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Esther Barnes Downs
 
Esther Parounagian studied to be a doctor, but chose marriage to Ralph Barnes instead. Ralph had served with her on the Student Council at high school, attended Willamette University as she did, but left Salem in 1922 to earn his Master’s Degree at Harvard. Esther, May Queen at Willamette, graduated with a biology degree in 1923 and then taught school. In 1924, they were married in the First Methodist Church.

Esther was the daughter of a Methodist minister, Marcus Parouganian, an Armenian immigrant who arrived in America in 1887. Her mother, Clemma Mathews, was a native of Vermont. Marcus and Clemma had two children; Mary born in 1898 and Ester in 1901. As a Methodist minister, Marcus and his family moved several times, but settled in Salem in 1914.

Growing up in Salem, Esther could not have imagined the historic events she would witness as Ralph’s wife. After their wedding, they moved to New York where Ralph was a journalist on the “Brooklyn Eagle”. Two years later, they sailed for Paris where Ralph had been promised a job on the “Paris Herald”. In his three years there, Ralph’s assignments were of international interest: he was a cub reporter covering Gertrude Ederle’s English Channel swim and was among the first reporters to interview Lindbergh in Paris after his 1927 flight. In 1929 Ralph was sent to Rome with the “New York Herald Tribune”. Their daughter Joan was born there in 1930. The next year found them in Paris again where Suzanne was born in 1931.

Ralph was transferred to Moscow and Esther brought the two little daughters home. They stayed in Oregon with their grandparents when Esther returned to Europe in 1932. The Barnes were a popular couple in the American group in Moscow, entertaining as best they could with limited food in a sparsely furnished apartment. But the larger difficulties were professional: Soviet censorship and their frequent separations from each other and their children. They returned to Salem in 1934, Ralph’s only trip home in fourteen years. Esther returned to Russia in the spring of 1935 and together they moved to Berlin that fall. Their Aunt Mary brought the children to their parents there in the summer of the 1936 Olympics. The family lived there during the fateful years of Nazi conquest, removing to England in 1939. Suzanne remembers her second grade year spent on the Sussex coast: blackouts, gas masks and air raid drills became routine. In May as the Germans invaded the Low Countries, she heard the guns across the English Channel.

Esther booked passage homeward. By the time Esther and the girls arrived safely in New York, Ralph had been expelled from Berlin because of his report of the impending breakdown of the German-Soviet relationship. He was only able to get a visa to Bucharest and he continued his work from Southern Europe and Egypt. Esther desperately tried to keep in communication with Ralph, knowing he was depressed and taking dangerous chances in order to report the news. In August of 1940, Esther and her daughters were back in Salem, then celebrating its Centennial. She was shocked to learn that no one seemed aware of the war in Europe. On November 18, Esther learned that that her husband had died in a English bomber crash over Yugoslavia.

A widow at 38, Esther had financial problems and a rather difficult life with her in-laws in the Barnes home. She began work at the State Library and managed to move into a small house of her own. In 1946, she married Chester A. Downs, a family doctor fifteen years her senior. She was active in Salem cultural activities: the Art Association, Bush House Auxiliary, Medical Auxiliary, study clubs and Salem Public Library Board. After his retirement, the couple enjoyed traveling, but only in the United States. Suzanne believes that European travel would have been too painful for her mother. Chester died in 1981: Esther four years later in 1985.

Suzanne remembers her mother as an out-going lady with a great sense of humor. Although intellectually and artistically creative, Esther loved reading popular English mysteries, enjoyed comedians Edgar Bergen and Victor Borge - and TV wrestling. “She loved sweets,” Suzanne recalls. “ I often take her candy in the cemetery because I know she would be bored with just flowers.”

Written by Virginia Green

Bibliography:
Information about Ester Barnes Downs provided by her daughter, Susanne Morrison.

 

 
Esther Downs
Esther Downs
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Chester and Esther Downs
Chester and Esther Downs
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