Elinor J. “EJ” Dean
Shortly after Elinor J. Dean began her long duet with dementia, she finished her Thanksgiving Day meal — napkin folded primly on her lap — and boldly pronounced, “Variety is the spice of life.” Perhaps she was eyeing the weather; she’d always fancied Nebraska’s changing seasons. Maybe she was impressed by the food; the glistening spread would have shocked her 12-year-old self, already charged with cooking dinners on the farm. Or maybe she was simply embracing the moment: the panting dog, the visiting family, the percolating coffee, her old Desert Rose dinnerware now smeared with pumpkin pie and clinking with every bite.
Dementia can sometimes be a subtle disease, especially in the beginning. Just a wink or a nod. But the maxim seemed appropriate enough. Yes, her family agreed. Variety is the spice of life. Twenty minutes later, as her loved ones debated the news of the day, Elinor smiled, quietly nodding along before proffering the last word. “Well,” she announced matter-of-factly, “variety is the spice of life.” And later still, after listening to her grandson recount a summer in New York City, she added thoughtfully, slower this time, as if compressing more than 80 years of work and play into a single perfect gem, “Variety is the spice of life, don’t you think?”
There was a bittersweet irony, of course, in repeating this particular phrase, a comic byproduct of a long and often demoralizing illness. And yet Elinor — who took every advantage of her local newspaper column to spotlight both the joy and absurdity of the human condition, who considered her journalism degree among her proudest achievements and freelanced her way around Nebraska — would likely have appreciated the word play more than most.
“A gossip columnist is like a vacuum cleaner. She just purrs and picks up dirt,” she once wrote in Coffee Cup Chatter, her weekly column for The Custer County Chief. “I can’t be a gossip columnist because I don’t have a new hat. And anyway I enjoy living.”
Elinor Jean Dean passed away at the Brookstone View skilled nursing facility in Broken Bow on July 23, 2022, roughly a decade after she was diagnosed with dementia. She was 94 years old, and if variety is the spice of life, as she often emphasized in her twilight years, she truly emptied the shakers.
The eldest daughter of Vance and Mable Smith, both public school teachers, Elinor was born at the Methodist parsonage in Aurora, Nebraska, on October 15, 1927. Her uncle Dick was the reverend, and her aunt Eva — the first registered nurse in the state of Nebraska — assisted the doctor with her delivery.
“Never underestimate the value of a good beginning,” she once wrote.
Elinor attended grade school in Elwood, Nebraska, where her parents — the “no nonsense type,” she once said — had rented the first floor of a small home just blocks from the schoolhouse. Vance hung a rope swing from the towering cottonwood tree out back and often brought Elinor along on his walks to the post office—her first memory. During the summer, the Smiths temporarily retreated to what they called “the river place” near Georgetown on the South Loup, where they eked out a secondary income as farmers.
Come 7th grade, however, Elinor and her family — including Bob and Norma, her two younger siblings — moved to “Pinecrest,” another small farm roughly eight miles away. Pinecrest wasn’t electrified until the year she graduated high school, but with two indoor bathrooms and running water, to boot, she would long remember it as a luxurious promotion from the river place.
And it was at Pinecrest, too, that Elinor cemented what would become a lifelong camaraderie with cats. When she wasn’t cooking dinner or feeding the chickens or tending the garden, she snuck out to the barn, where she could often find a litter of newborn kittens in the haymow. She would live with cats the rest of her life.
“It was something of a shock to discover that we were harboring a tabby cat instead of a Tom,” she once wrote. “We altered the name of Tiger only slightly to fit the new situation. We now refer to her as Tiger Ann, Tigress, Mrs. Tiger or You No Good Bum, according to the mood of the moment. But the cat is one of us.”
Elinor spent two years attending a nearby country school before transferring to Broken Bow High, a transition she initially despised. Because Pinecrest was 15 miles from town, she boarded with a family in Broken Bow during the weekdays.
“I moved in with strangers,” she wrote. “I was so homesick for my family, and I knew none of the other freshmen students. I cried a lot before getting adjusted.”
Despite the bumpy start, she soon thrived on the social smorgasbord her new school and community provided, as if testing the maxim, she would later swear by. She accelerated her participation in the local 4-H Club, for example, where she focused especially on oratory and music, both as a solo performer and with a small vocal group called the Nifty Needle Workers. After six years with the organization, in fact, she was crowned 4-H Queen of Custer County in 1946.
“I was never famous for my athletic ability,” she wrote, but she sang in the glee club and the mixed choir, too. And though she began with the alto horn back on the farm, she pivoted to the French horn as a member of the Broken Bow High School concert band, a passion she would one day bequeath to her youngest son, David, and her grandson, Bryan, after that. She once called it the best gift she’d ever given. Much like her feline fancy, she would hold dear those peculiar velvety tones the rest of her life.
