Reading Between the Lines: A Letter from Thomas W. Temple II to Walter P. Temple, 20 November 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

From summer 1917, when royalties began rolling in from production by Standard Oil Company of California at the family’s lease on the Montebello field, Walter and Laura Temple decided they would use part of their new-found fortune to provide their four surviving children private school educations, an investment made over about a dozen years.

At first, Thomas, Agnes, Walter, Jr., and Edgar were sent to local boarding schools, with the boys, because of the heightened patriotism of the First World War years, sent to military academies in Los Angeles and Pasadena, and Agnes placed in Catholic girls’ schools in Alhambra and Los Angeles. Thomas, the eldest of the quartet, was also the first to leave the region, as he was enrolled in 1918 in the college preparatory high school at the University of Santa Clara, next to San Jose, which some of his father’s brothers attended in the 1860s and 1870s.

In spring 1922, Thomas completed his studies at the prep school and, with an eye to assisting with his father’s independent oil production company as a petroleum engineer, enrolled at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where the curriculum was rigorous befitting the institution’s enviable reputation. That summer, the Temples vacation for several weeks in México and were so enthralled and excited by the experience that they decided to build a new home (appropriately named La Casa Nueva) next to the Workman Home, which they’d be using as a weekend residence while living full-time in Alhambra.


Thomas managed to survive his fall semester at Cal Tech, but he and his siblings had the additional challenge and heartache of seeing their mother’s health considerably worsen after she was found to have colon cancer. With the state of medical knowledge and treatment of the time, there was little that could be done and Laura Gonzalez Temple died just a few days after Christmas. Obviously, her passing had a seismic effect on the family in so many ways and just one of these was with the education of the children.

It is impossible to know if the plans would have been different had Laura lived, but Thomas, devastated by the death of his “Meema,” as he and his siblings called her, withdrew from Cal Tech and went back to Santa Clara, where he’d spent four years and was comfortable with the campus and faculty, but also with the comfort of the Catholic religion which he relied heavily upon to cope with the immense loss. He spent three years from early 1923 to mid 1926 at the school. Soon after, he was joined by his brothers, who spent what were essentially their middle school years at the Belmont School, roughly half way between Santa Clara and San Francisco.

After she received her high school diploma from St. Mary’s Academy in southwest Los Angeles, Agnes, too, went north to enroll in Dominican College, then an all-girls Catholic school in San Rafael across the bay north from San Francisco, starting with the fall semester of 1925. For one school year, the quartet of Temple children were all engaged in their studies in the general Bay Area, though Agnes was about forty miles from her younger brothers, and some sixty-five from her elder.

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“Doc Worden” was the historian J. Perry Worden, who was hired in 1921 to write a Workman and Temple biography and, six years later, the work was still in progress and, in fact, went unfinished.

When Thomas completed his bachelor’s degree at Santa Clara, his emphasis was law and the plan apparently was for him to provide legal counsel to Walter, Sr. with his business endeavors. First, however, he had to go to law school and he managed to gain admission to one of the elite institutions in the nation, Harvard Law School. There was an added benefit to moving across the country because Thomas’ uncle, William, was a Harvard Law School grad from the class of 1874, and the Temples long had ancestry at Reading, Massachusetts, about fifteen miles north of Boston, and even had one remaining cousin, Ellen Temple Bancroft, residing in that town.

Thomas began his studies at Harvard in fall 1926 and was joined by his brothers, who transferred to Governor Dummer Academy, the oldest continuously operating independent boarding school in the nation, having opened in 1763, and located in South Byfield, Massachusetts, about thirty-five miles north of Boston. Walter, Jr. and Edgar continued their high school work at the school, which changed its name fairly recently to Governor’s Academy, because the surname of its founder, a colonial executive of the commonwealth, was deemed a deterrent (after near two and half centuries) to potential students!

Tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection is a letter, written on Harvard letterhead, dated 20 November 1927 and postmarked the next morning, from Thomas to his father. Of the children, Thomas was the only consistent correspondent, sending near weekly missives to his parents and, after his mother’s passing, to his father. Fortunately, these have survived and this letter was one of a few hundred donated by Ruth Ann Michaelis, daughter of Edgar Temple, three years ago. These documents help give us a fuller picture of the lives of the Temples, especially with the children being away from home for most of the year.


