 262 North 9th, Laramie. The house is still in the Hitchcock family, one of the many that Wilbur, an architect, designed in Laramie.  Wilbur died just 11 days later when they were on their honeymoon in California. Verna stayed in Laramie, raised her four stepchildren and had a remarkable career at UW.  Photo courtesy of Ann Boelter, Wilbur Hitchcock’s granddaughter