Exploring Elizabeth Warren's 'Okie' roots

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Sen. Elizabeth Warren from her recent campaign ad; Warren in high school; a group family photo in the background. (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: courtesy the Warren campaign)

OKLAHOMA CITY — When Elizabeth Warren returned to her home state of Oklahoma last year to film a biographical video that defended her claims of Native American ancestry, she was shown briskly walking through an older neighborhood of modest bungalows in Norman, a suburban college town south of Oklahoma City, the place where she lived until she was 10.

But the episode that has become the emotional touchstone of Warren’s political career and her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination actually happened in a quaint, two-story Colonial revival in a now historic middle-class neighborhood in central Oklahoma City to which she and her parents moved in 1960.

As Warren has recounted in books and now on the campaign trail, her father, Donald Herring, had been outside working on the family car on a cold November afternoon in 1961 when he quietly walked into the house. A carpet salesman who was always busy doing something, he was eerily still — except for his hands, which “shook,” Warren recalled in her 2014 memoir, “A Fighting Chance.” Her father had suffered a heart attack. He was 50. She was 12.

Warren has described her dad’s heart attack as “the minute I grew up.” “My mom and I thought he was going to die,” she told voters in Des Moines last month. “He was in the hospital for a while. And then he came home, but he couldn’t work, and so the bills piled up. We lost our family station wagon, and at night, my mom would tuck me into bed, and I’d hear them talk. I learned words like ‘mortgage’ and ‘foreclosure’ — heavy words for a kid.”

Warren’s father and mother as seen in her recent campaign ad. (Photos: Courtesy of the Warren campaign)

Eventually, Warren’s father was allowed to return to work. But his old position at Montgomery Ward was gone, replaced by a commission-based job where the paycheck was not as reliable. One afternoon, Warren came home and found her mother, Pauline, crying, with her best dress laid out on the bed — the one she usually saved for weddings and funerals. “She was pacing, pacing back and forth,” the senator told voters in Iowa. “She was saying, ‘We will not lose this house. We will not lose this house.’”

At age 50, Pauline had spent most of her life as housewife, raising Warren and her three older brothers. “She had never worked outside of the home,” Warren said last month. “She was terrified.” But eventually, the senator recalled, her mother “pulled that dress on” and “blew her nose” and walked to the Sears store around the corner and got a job answering phones in the catalog department.

“That minimum-wage job saved our house, and it saved our family,” Warren told voters in Iowa. “And if you want to know who I am. There it is. That’s the story written on my heart.”

(Minimum wage at the time was $1.15. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 is the equivalent to 87 cents in 1962. Whether that would have been enough to save Warren’s home is, of course, impossible to calculate now.)

The controversy over Warren’s Native American ancestry has largely overshadowed the senator’s compelling personal story as a child of Depression-era parents who rose from humble Oklahoma beginnings to become a celebrated Harvard academic, senator and now presidential candidate who is personally wealthy, although nowhere near the $50 million threshold at which her proposed wealth tax would kick in. But as she seeks to stand out in an ever-widening field of Democratic contenders, the Massachusetts senator has recently sought to play up her working-class roots in a way she hasn’t before, frequently reminding early primary state voters that she is not really a member of the Northeastern elite, but an “Okie,” a nickname originally given to hardscrabble Oklahomans during the Dust Bowl.

Asked last month during a stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, how a Massachusetts senator might win over red state America, Warren replied, “I am from a pretty red state: Oklahoma, born and raised.”

Warren, who was paid an average of $350,000 a year as a professor at Harvard Law School, is hardly the first presidential hopeful to play up their humble roots in the heat of an election year. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor, emphasized his background as a small-town peanut farmer. Bill Clinton presented himself as the man from Hope, Ark., when he ran for president in 1992 — a message later co-opted by Mike Huckabee, who talked up his poor upbringing in the same town when he ran for president in 2008. (“I’m the other man from Hope,” Huckabee joked.) John Edwards, a millionaire trial lawyer, repeatedly mentioned his background as the son of a textile mill worker during his two bids for the Democratic nomination in 2004 and 2008.

