A quiet pillar of Holladay for 60 years, Gwen Giles heralds a healthy diet and grows beautiful produceJan 11, 2021 11:09AM ● By Sona Schmidt Harris
Giles working in her garden. (Photo courtesy of Gwen Giles)
By Sona Schmidt-Harris | [email protected]
With an unassuming presence, Gwen Giles quietly changes the world. She does this simply by providing good food and nutritional education.
Born in a rural farming community in southeastern Idaho, Giles learned to work alongside her parents.
“I enjoyed being with my dad, and as I grew, I would help haul hay by driving the tractor or tromping the load down on the wagon,” Giles said. “One trip as I was riding on the loose hay—it was not bailed at that time—as we turned a corner, the wagon load slipped, and the whole load of loose hay slid off with me,” she said. Giles ended up on the bottom of the load of hay.
After her father pulled her out of the hay and gave her a “good-natured scolding” for not tromping down the hay properly, she blamed the problem on a mouse that she dropped into the hay when it bit her finger.
She also had other duties on the farm one of which was gathering windfall apples so her mother could make them into applesauce, which was served warm for breakfast.
“I was also assigned the job of gathering the eggs from the chicken coop each day. This was a job that I did not enjoy because I hated the feel of feathers,” Giles said. “I could take mice away from my cats before they killed them or pick up the water snakes that often came in with the irrigation water, but I did not like feathers.”
An active child, she played physical games with other children including Red-Rover, Red-Rover, Kick the Can, Run Sheep Run, Drop the Hankie and others.
After becoming sick with chicken pox and measles, Giles became infected with rheumatic fever and spent nearly a year on bedrest. “For an active child who had a hard time sitting still, it was hard to adjust to being so restricted in my activity,” she said.
“As my heart healed and grew stronger, I enjoyed riding my bicycle to music lessons for the piano and playing baseball. However, I needed someone to run the bases for me as running was too strenuous for me yet.”
Giles’ father kept a garden for the family and didn’t always like her and her sister walking in it, as they were not always careful to avoid walking on his plants. To remedy the problem, he made a small garden for Giles and her sister “in which we planted garden peas, lettuce and sometimes radishes that we could eat with our ‘play dinners.’”
Perhaps it was the experience with her garden and play dinners that led Giles into the nutrition field. She graduated from Utah State University with a major in Food and Nutrition and a minor in Child Development. After graduation, she completed a one-year internship in Dietetics at the University of Oregon, Hospitals and Clinics at Portland. Later, she enrolled in the Master’s Division at the University of Utah and graduated in 1993.
After finishing her internship at the University of Oregon, she began working at Salt Lake County General Hospital as a cafeteria dietitian, then at the 12th Avenue VA Hospital as a therapeutic dietitian, and later as an administrative dietitian at the Fort Douglas VA Hospital.
Though she was a busy woman educating herself, she wanted marriage and children. She married Allen Giles, now deceased, with whom she had four children.
Throughout most of her early career, the Giles lived in an apartment in the Capitol Hill area. Then in 1960, they purchased their home in Holladay and moved to a residence with a good-sized plot of land.
About the time she had her firstborn son, she became a stay-at-home wife and mother. When her youngest child was 10 years old, she accepted a position at Salt Lake Community College teaching nutrition.
She taught at the college for 15 years and received a “Teaching in Excellence Certificate” in June 1995.
“I taught student nurses, cooks, advance placement learning high school students and general education students who needed a science class to fill a requirement,” she said.
In addition to her career in dietary education, Giles also grew fresh produce and both provided and sold it in her community.
“My husband loved to grow a large garden at our home in Holladay. He loved raspberries, and we started a patch with berry starts that we brought from my parents’ home in Idaho. As our patch grew in size, I had more berries than I needed for us and gave some to our neighbors. Soon, they were asking me if I would sell them some for their canning needs. I don’t know when exactly this happened, but we continued to sell berries until my husband’s health began to fail, and he could no longer care for his garden.”
The Giles also sold green beans, raised chickens and sold extra eggs to the neighbors. Some years, they also sold cucumbers and raised turkeys.
As a nutritionist, Giles put her money where her mouth was, so to speak, regarding eating a healthy diet. “If it grew, we canned, froze or dried it for winter use,” she said. This included pears, peaches, cherries, apples made into applesauce or apple butter, apricots and Concord grapes among others.
“English walnuts from our trees were dried, frozen and used in cooked desserts. If there was a good catch of trout or freshwater fish, they were bottled. If hunting season brought us a deer, we bottled venison. One year, a neighbor shared mushrooms from a farmer with us and I bottled them.”
Favorites of the Giles’ children included dill and sweet pickles and pickled dilly beans. Another collective favorite was frozen, whole-kernel corn.
Their big backyard still comes in handy, and Giles’ grandchildren and great- grandchildren enjoy picking fruit.
Reflecting on her life, Giles said, “Teaching students was probably the most rewarding thing I have done other than raising my family. I loved challenging the students to understand why their diet was important.”
“When I saw the students finally grasp the concept that I was explaining, and I watched their faces suddenly light up with understanding, then I felt like I was a successful teacher.”
Giles appears also to have been a successful mother as well and enjoyed creating for her children and grandchildren. She made clothes, stuffed animals, baby booties, mittens and Barbie Doll dresses for them among other things.
Motherhood was a chance to offer opportunities for learning. “I enjoyed taking our children to visit the tourist attractions and talking about our heritage and family stories of ancestors. Taking them to stage plays and museums gave them a chance to see other ways of learning. I loved being with my children, and I often planned activities for birthday parties when we made cookies or small individual loaves of bread for the visiting children to take home,” she said.
“I loved being a mother and although there were times when I felt like I had failed my child, that was when I learned the most about them and me.”
Giles continues to learn and will continue to educate in her own quiet way.