Over the Hill

For some, life is full of, well ... life

Fran Vanatta of Paso Robles was a teenager in the 1930s. That’s when she was stricken with Saint Vitus’ dance, as people called it.

Her doctor said she only recovered because she was so “determined.” Mrs. Vanatta has been “determined” all her life. She succeeded in newspaper advertising in Kansas and Southern California when it was exclusively a male profession.

She was born in 1924 in Wichita, Kan., but grew up in Cimarron. She was 15 when she developed Saint Vitus’ dance. It’s a form of rheumatic fever. Your arms, legs or facial muscles move spontaneously. She lost weight and strength. She spent that school year at home in bed. Her treatment was mainly bed rest and loving care.

Her father was a funeral director. His funeral home was a big white house that was also the family home. Their living room occasionally became the chapel. Their household included her parents, her grandmother, a hired man, a hired woman and four children, counting Fran.

Cimarron was in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Mrs. Vanatta said some dust storms were so bad the family couldn’t see their white porch pillars from inside the house at high noon, even with the outside lights on. They taped up the window frames in an attempt to keep the dust out. But still, enough dirt blew in overnight to cover their rugs’ colored designs.

Kansas also suffered a plague of jack rabbits. In 1935, the estimated jack rabbit population of Western Kansas was 8 million. They ate the leaves and roots of everything.

People organized jack rabbit drives. Almost everybody joined. They surrounded large areas tooting horns and banging pots and pans. They drove thousands of jack rabbits into fenced corrals and clubbed them to death. Mrs. Vanatta remembers doing that.

After recovering from Saint Vitus’ dance, she spent a summer in Eastern Kansas where her grandfather owned a weekly newspaper. There, she learned the newspaper business from the bottom up.

In 1946, she was busy. In January she met Bill Vanatta. In June she graduated from college. In August she married Bill.

They lived in Missouri, Okla. and Kansas before moving to Southern California. There, she worked for newspapers, was elected the first woman president of the California Newspaper Advertising Executives Association (South) and became a publisher of a national magazine, “Wigs and Hair Today.”

She and Bill moved to Paso Robles in 1988. He died in 1992. She has two children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

From 1988 through this past May, she sold advertising for KPRL, and she’s still determined to stay active.