She was only 8 years old.
Her mother had lost custody of her in a divorce. And her father was putting her and her 3-year-old sister on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles -- by themselves, without adult supervision. It took three days to reach their grandparents’ home in the San Gabriel Valley. Once there, they would not be made to feel welcome.
The older girl, Dorothy Howell, now 88, is best known as Dorothy Rodham -- the mother of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York senator and Democratic presidential candidate.
The struggles that marked young Dorothy’s life constitute a little-known Southern California tale, more than seven decades old.
And if it is true that, as Clinton has argued, it takes a village to raise a child, it is no stretch to say that the mother of the woman who wants to be president was raised by the city of Alhambra.
Today a low-profile, mostly Asian and Latino suburb of more than 87,000 people, Alhambra, along with nearby San Gabriel, provided a home -- though not always a happy one -- for Dorothy Howell from the ages of 8 to 18. The stories she would tell her daughter about those difficult times in Depression-era Los Angeles County would help inspire Clinton’s interest in public service.
“Learning about my mother’s childhood sparked my strong conviction that every child deserves a chance to live up to her God-given potential and that we should never quit on any child,” Clinton wrote in the 2006 edition of her book “It Takes a Village.”
A broken home
Dorothy Howell was born in 1919 to Edwin Howell Jr., a fireman in his early 20s, and his bride, Della. The 1920 U.S. census records the couple and their infant as living as boarders in a house with four other families on a tough stretch of Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
The couple fought. In 1926, Dorothy’s father filed for divorce, claiming that his wife had hit him in the face and scratched him on three separate occasions, according to Cook County records. In a March 1927 court hearing, Della Howell’s own sister accused her of abusing her husband and abandoning her two daughters.
“She had a violent temper and flew at him in a rage, and would fight him,” testified the sister, Frances Czeslawski.
Della Howell did not show up to contest the divorce -- she could not be found by subpoena servers. Dorothy’s father was given custody. But, either unwilling or unable to take care of his daughters, he put them on the train to California, where his parents, Edwin Howell Sr. and Emma Howell, had moved a few years previously.
The Howells occupied a small rented home at 320 E. Park St. in Alhambra, next to land that is now Almansor Park. Friends say that when Clinton’s mother speaks of her years in Alhambra, she recalls fondly the smell of orange groves and the streetcar that ran down Main Street near her alma mater, Alhambra High.
The grandparents were ill-prepared to raise Dorothy and her sister, Isabelle.
Edwin Howell Sr. had emigrated from Wales. He worked as a machinist in an auto plant and as a laborer for the Alhambra street department, according to Alhambra city directories from the time. He mostly left the girls’ care to his wife.
Emma Howell was a strict woman who wore black Victorian dresses and discouraged visitors and parties. Once, discovering that Dorothy had gone trick-or-treating on Halloween, she ordered her confined to her room for a year except for school.
“Her grandmother was a severe and arbitrary disciplinarian who berated her constantly, and her grandfather all but ignored her,” Clinton wrote.
Dorothy Howell gives few interviews and did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.
In 1932, the Howells bought a home on North Burton Avenue, in what is now Temple City, though it is hardly clear they prospered. Cook County court records from 1936, filed on behalf of Dorothy’s mother, suggest that by then Dorothy’s grandparents had “no independent means or income, and that they are subsisting on assistance given them by relief agencies.”
Leaving at 14
In 1934, Dorothy’s father relocated to California and joined the family in San Gabriel.
But Dorothy, age 14, moved out and became a housekeeper in the home of a San Gabriel family. She made meals and helped take care of the children in exchange for room, board and $3 a week.
The local family hasn’t been publicly identified, but the 1936 Cook County court records list Dorothy Howell as working as a domestic servant at 1037 Coolidge Drive. City directories from the time show that the address was occupied by James F. and Mary P. Kinlock. He was a lithographer for Continental Can who moved from New York to Southern California in 1934, according to Columbia University records.
According to Clinton’s written accounts, Dorothy’s employers were kind, and the woman of the house encouraged her to read. Records show James and Mary Kinlock have died; efforts by The Times to reach family were unsuccessful.
“Without this experience of living with a strong family, Dorothy told Hillary, she would not have known how to manage her own household or take care of her children,” Clinton biographer Carl Bernstein wrote.
Walking to Alhambra High School, Dorothy would pass Hemphill’s Bootery, McKay’s Drug Store -- where one could procure a malt and a sandwich for 20 cents -- and Jones’ Tasty Doughnuts, where a young man named Verne H. Winchell was learning the trade that would make him the Southland’s iconic doughnut maker.
Classmates recall that Dorothy Howell liked Alhambra High, but it was no paradise. Teacher salaries had been cut 20% across the board, and tenure had been revoked. More than a year after the Long Beach earthquake damaged school buildings, much of the campus remained a tent city, even though it was the seventh-largest high school in the state, with nearly 3,300 students. And rules for girls could be strict. Female students who dared to wear slacks were routinely sent home.
The student body was diverse. A survey in 1936 found that enrollees included natives of 21 countries and all 48 states. (Illinois was the most common birthplace, with 120 students enrolled.)
Dorothy’s housekeeping and child-care duties gave her little time for extracurricular activities, but she was a strong student, belonging to the Scholarship Society and the Spanish club. She also found time to help organize the senior dance.
“I remember her being really a thin gal, wonderful, nice and a very good student,” recalls Bernie Labb, who was also in the Scholarship Society.
In brief recollections for a book commemorating the centennial of the high school, founded in 1898, Dorothy praised two teachers: a speech and drama instructor named Miss Drake whose style she admired, and Miss Zellhoefer, who taught her to write.
“She taught English and was very strict,” she recalled. “We came from her class with respect for her and a solid ground in English. What made her special was her desire that we develop critical thinking.”
After graduation, Dorothy Howell sought reconciliation with her own mother. Clinton has written that Dorothy had planned to attend college in California, but returned to Chicago instead. In a senior class survey, Dorothy reported that she would attend Northwestern University there.
Max Rosenberg, who had married Dorothy Howell’s mother, Della, promised to help pay for his stepdaughter’s education. But when Dorothy got to Chicago, he refused to keep the commitment and her mother wanted her to serve as a housekeeper. Northwestern says it has no record of Dorothy attending.
“Once I asked my mother why she went back to Chicago,” Clinton wrote in “Living History.” The answer? “‘I’d hoped so hard that my mother would love me that I had to take the chance and find out,’ she told me. ‘When she didn’t, I had nowhere else to go.’ ”
Again Dorothy left home, finding work as a secretary. Within five years, she had met and married Hugh Rodham, with whom she had Hillary. Many years later, Dorothy Howell Rodham would take college courses for credit.
Dorothy never lived in Southern California again after leaving at 18. She served as grand marshal of a special homecoming parade to commemorate the high school’s 100th year. Last year, she attended her 70th reunion and recited a poem she still remembered from speech class.
“It’s hard to keep memories for 70 years,” says Doris Zavala, who organizes the reunions. “But she comes to the reunions. We reminisce about what we think we remember.”
Clinton has written that she thought of her mother’s childhood when she was deciding whether to marry Bill Clinton, who also had a difficult childhood.
“I thought often of my own mother’s neglect and mistreatment at the hands of her parents and grandparents, and how other caring adults filled the emotional void to help her,” she wrote in “Living History.” She added: “Her sad and lonely childhood was imprinted on my heart.”
Times staff writer Victoria Kim and researchers Vicki Gallay and John Tyrrell contributed to this report.