Stillwater is a unique municipality, not quite a city but far from a town. I think I will coin the word ‘mini-opolis’ for we are by far the primary place of commerce and habitation in Payne County, but are shadowed by metropolises to our east and south. One of the things I find endearing about Stillwater is though growth and improvements abound, at times it retains that small-town feel. An Army brat, Stillwater is the closest thing to “roots” in my life; homes where my mother was born, raised and we visited between my father’s assigned posts, still stand; stories of shops and restaurants, prominent families and anecdotes of friends and acquaintances of the past bring a grounded familiarity to many Stillwater citizens.

Approached a few months back about contributing a piece about a soon -to-be-released book on a “slice of life” of one of these families. Although I personally did not recall this family, I know many of you do. I feel I get to share the first chapter in the on-going story of what ever happened to Dr. Harold Sanders and his family.

Harold was born in Rocky, some miles south of Clinton and started medical school in 1930. The times being what they were, medical school went on hold; teaching science and math in western Oklahoma, he continued collegiate classes in summer. In 1940 he was able to enroll in OU School of Medicine and in 1943, achieved his M.D., a dream long in coming. He moved to Stillwater in 1947, serving this community in the field of Obstetrics and Gynecology until 1964.

Friends have mentioned as I prepared this piece, “he delivered my brother (or sister)!” Dr. Harold delivered more than 2500 babies and cared for the mothers during and after their pregnancies. I would say that is some legacy, but legacies are not only counted by numbers, they are calculated by “lives touched”. Serving as a teacher and elementary school principal, raising two children of his own, these certainly contributed to Harold’s legacy.

This story actually begins with Dr. Harold uprooting his wife Neva and daughter Nancy from Stillwater in 1965 and moving them halfway around the world to serve for two years as the Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the American Samoan government hospital in Pago Pago, American Samoa. (Son Ron, following in his father’s footsteps, had completed medical school and was serving in the U.S. Army.)

The News 

Press ran a wonderful story, (written by Elsie Shoemaker, Feature Editor) outlining the Sanders family’s coming transition to a 42 square mile island in the South Pacific. Ms. Shoemaker reported on the history of the U.S. presence on Tutuila (the main island of five that make up American Samoa), native foods, literacy rate and laid-back customs. She also touched on the Sanders’ deciding what to take with them, with art materials (both Harold and Neva painted) and musical instruments for Nancy. After their departure, only close friends may have heard “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say.

After a year on Tutuila, the Sanders family returned to Oklahoma for personal health reasons. Returning to Stillwater, Dr. Harold continued to serve the citizens of Stillwater’s medical needs, and as mentioned before his son, Dr. Ron also practiced pediatrics in Stillwater. But that is only a slice of the legacy Harold Sanders accomplished; another slice is written through the life of his daughter Nancy, now Nan Sanders-Pokerwinski. 

From my limited perspective, teenaged life in American Samoa cultivated in Nancy a spirit of adventure sprinkled with a little rebellion. Just imagine a Midwestern doctor’s daughter, a Chi Chi Chi alumnus, a familiar face in Stillwater’s teen scene during the 1960’s leaving the telephones and high school dances behind to live on an island where mere curtains may be the walls of your home and hamburgers were not on the menu.

At that very impressionable age, Nancy lived a culture completely polarized from the one she had thus far known and became one of the “outsiders” socializing with other American teens (who parents too were serving in Pago Pago) while blending, befriending, learning and embracing the Samoan teen scene. Much happened in those two years, but I’ll come back to that.

Upon returning to the States and graduating Stillwater High School, Nancy attended OSU for two years, finishing her undergraduate degree in Northern California. Studying journalism and biology, Nancy taught at an alternative school and held various jobs before receiving a graduate degree in entomology at KU. (Do you see remnants of her father in her choices to teach and to study biology?)

During her time at KU, Nan’s interest in journalism was renewed. She writes in an email, “In 1982, I received a Mass Media Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which sent me to Michigan to work as a science writing intern at the Detroit Free Press. I fell in love with newspaper work and ended up being hired to work at the Free Press.”

Thirteen years with the Free Press followed by 14 years as a science writer with the University of Michigan News Service, my question is – what brought you back to write about your teen years in American Samoa? 

Nan responds, “The memoir came about when I joined a writers’ group in Ann Arbor. I needed something to share for critiques, and I’d been thinking of trying to write something about Samoa, so I just started writing and kept going, encouraged by the other members of the writers’ group. …I’d never known quite what to say when people asked me what it was like living there. I could say it was beautiful, and it was fun being a teenager on a South Pacific island, but there was so much more that I didn’t know how to express to anyone who hadn’t been there. The book is an attempt to express the things that I was unable to express for so many years after I returned.”

Titled, Mango Rash: Coming of Age in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta, Nan calls it a “coming of age” story and in many ways, it is but it is interesting too that American Samoa was also entering a transitional age from traditional island culture to one that embraced Western tourism. Stories of girl-meets-boy on a tropical island is only a piece of life as seen through the eyes of a 16-year-old. Ms. Pokerwinski delves into deeper musings that only come from the experience and hinder sight of maturity.

Mango Rash is a story of friendships made and friendships lost; of rebellion and compromise. It enters the world of “what ifs” that fill a teenager’s mind, dreams and diary. And, it awakens to the harsh realities of an island on its knees from a hurricane’s destructive force and premature death.

From the website, 

“Mango Rash was awarded first place in the memoir/nonfiction category of the 2018 Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary awards. In addition, excerpts of the memoir were finalists for the 2015 and 2017 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards, the 2015 Northern Colorado Writers Top of the Mountain Book Award, and the 2017 New Millennium Writings Literary Award. Those desiring a preview can read the first chapter on the website and book club members, Nan will help you complete your experience with Samoan recipes and fashion to enhance your read. 

Due to release Oct 22, Nan’s book is already available for pre-order through Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. Readers can keep it local by asking for the book at your favorite Stillwater bookstore. And that is the rest of the story….at least for now.

Recommended for you