Elizabeth Warren’s childhood home in Norman, Okla., where she lived until 1960. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

But Warren’s accounts of her childhood in Oklahoma, where she spent the first 17 years of her life, leave out some nuance and some details, like the little sports car she drove during her last year in high school. In her most recent books and on the campaign trail, Warren has described growing up in a family that was “kind of hanging on by the edges of our fingernails” financially and where she felt out of place at a high school where everyone seemed better off than her.

But those accounts might have been shaped by her perceptions and memories, those who knew her at the time say.

Warren and her campaign did not respond to repeated and detailed requests for comment. But it’s clear that Oklahoma City is where Betsy, as she is known to her family, became Liz Herring, a state champion debater whose childhood was spent in fear of poverty, even if her family never quite lost its hold on the bottom rungs of the middle class. And it was the place that would shape the woman now known as Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Warren’s parents grew up in Wetumka, a small town in eastern Oklahoma. Her father, she has said, was a self-taught pilot who once hoped to fly commercial airliners. Her mother briefly studied at a teacher’s college before they eloped — a marriage that Warren has said her father’s parents opposed because her mother’s family had Native American lineage.

Her father served as a flight instructor during World War II, but was deemed too old to become a commercial pilot after the war, according to Warren. He struggled to find work to support his growing family. He invested the family’s savings in a used-car dealership in Seminole, Okla., but shortly before Warren was born, his partner ran off with the money, the senator wrote in “A Fighting Chance.” The family soon moved to Norman, where Warren’s father found a job selling carpets at a nearby Montgomery Ward. Elizabeth was born in June 1949 — her parents’ “late in life surprise,” as she has called herself.

In her books and speeches, Warren has described herself as a precocious child who was always pushing the limits with her parents from a young age. In a 2007 interview at the University of California at Berkeley, she told a story about purposely standing in the street outside her small home in Norman, even when her mother told her not to. When her mother would swat her with a tree limb, “I’d cry, and [then] I’d step right back into the street.”

“My mother always just said that I was just contrary, that some kids are just born that way,” Warren said. 

In 1960, Warren, who by then was dreaming of becoming a schoolteacher, was deemed precocious enough to skip sixth grade. That fall, the family moved to Oklahoma City so she could attend Northwest Classen High School, which was considered one of the best in the state. The couple bought a house on NW 25th Street in a quiet middle-class neighborhood, just behind land where the city’s first enclosed shopping mall would open a few years later. According to public records, the couple took out a $13,900 mortgage for the two-story, 1,400-square-foot home.

In 1960, Elizabeth Warren and her family moved to this home in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

According to Warren, the family was doing well enough that they owned two cars — a bronze 1958 Oldsmobile station wagon used by her mother and an older off-white Studebaker, which her dad drove to work. The Oldsmobile had leather seats and air conditioning, and Warren loved it, calling it a “luxury.” But in the summer and early fall of 1961, months before her dad had a heart attack, it was up for sale. The family ran three classified ads in the Daily Oklahoman between July and September — initially offering the car for sale at $1,795 and then dropping the price to $1,395.

Sometime after her father’s heart attack, Warren’s mother showed up in the old Studebaker to pick her up from school. According to “A Fighting Chance,” Warren asked her mother where the Oldsmobile was. “Gone,” her mother quietly replied. “We couldn’t pay. They took it.” Her mother, she wrote in 2014, became bitter, blaming her husband for not doing “what a man is supposed to do” in taking care of the family.

Warren has offered mixed accounts about how her family’s financial struggles affected her. As she often points out, she had already been working — at age 9, she began babysitting, and by 11, she was taking on sewing projects, including making dresses for her aunts. In “All Your Worth,” a 2006 consumer finance book she wrote with her daughter, Amelia, Warren wrote, “My college financial applications classified my family as ‘poor,’ although I never thought we were any worse off than our neighbors.”

But in her most recent memoirs, Warren has cast that era as far more stressful. She said she took on odd jobs because money was so tight. She has said she began waitressing and bussing tables at her aunt’s Mexican restaurant when she was 13. (The restaurant was located in Muskogee, a little over two hours away from Oklahoma City, so it’s unclear how often she worked. The campaign did not respond to a request for comment.) And she sold at least one litter of six puppies for $35 each, the offspring of her beloved Pekingese, Missy, and a neighbor’s black poodle.