Writing on a Sunday evening, Thomas let his father know that his brothers came down to Cambridge for what is simply known as The Game, the annual football battle between the Ivy League stalwarts, Harvard and Yale. The rivalry was inaugurated in 1875 and there have been 136 contests, with Yale capturing 68 with Harvard winning 60 and six games resulting in ties. Last year’s game was particularly exciting won a high-scoring contest, 50-43 in double overtime. This was easily the contest with the most points registered, though the 2018 matchup had the previous record with Harvard easily besting Yale, 45-27.

Thomas continued by noting “we had a very enjoyable time” and “there was [were] just thousands of people here and room accommodations very scarce,” though he was able to find a place for his brothers to stay. Also attending was the Dummer Academy headmaster, Charles Ingham, who was a Yale alumnus. Thomas added, “after the game which Yale won 14-0, they tore up the goal posts and raised hell in general. Boston and Cambridge were wild with excitement.” As for the contest, “it was a much closer game than was expected but Harvard plays such old fashioned ball.” Because of the importance of the rivalry, tickets fetched as much as $100 each, but Thomas only coughed up $5 because of his graduate student status.

Walter, Sr. was informed that Thomas heard from Agnes “after a long wait & I’m glad to hear that she’ll be home for the [Thanksgiving] Holiday.” She was not as regular a writer as her brother or as much as he would have preferred as he added “I sent her several letters in hopes they would reach her while she was at home.” Because Agnes chose to remain at Dominican, though her father pushed hard for her to join her brothers in Massachusetts at a school like Wellesley, she was able to return to the Homestead for holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving and the Christmas and New Year’s season, while her brothers only came home in 1927, 1928 and 1929 for summers.

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This excerpt includes a powerful Thanksgiving recollection of Laura Gonzalez Temple by her son.

There was, however, a special excursion planned for the expatriate Temple boys for the New Year’s holiday and Thomas wrote, “we received your wire [Walter, Sr. preferred communicating by telegram rather than letter] this A.M. about the Canadian trip.” He informed his father that he contacted three hotels in Montreal “recommended by the people at the Inn,” this being the Brattle Inn, where Thomas roomed during his three years in Cambridge and which was just a short distance west of the Harvard campus. After he received information on rates, he was to let Walter, Sr. know and he continued, “I do hope we can arrange a little trip up there, for altho[ugh] it will be very cold, yet we’ll have plenty of warm clothes, and it will be a great sight.” Not mentioned in this letter, but amply referred to from Montreal during the excursion was that the young men would enjoy a variety of alcoholic drinks not legally available in the United States because of Prohibition.

With regard to Thanksgiving, Thomas told his father “I rang up Ed [Edward Bancroft, Ellen’s son] and they are planning a great feast for Thanksgiving.” He then added, “five years ago you remember I was at ‘Cal Tech’ and coming home for Thanksgiving found Meema quite ill. How the time does fly. God rest her soul. I’m sure she prays for us and watches over us with as much care as she did when we had her. And if we have managed well without her, it is that we did not lose her entirely but at times we feel her very close to us.” This is a very touching sentiment and a striking giving of thanks from a son to his beloved mother.

Thomas closed his missive by wishing that Walter, Sr. “have a dandy Thanksgiving” and sending his love to everyone at the Homestead. He implored that “Agnes take a few pictures of ‘Maxie’ and ‘Dukie’ [two Temple family dogs memorialized in wood carvings on beam ends in the courtyard of La Casa Nueva] and the house,” which was just being completed. He also asked “remember me kindly to Mr. Woodruff,” Walter Temple’s attorney and business partner, “The Basque on top of the Hill,” this being Sylvester Dupuy, a friend and fellow investor in real estate projects like Temple City and whose expansive home on an Alhambra hilltop has recently been notorious as the former residence of record producer Phil Spector who killed actress Lana Clarkson in the home in 2003, and “Milt” or Milton Kauffman, Walter’s business manager.

Note that the Homestead was in a rural area so no house number or street existed and the address here was plenty sufficient for delivery!

With its news of happenings back east, plans for the holidays, and, especially, reflections on the memory of Laura Temple, this letter is a very interesting artifact relating to the Temples and their personal lives just as La Casa Nueva was being completed and before dramatic changes came in the next few years. While the four children graduated from their various schools in 1929, financial problems for their father were already in dire straits before the crash of that fall that led to the Great Depression. Look for more of these letters in future posts.

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