Celebrating our Local Women's History
Stories from Women Living in the Southeast Valley as told by CGCC Students in partnership with Gilbert Historical Museum
Oral History of Dawn Cooper Knight

Oral History of Dawn Cooper Knight

Written by Eric Ringler

Dawn Cooper Knight Interviewed By: Eric Ringler on March 1, 2008


Mrs. Dawn Cooper Knight is a heartfelt woman with many great stories to tell. She continually stresses the importance of family, and the need for love. She is a native of Arizona; Dawn was born in Mesa and lived in Gilbert most of her adolescent life. She tells many wonderful stories of the old town back in the 40's and how it has grown today. Almost all of her family lived in the Gilbert area, so a special bond was shared between them all.


She was born Madeline Dawn Cooper Knight on January 25, 1930. Dawn has just one older sister, Cleora, who was the "girly girl" of the family while Dawn was always the tomboy, constantly helping her father out on the farm. She and her sister would feed their baby lambs from a bottle before and after school; they would also help raise their chickens and collect the eggs for their father. She has some interesting stories about her childhood, and how they didn't have indoor plumbing when she was a little girl. They were forced to go outside at night and use the outhouse if they had to "go." "I was really tiny, and it was kind of scary," she says. She was only five when her parents bought land and moved her to the farm where she grew up--"The Old Peacock Ranch" as it's known today. To this day, Dawn still owns part of the ranch and allows her daughter to live there. As a young child, Dawn enjoyed playing in the ditch with other children and roller skating on her front porch. She says, "Everyone knew each other; everyone looked out after everyone; and it was really just a nice place to grow up." She enjoyed school very much, playing in the orchestra and participating in the plays and in all the different school activities that she could.


Her father, Lester Wallace Johnson, was a native to Gilbert while her mother, Ruth Burk Cooper, came from Ripley, Iowa when she was only 9 years old with her family. Mr. Johnson was a farmer and later became the mayor of Gilbert. Dawn also remembers stories of her father driving a school bus during the Depression and delivering milk but not always getting paid for the work he did. Her mother was a housewife and took care of the kids most of her childhood. Dawn describes her mom as a very beautiful woman who had all the boys fighting over her, but her heart was finally taken by her dad, whom she loved very much. Her parents met when they were in school together and stayed together until her mother passed away. Many people were not happy to see them married because her dad was Mormon and her mom belonged to The Church of Christ, but when they saw the love that they had for one another, all was forgotten. Dawn's parents had a happy and loving marriage and raised two beautiful daughters.


Early in Dawn's school years she remembers having segregated classes separated from the Hispanics but when they went onto middle school, everyone was integrated. This affected her little and she became friends with many people with Hispanic heritage and finally graduated from Gilbert High School. She explains that due to an April Fool's ditch day, which she participated in, she failed to make valedictorian of her graduating class. This was because she was suspended for two weeks with no opportunity to make up the missed work. But she didn't let this faze her, and she set off to U of A to enroll in their pre-med program to become a doctor, or so she thought. There she met her future husband who happened to be playing football for U of A at the time.


During her time at the University of Arizona, she fell in love with a wonderful young man who had aspirations of becoming a football star. Bob was his name and he desperately wanted to take care of Dawn and have a family with her and so he found a job in Northern Arizona and moved Dawn up there with him. She finished her schooling at Northern Arizona University. She had a minor in biology and a major in Chemistry, but her goals shifted slightly, and she finished her education requirements and became a teacher. They were wed in 1950 in Gilbert at a Methodist Church and were very happy together. They settled in Prescott, Arizona where her husband was born and have lived there ever since. He found a job working for Arizona Public Services, and they raised four children together.


She remembers the early times of her marriage very vividly. On her honeymoon she tells us a story of how she and her husband had to clean up an apartment so they could stay in it until they found a more permanent place to live. The apartment was in Flagstaff and when they started to drive up there, they had to drive through a forest fire which they thought for sure would burn down all of Flagstaff. They lived over a music store that was right next to a set of railroad tracks, but this didn't bother them because they were in love and that's all that mattered. Later she and her husband moved out of their apartment and into a camp trailer that her dad bought for them. The first thing that came to her mind when she talked about this was living in the trailer in the middle of the winter, while her husband was out of town. She said she would have to go outside and shovel snow to get to the wash room to take a shower and wash her clothes because the trailer didn't have any indoor plumbing. Later in their marriage they moved to Prescott where she found a job as a 5th grade teacher.


During the 60's and 70's she remembers her mother having her hair bobbed and being a flapper girl. Dawn was also very glad that Arizona was one of the first states to allow women to vote. She was raised to be able to look out for herself and to do things that most girls thought was impossible for them to do. One of her stories that she remembers was when she and some of her friends ended up with a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. She said that everyone looked at her and asked her what they should do. She answered them, "We're going to change the tire!" So she took charge and told them all what needed to be done and they got their tire changed and got back on the road. "I'm so glad that other women are finally getting a chance to do what I've done all my life," she said.


Dawn was a wonderful person with an inspirational story. Her family is very close to each other, and they have a bond that no one can break. They are truly influential people with loving hearts; they are willing to share their stories with anyone who will listen. Her honest heart and amazing personality will be in my thoughts for years to come.


Photos courtesy of the family.

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