In her 2014 memoir, Warren said her family’s financial struggles instilled in her a fear of “being poor, really poor,” a concern that ultimately played out in her professional life where she has spent much of her career studying how government policy and the financial industry affect struggling families.

By the time she entered Northwest Classen High School, Warren was beginning to compare herself to her classmates. Because she had skipped a grade, she was just 13 when she started her freshman year. In her books, she describes being self-conscious about her looks. She was tall and skinny with “bones that stood out in my wrist,” and her brown hair was “straight as string.” “I already knew I would never be beautiful like my much older cousin Candy, who was a sorority girl and had married the son of a successful car dealer,” she wrote in “A Fighting Chance.”

Northwest Classen High School, Elizabeth Warren’s alma mater, in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

Northwest Classen was a large and well-regarded school with around 4,000 students when Warren attended. The school would produce dozens of notable alumni, including the artist Ed Ruscha, chef Rick Bayless and his brother, the sports commentator Skip Bayless, and the country singer Vince Gill — who’s been immortalized with a statue in front of the school building today.

Warren’s graduating class of roughly 900 came from a wide swath of north Oklahoma City, including older neighborhoods like Warren’s and newer, more affluent, developments. Even into the 1960s, Oklahoma City was still largely segregated. There were no black students at Northwest Classen until after Warren graduated in 1966.

Rival high schools derided students at Northwest Classen as “silkies” — because of the perception that they were rich and wore silk underwear. But that might not have reflected reality. Warren’s former classmates recall that the city’s elite families either sent their kids to Casady, a private school, or to the now defunct Harding High, which was closer to wealthier neighborhoods.

In Warren’s telling, she actively tried to conceal her humble background. In her 2014 memoir, she writes of an unspoken understanding that her father would drop her off a few blocks from school in their rusting Studebaker. “We both said it was to avoid traffic, but the traffic was an endless stream of new cars,” she wrote. “I was sure I was the only kid in the entire school whose parents struggled with money.”

At Northwest Classen, the student body was “more a mix from modest to upper middle class, with probably very few poor students,” recalled Vivian Vahlberg, a former journalist who graduated the same year as Warren. “We had very little awareness of the financial conditions of our friends’ families,” she said. “But even when we were aware, it wasn’t something people paid attention to or cared about or talked about.”

But Katrina Cochran, a classmate who was one of Warren’s closest friends at the time, did recall that the school felt “very affluent” and “elitist.” Though she considered Warren one of her best friends, she recalled that Warren was “very guarded” about her family and rarely mentioned financial struggles, even with her. At the time in Oklahoma, it was rare for mothers to hold jobs, and though she was aware Warren’s mother worked at Sears, her friend rarely spoke of it. “There were things you didn’t talk about, and the mother working outside the home was one of them,” recalled Cochran, a psychologist who now lives in Texas.

Warren has written of “trying to fit in” — joining the equivalent of the pep club and participating in other school activities. “I hated high school,” she wrote in 2014. “I wasn’t good at high school — friends, parties, football games.” She was self-conscious about her clothes, which she sewed herself, and her crooked teeth.

But Warren seems to have been more well-regarded than she has suggested. She joined the announcer’s club, which was in charge of reciting the pledge of allegiance and, in Bible Belt Oklahoma, the morning prayer each day over the school intercom. She was a member of the student council during her junior year, according to her yearbook. And she also joined the debate club, where she quickly became a rising star and in the process discovered a larger world outside Oklahoma, a state where Republicans were beginning to take control of the state’s politics and where the media was staunchly conservative.

Elizabeth Warren, then Liz Herring, in her 1965 Announcer’s Club yearbook photo. (Photo: no credit)

After hearing about boys ahead of her in school who had gotten debate scholarships, Warren began to wonder if this could be her ticket to college and ultimately out of Oklahoma. At a time when most Oklahoma women were still being encouraged to be dutiful wives and homemakers — Warren has recalled studying the Betty Crocker cookbook as part of her home economics class — debate offered a level intellectual playing field with men. Thoughtful, articulate and quick on her feet, she was soon regarded as one of the leaders by her fellow classmates. (Debate would also prove to be personally transformative for the future senator: When she was a freshman, she began dating another boy on the team, a junior named Jim Warren, her first boyfriend and eventual husband.)

