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Family recalls life of ‘Migrant Mother'

As a junior high school student in Santa Clara, Calif., in 1974, Sheryl Brady opened her U.S. history workbook and saw a familiar face in a famous photo.

“I went up to Mr. Hannah and said, ‘There's my grandmother,'” said Brady, 47, who lives in Turlock, Calif.

“That's nice, Sheryl,” Mr. Hannah replied. “Now go sit down.”

“I said, ‘No kidding, Mr. Hannah. That is my grandmother,'” Brady said. “And he said, ‘You're serious.'”

The photo was Dorothea Lange's “Migrant Mother,” taken in 1936 at a pea pickers' labor camp in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., and long considered the most representative and pertinent image of the Dust Bowl era.

Lange never asked the names of family she photographed that day while working for the Farm Security Administration, and their identities remained a mystery for more than 40 years.

Had he really believed Brady, Mr. Hannah might have solved it that day in 1974. Instead, four years passed before Florence Owens Thompson confirmed, during a 1978 interview with Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan, that she was the woman in the black-and-white still that became symbolic of the Great Depression.

Her young daughters Katherine and Ruby stood on each side of her, shielding their faces from Lange's camera lens while Thompson held baby Norma on her lap.

Thompson ultimately settled in Modesto, Calif., after World War II and raised her family here. She had 10 children. Brady's mother, Shirley, was the youngest and not yet born when Lange snapped the photo. Three of them, Katherine McIntosh, Norma Rydlewski and Jim Hill, still live in Modesto. The seven others have since died.

Thompson long harbored bitterness that others made money off the photo – the Library of Congress offers prints at $120 each – while she got nothing when she was the one most in need.

Meanwhile, her family contradicts Lange's account of the circumstances surrounding the photo – that they had to sell the tires off their car to get cash for food.

The car needed a replacement fan belt, Brady said. One of Thompson's sons had gone to a nearby town for the part.

“They drove away that same afternoon (after Lange took the photo),” Brady said. “They didn't sell the tires.”

Thompson also claimed that Lange promised the photo never would be published and felt betrayed when it appeared in newspapers a day or so later.

Regardless of the circumstances, the photograph garnered Lange respect not only as a photographer and artist, but also as a social commentator of the time.

“Migrant Mother” has been displayed in galleries throughout the world.

Lange took the photo while working for a government agency, which makes it part of the public domain and therefore available for anyone to use.

Thus, “Migrant Mother” has graced a U.S. postage stamp. It's been featured in numerous photography publications.

The photo became news again in October 2007 when fire destroyed the Modesto home of Katherine McIntosh, the daughter on the left of Thompson in the picture. The blaze destroyed her copy of the famous photo – the copy that had once been her mother's.

The photo that never was supposed to be published continues to be published and stands as an iconic tribute to those who endured hard times during the Great Depression.

When Florence Owens Thompson died at 79 in Santa Cruz in 1983, The Bee's Corrigan wrote that the photo “didn't help Mrs. Thompson financially, but publication of it in newspapers stirred the consciousness of Americans to ease the plight of the migrant workers.”

Well-wishers raised $15,000 for the family to help with funeral expenses.

And the family received condolences from President Reagan, who wrote, “Mrs. Thompson's passing represents the loss of an American who symbolizes strength and determination in the midst of the Great Depression.”

“She loved music,” Brady said. “She loved her family. She was not the person they portrayed her to be.”