‘Grandpa Ewer’

Recently Meaghan E. H. Siekman shared tips for how to incorporate genealogy into at-home learning, noting that going through old photographs is a good way of introducing children to relatives who passed away before they were born.

That reminded me of a mystery in my own album of early childhood photos. It’s a picture of me taken on my very first Easter, sitting on the lap of an elderly man, and labeled: “Grandpa Ewer 98 Yrs.” Even as a very young girl, I was perplexed by this picture because I knew both of my grandfathers, and two of my great-grandfathers, and none of them had the name Ewer. When I asked my mother who this “Grandpa Ewer” was, she replied that he wasn’t really related to me. Who was he, then, and Why was he in my photo album? It was only when I started doing my own genealogical research that I found out.

On 1 May 1942, my paternal grandfather’s best friend, Armand Herb, was flying aboard United Airlines Flight 4 from San Francisco to New York City. As his plane prepared to make a night-time landing at Salt Lake City, the pilot mistook their location and crashed into Ensign Peak, killing everyone aboard. My grandparents continued their friendship with Armand’s widow, and celebrated with her when she married Dr. Edward Goldsmith Ewer[1] a decade later. His first wife and youngest daughter had just died the previous year, after inhaling metallic spray paint while making Christmas decorations … a tragedy that spawned cautionary tales in my childhood, though the victims were unknown to me.

Eventually my father’s sister married Armand Herb’s son (and Dr. Edward G. Ewer’s step-son), and so the two families became one. By extension the Ewers became part of my family, though I never saw them after my infancy. “Grandpa Ewer” was Dr. Edward G. Ewer’s father, and my cousins’ step-great-grandfather, Dr. Edward Norton Ewer (1866-1965), and we were all guests at Easter dinner those many years ago. Mystery solved!

As it happens, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Dr. Edward N. Ewer. Stories of valiant doctors, nurses, and other health professionals have been much in the news, and his story fits right in. On 10 May 1905, the Oakland Tribune ran a short story with photograph titled, “Dr. Ewer Wins the Prize,” announcing that the mayor had just appointed him Oakland’s Health Officer. Less than a year later, the San Francisco Earthquake set the entire Bay Area on its head, and it was Dr. Ewer’s job to respond to the crisis, which included isolating twenty cases of smallpox plus responding to any number of sanitary emergencies. Some prize indeed!


[1] I found out through their high school yearbook that my grandfather and Ed Ewer were high school classmates, something unknown to any living family members.

About Pamela Athearn Filbert

Pamela Athearn Filbert was born in Berkeley, California, but considers herself a “native Oregonian born in exile,” since her maternal great-great-grandparents arrived via the Oregon Trail, and she herself moved to Oregon well before her second birthday. She met her husband (an actual native Oregonian whose parents lived two blocks from hers in Berkeley) in London, England. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, and has worked as a newsletter and book editor in New York City and Salem, Oregon; she was most recently the college and career program coordinator at her local high school.

4 thoughts on “‘Grandpa Ewer’

  1. What an amazing cascading series of misfortunes and mishaps, fortunately leading to a happy outcome. Many thanks, Pamela, for posting. Also, I’m glad to hear of others born in Berkeley. When my son lived there, I pointed out to him that he had five generations of connection to Berkeley, going back to when his great-great-grandfather moved there from Fresno. His response was, “ok, whatever.” Genealogy and history are not everyone’s suit.

    1. Sadly this was not the end of Edward G. Ewer’s family misfortunes. In 1955, his older daughter’s husband was killed in an Air Force helicopter training accident, leaving a young widow and infant daughter. Then in 1973, his only son was found dead in his car, outside his Oakland home, the victim of a still-unsolved murder. The only mercy is that Ed himself had died in 1971, so was personally spared that grief.

  2. Pamela – at least your had a relationship. In our family we had Uncle Gus. He was a classmate of my father’s at a boarding school. He was an English exchange student and apparently the first English exchange student had been Gus (Augustus?) so each exchange student was called Gus. In 1960 our family went to England; uncle Gus was home visiting his parents and we had dinner there. Something was asked that we children did not understand we were asked uncle Gus. We quickly found out that Richards Oakes had never told his parents that he had been known as Gus when at school in the U.S.
    I have pictures of him as a pilot during WWII; his plane crashed and he was badly burned on one side of his face. But we never knew him before then so seeing a picture was fascinating. I have a file for him along with the immediate family

  3. Congrats on unraveling the mystery of “Grandpa Ewer”! Pics of my own non-relative grandparents are captioned as “Grandma and Grandpa” but I’ve always known they were the elderly couple next door who performed the functions of grandparents until their deaths early in my childhood.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.