Students were given weighty topics to study for a year, such as nuclear disarmament, free trade and socialized medicine. “This was the 1960s … and I always say what’s fascinating and kind of amazing is how topical [these issues] are at the moment,” recalled Joe Pryor, a fellow debater who graduated the same year as Warren. “And she was all in. … Debate was this crucible of fire, and everybody wanted to be the best. And she was so focused. She was probably the most focused person I knew in high school, very determined, very directed.”

Warren has said she had to quietly bow out of some debate competitions because she couldn’t afford the cost of hotel rooms, but Karl Johnson, her debate partner, didn’t recall that. He and other classmates said most travel costs were covered by the school.

And many classmates — all of whom still refer to her as “Liz” — still remember her as a lively presence on debate trips. “Very smart, very energetic. A lot of enthusiasm for everything. … Just a fun person,” recalled Terry Farmer, who was the same age as Warren but graduated a year behind her. “She was a blast to be around. … What she was like in high school is pretty much what you see right now.”

Warren and Johnson spent long hours practicing — often at his house but occasionally hers. He recalled working on their debates in the living room of her home on NW 25th, where he met her mother and father. “They were nice people, and they were so proud of her,” said Johnson, who now works as an attorney in New Mexico and has had only sporadic contact with Warren since high school. He was generally aware that her father had been ill, and there was financial stress on the family. But Warren rarely spoke of it, he recalled. The two won numerous state debate trophies, including the state championship trophy their senior year. The win earned them a ticket to the national high school debate championships, but Johnson, whose father had died, had to bow out because of his finances. “I had to go to work to pay for college,” he said.

In her 2014 memoir, Warren described debate as her singular talent in high school. “I wasn’t pretty, and I didn’t have the highest grades. … I didn’t play a sport, couldn’t sing and didn’t play a musical instrument. But I did have one talent,” she wrote. “I could fight — not with my fists but with my words.”

Elizabeth Warren and Karl Johnson in a yearbook photo heralding their debate wins.(Photo: no credit)

Debate allowed her to push herself “as far as I could go,” Warren said. But she has offered differing accounts over the years about how far that dream went, how her family saw her future and what role their financial circumstances played. “I’m of that generation where there were only two things that a woman could do, if she wanted to do something other than stay home, and that was she could become a nurse or she could become a teacher,” Warren said during an interview at UC Berkeley in 2007.

Warren said she decided in second grade to be a teacher. But it’s unclear whether her parents supported that dream. Her mother, she has said, was very traditional and was distrustful of women who worked outside the home. She warned Liz that the family couldn’t afford to send her to college, and that education would stand in the way of finding a husband. But she has also said it was her mother who championed the move to Oklahoma City so Warren could attend Northwest Classen.

In her 2017 book, “This Fight Is Our Fight,” Warren recalled a night during her senior year in high school when her mother began yelling at her about her college aspirations and “it spun out of control.” Warren said her mother demanded to know why she was “so special” that she had to go to college. “Did I think I was better than everyone else in the family?” she asked. Warren said retreated to her bedroom and her mother followed, yelling at her. When she screamed at her mother to leave her alone, “she hit me hard in the face,” Warren wrote.

The future senator said she quickly stuffed clothes in a canvas bag and ran out the front door. Hours later, her father found her at the bus station downtown, where he urged her to hang on. “Life gets better, punkin,” he told her.

Warren has described that period “as a miserable time in her life.” “Everything in my life seemed wrong,” she said. She wrote of having no money to apply for college, much less pay for it. “There was no extra money, no breathing room,” she recalled. “I was 16 — sixteen and watching the world slip away.”

But often left unsaid is that the family’s finances had improved — at least enough that Warren had a car. It was a 1958 MG, a sporty two-door that she and Cochran would use to drive to Charcoal Oven, a hamburger stand on nearby Route 66, for lunch some days. “She drove that car like a bat out of hell,” Cochran laughed. It was unclear where the car came from. Her friends believed that her older brothers may have helped her parents buy it, but they weren’t sure. Her campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment. (According to a classified ad in the Daily Oklahoman, the car was put up for sale in late May 1966 — around the time Warren graduated from high school.)

