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Sen. Hillary Clinton, right, with mother Dorothy Rodham and daughter Chelsea, has said, "Learning about my mother's childhood sparked my strong conviction that every child deserves a chance to live up to her God-given potential."

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 Southern California's 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 presidential candidate. But the struggles that marked Howell's early life constitute a little-known tale, more than 7 decades old.

And if it is true, as Clinton has claimed, that 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 Hispanic suburb of more than 87,000 people east of Los Angeles, Alhambra, along with nearby San Gabriel, provided a home — although 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."

Dorothy Howell was born in 1919 to Edwin Howell Jr., a firefighter in his early 20s, and his bride Della. The 1920 U.S. Census records the couple and their infant living as boarders in a house with four other families on a tough stretch of Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

The couple fought. In 1926, her father filed for divorce, claiming that his wife had hit him in the face and scratched him on three 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 awarded 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 before.

The Howells occupied a small rented home in Alhambra, next to land that is now Almansor Park. Friends say that when Hillary Clinton's mother speaks of her years in Alhambra, she is fond of recalling the smell of orange groves and the streetcar that ran down Main Street near her alma mater, Alhambra High School.

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. Most of the time, he ignored the girls and left their care to his wife.

Emma Howell was a severe woman who wore black Victorian dresses and discouraged visitors and parties. Once, discovering that Dorothy had gone trick-or-treating on Halloween, she confined her 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 of her mother. Dorothy Howell gives few interviews and did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.

In 1932, the Howells bought a home in what is now Temple City, near Alhambra. 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."

In 1934, Dorothy's father, Edwin Jr., relocated to California and joined the family in San Gabriel. But Dorothy, 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 per week.

The local family hasn't been identified publicly, 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 Coolidge Drive address was occupied by James F. Kinlock and Mary P. Kinlock. Mr. Kinlock 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, the couple who employed Dorothy Howell were kind, and the woman of the house encouraged her to read. Records show James and Mary Kinlock have passed away; efforts by the Los Angeles Times to reach relatives were unsuccessful.

"Without this experience of living with a strong family, Dorothy told Hillary, she would not have known how to manage her household or take care of her children," Clinton biographer Carl Bernstein later wrote.

Walking to Alhambra High School, Dorothy would pass Hemphill's Bootery, McKay's Drug Store — where one could buy 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 Southern California's iconic doughnut maker.

Classmates recall that Dorothy Howell liked Alhambra High School, but it was no paradise. Teacher salaries had been cut 20 percent 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 with nearly 3,300 students, it was the seventh-largest high school in the state. And rules for girls could be strict.

The student body was huge and 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 1997 centennial of the high school, 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. Hillary 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.

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, Hillary Clinton's father. Many years later, Dorothy Howell Rodham would take college courses for credit.

After leaving Southern California at 18, Dorothy never returned to live, but in 1997, 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.

Clinton has written that she thought of her mother's childhood when she attempted to understand the difficult childhood of her husband, Bill Clinton.

"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."