Because her parents hoped she might one day be a teacher, too, Elinor completed normal training during her junior and senior years of high school. And if that weren’t enough to keep busy, she also enjoyed drama and played the lead role in her junior class play. After graduating high school in 1945, Elinor continued to exercise her acting chops with the Broken Bow Community Playhouse and in 1992 as an extra in the Hallmark Hall of Fame film “O Pioneers”.
As a child she sometimes quietly imagined a future as an airline stewardess, or a singer, or an actress. In the beginning, however, she followed in her parents’ footsteps. Just months after graduating from high school, still just 17 years old, Elinor embarked on her first teaching job at the Lillian rural school 14 miles north of Broken Bow. She stayed for two years before saying “I do” and turning the page.
Earlier that spring, she met Gene Vaughan, whom she called the newest “young man about town.” The valedictorian of his own high school class in York, Nebraska, Vaughan often sent her red roses during their courtship. They married on December 27, 1946, at the Methodist Church in Broken Bow, and eventually had three boys: Gene Edward Vaughan, born September 20, 1948; Jerry Allen Vaughan, born December 12, 1950; and Mark Randall Vaughan, born December 23, 1952.
Five years later, Elinor accepted her first role as a paid writer with The Custer County Chief, where she took over the society page column, “Coffee Cup Chatter.” Always clever, often self-deprecating, she wrote about the spice of life: her sons, whom she often referred to as “the blue denim boys;” her missing ice cube tray; how to avoid staphylococci at a summer picnic; contemporary furniture; the previous author of “Coffee Cup Chatter,” whose battle with polio encouraged Elinor to enthusiastically promote the vaccine; her faith in the Beatnik generation; the shenanigans of “the ad men;” the other Elinor Jean Smith that lived, briefly, in Broken Bow; her cats; the moon landing; the power of women; and so much more.
“Never underestimate the power of a woman,” she wrote. “We heard about one fellow who taught his wife to play poker. Last Saturday night he won back nearly half of his paycheck.”
Decades later, Elinor, a staunch Democrat, would express her views on gender inequality even more directly: “I believe that the women’s’ movement toward equal pay for equal work is long past due. I think inequity in wages for both sexes is a national disgrace.”
On March 10, 1961, she married again, this time to Paul Dean, Jr.co-owner and operator of Dean Signs & Sheetmetal, a HVAC and sign business in Broken Bow. Elinor and Paul had one son, David Todd Dean, born November 24, 1964.
In addition to her role as society page columnist and freelance journalist, Elinor worked a slew of different jobs throughout her life: waitress, soda jerk, secretary in various medically related offices, and more. But none of them were so gratifying as her last and her longest: mother. She once looked back on her life and declared her early years with her growing boys the very best.
And yet she kept reaching anyhow, kept exploring the life she was given. She volunteered with the Methodist Church and later the Presbyterian Church as well as the VFW Auxiliary. She campaigned for the local school board. She read voraciously, with a particular fondness for Harper Lee Smith’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” and Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” And in 1983, when she was already 56 years old, she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in journalism from Kearney State College, now the University of Nebraska Kearney. Her ongoing education was of paramount importance, but she never failed to keep her priorities in order.
“It’s nice to be important,” she liked to say, “but it’s more important to be nice.”
But “time is a slipknot,” she once wrote, as if foreshadowing the strange days still to come. In her late 80s, after watching her boys pursue their own successes and raise children of their own, she slipped gradually into dementia. She spent the last 5 ½ years of her life at Brookstone View in Broken Bow, where her amazing caregivers were often by her side. In her best moments, however, she still found the spice: the birds outside her window, the still-changing seasons — “interwoven,” she once called them — and the cattle grazing behind the facility.
“Each season and each mortal being experiences showery spells — ‘for into each life some rain must fall,’” she once advised her readers. “Find yourself a rainbow somewhere and be joyful as you are reminded that the sun will shine again.”
Elinor was preceded in death by her parents, Vance and Mabel Smith; her sister and husband Norma and Jimmy Hinson and her brother Bob Smith. Also preceding her in death were her first and second husbands, Gene Vaughan and Paul Dean, Jr. and stepdaughter Susan Dean Bogema. Her survivors include sister-in-law Margaret Smith and sons Gene (Cate) Vaughan, Mooresville, NC, Jerry (Mary) Vaughan, Lincoln NE, Mark (Thelma) Vaughan, Statesville, NC, David (Rebecca) Dean, Dublin, OH, stepson Steve Dean. She is also survived by grandchildren Jennifer Wolf, Elizabeth (Ben) Johnson, Andrew (Molly) Vaughan, Bryan (Heidi) Vaughan, Carson (Melissa) Vaughan and 9 great grandchildren along with many nieces and nephews and their families.
Memorial services will be held at First Presbyterian Church on Friday, August 5th at 2 P.M. with Kathy Salts, PMA and Pastor Becky Dobitsch officiating. Inurnment will be in the Broken Bow Cemetery with a reception to follow at the church. Memorials are suggested to be given to the Broken Bow First Presbyterian Church, the Broken Bow Library Foundation, and the Broken Bow Animal Shelter.