In her 2003 book “The Two-Income Trap,” which she co-authored with her daughter, Warren offered a more optimistic view of that period. “Life had settled back down,” she wrote. Finances had stabilized by the time she was a senior in high school, enough that her mother talked about quitting her job at Sears. “But she decided to keep working so that she and my father could help with the cost of my college tuition,” she wrote.

In the end, Warren wouldn’t need their help. Using her own money, she applied to Northwestern University in Chicago and George Washington University — two schools that offered debate scholarships. (It’s unclear why she did not apply to Oklahoma schools, as many of her debate team colleagues did, where she would have been eligible for in-state tuition. A friend speculated she was anxious to see the world beyond Oklahoma.) That spring, just weeks before graduation, GW offered Warren a full four-year ride along with financial aid for room and board, which she quickly accepted. Her mom, Warren said, offered a mixed reaction. “Well, she figured out how to go college for free, so what could I say,” Pauline Herring told her friends. “But I don’t know if she’ll ever get married.”

That spring, Warren, a month shy of her 17th birthday, graduated from Northwest Classen. After working a summer job to save extra cash, she moved to Washington, D.C., to attend GW that fall — a transition that was something of a culture shock for a girl who, as she once put it, had never traveled further “north or east of Pryor, Okla.” She would never live in Oklahoma for an extended time again.

Warren as a student at George Washington University. (Photo: Courtesy of the Warren campaign)

Cochran, who went to school in Missouri, recalled the long letters she exchanged with Warren at the time. “She was real homesick, and it was just a different culture,” she said. But Warren appeared to have been popular. In addition to competing on the debate team, she joined a sorority and was named freshman class queen. Yet in her 2014 memoir, she wrote that what she cherished most was the feeling of financial security. Sure, she had her loans and still worked a part-time job. “But the most remarkable part was that in college I wasn’t poor,” Warren wrote in 2014.

But the summer before her junior year in 1968, Jim Warren returned to her life. A graduate of Stanford University, he had been offered a job at IBM in Texas and wanted to get married. “I was amazed — amazed and grateful — that he had chosen me,” Warren wrote in 2014. “I said yes in a nanosecond.” She quickly gave up her full-ride scholarship to GW, sewed her own wedding gown, and eight weeks later, she was walking down the aisle of a small Methodist church not far from her parent’s house. She was just 19. “It was definitely not the smartest move I’ve ever made,” she told voters in Iowa last month. She resumed college at the University of Houston and graduated in 1970. (Her law degree is from Rutgers.)  She divorced Warren in 1978.

The church where she got married is just a block away from Northwest Classen, and it would be the closest she would get to the school for decades. Warren, her classmates say, never participated in any high school reunions — including the class’s 50th and final reunion in 2016. Many of her high school friends long ago lost touch with the girl they knew as Liz Herring and had no idea what had happened to her until her first run for Senate in 2012, when the controversy over her claim of Native American ancestry made national headlines and included mention of her Oklahoma background.

The senator has said she has visited Oklahoma frequently but privately, mainly to see her family. Warren’s parents left their home on NW 25th sometime in the ’70s. They died in the ’90s, but her older brothers and others in her extended family still live in the state, mostly around Oklahoma City and Norman.

But as she ramped up her bid for the presidency, Warren has embraced her home state more publicly. A biographical video last fall featured her walking outside her old home in Norman, which is visibly more modest than the house where she lived in Oklahoma City. And last September, she returned to Northwest Classen for the first time since 1966, headlining a rally sponsored by the American Federation for Teachers to promote education funding. 

Warren speaks at an American Federation of Teachers rally in Oklahoma City. [Photo: Doug Hoke/the Oklahoman]

Dressed in a red jacket and black top and pants, Warren bounded onto a small stage, waving her arms and yelling, “Hello, Okies!” In the crowd, a team of campaign videographers filmed the rally for a spot she would later post on her website.

“I’m a couple of blocks from where I went to junior high,” she said looking around. “I am in the cafeteria of my high school, the site of multiple hours of detention, and I am just about two blocks from the church when I got married when I was 19.” She paused. “A lot of scary memories.”

“But now here I am: a senator, former head of a consumer bureau and a favorite Twitter partner of the president of the United States,” she said, pausing to allow the audience laugh. “I am living proof that Oklahoma’s public schools prepare their kids for pretty much anything that comes along.”

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