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Grace Stinton

“I don’t know of anyone who went to a nursing home when I was a kid.  They were all taken care of by relatives.”

When my friend told me she knew a woman who had been a “Rosie The Riveter”, I was very excited.  I have interviewed many men who served in World War Two, and women whose husbands had, but not yet a woman who had been involved in the war effort herself.

Grace had me to her home, and the first thing I noticed was the color on the walls.  Turns out Grace is a very talented quilter, and is pictured in front of a massive tapestry she designed and sewed depicting a scene from the Wizard of Oz.

Grace Mary Stinton was born September 16, 1922 in Tiverton, Rhode Island.  She lived on the east cost for her younger years, moving to Kentucky and then Michigan later in life.  After the depression she was lucky to get a scholarship to go to Providence College for her undergraduate, and another for her Masters degree at Clark University in Massachusetts.  Her family was poor – her dad entered a Veteran’s Hospital as she graduated high school (he served in World War One) – and even with the scholarships, she had very little.  She asked that her Masters scholarship be deferred a year so she could teach Social Studies in Connecticut and save some money, though it wasn’t until after her 9th child was born that she was finally able to finish the degree.

“I don’t think that [job] would even be allowed, now, with the safety and security laws… It was fun for one summer but it’d be terrible if you had to [be a riveter] for a long time.”

As mentioned above, Grace spent time working as a “Rosie the Riveter” during the second Great War.  This took place one summer working to support herself during college.  She spoke in great detail about it:

It was during this time that a friend put together a blind double date for her.  The man was Mike Stinton, whom she married.  Though Mike was from Michigan, they didn’t move there right away.  Shortly after their engagement, he shipped out (it was 1944) to help finish World War Two.  When he returned, they married and made the move.

Grace’s girlhood was marked by a good deal of time spent on  her grandparent’s farm.  It is something that we discuss often in this project – the distance between families in modern life.  In this short clip, she describes her childhood:

The famed building featured in “The Little Brown Schoolhouse” book was right in Grace’s hometown.  In fact, she frequented the schoolhouse to get books to read.  She admitted she would check out an armful of Oz books on Saturday, read them all, then return them and rent even more before they closed to read throughout the week.

“Families were a lot closer, and generations stayed together.”

I always ask how things have changed during an interview.  I really liked Grace’s response.  She focused on family, but not in a Conservative America kind of way.  Rather, she highlighted our ability (or lack thereof) to share with and care for family members.

As I transcribed her interview, I wondered if I should have simply uploaded Grace’s entire interview.  When I broached the topic of technology, she concisely described the things she’s seen, her childhood versus the way things are today, that I couldn’t help but publish the rest of interview.  I usually edit myself out, but in this case, you’ll hear me ask each question.

“I can still remember the first time I saw television… the first thing I saw was a very big fat lady singing, and all I could think of was, ‘this would have been so much nicer on radio where I could have been imagining the whole thing.'”

Rhea Currie

Rhea Currie

“In 99 years, there’s not much I can say hasn’t changed.”

Rhea was referred to me by a friend, and I was impressed the moment I met her.  A small woman (probably only 4’11”) with a huge heart, she welcomed me with homemade cookies, declaring that she always sends people away with a box full.  As you can see in her portrait, she is a lover of books, a topic we were able to meet on right away.  With a cold glass of water, we sat down in a pair of beautiful arm chairs in her vaulted living room, and began the interview.

Rhea Wark Currie was born July 29, 1916 in Peck, Michigan, near Lake Huron.  The only states she has ever lived in are Michigan and Florida, which she visited with her husband during winter.  They always lived on a golf course in Florida, because her husband loved to play golf.

“It was a quieter time.  People stayed put more than they do, now.”

Rhea was born early enough to vaguely remember World War One, something remarkable for any living person today.  Her father wasn’t drafted because he was a government employee at the State Department in Washington DC (he later was diagnosed with a lung condition and was told to live in the country, so moved to Michigan as a Postal Worker).  His only sibling was a sister, who, of course, was not drafted.  Rhea’s mother had several siblings, but they were mostly farmers.  Her main contact with the war, then, was through conversation and news clippings her dad took that talked of their friends who went to war.

She told me that the Great Depression wasn’t talked about in her family.  Really, the Depression didn’t come until she was entering college.  What she told me she later found out about that time made me tear up:


She loved to roller skate with her friends and cousins near home.  When she was twelve, a new highway had just been lain, which she had been explicitly told not to go on.  But one evening she and three of her girlfriends chose to skate down it, and realized their folly as the sun went down and they were quite far from home.  They decided to turn around and go home, but they were scared they wouldn’t make it before dark.  A car soon appeared and they got excited since they were tired and scared.  It turned out to be Rhea’s father.  Her friends scrambled into the car, but she was not permitted.  He remarked, “I’m sorry.  You were not to come out here, tonight.  You skated out, and you will have to skate home.  But I will not leave you.”  He drove next to her the entire way.

Rhea met her husband while at school at Alma College. They moved to Midland, MI so he could work at Dow Chemical and use his degree in chemistry. She got her degree in teaching, and taught until their first son came along, at which point she began volunteering at the Red Cross answering phones (during World War Two). She says Midland still feels like a neighborhood, though the town has grown into a vibrant small city.  I could tell she loves it there, and she is deeply involved in the community as a volunteer to this day.

“I’m just not getting [the electronic world].”

Rhea does have an iPad and uses it quite a bit for email, but she still feels like an outsider to the technological era we’ve entered.  She remarked that every other change came about gradually, so people could keep up.  She feels electronics have taken off like a rocket, which has made it hard for her (and others) to learn them.  Rhea finds it funny that when she does her banking she never sees the cash.

“Every evening at five o’clock, [we] sat down wherever we were, and [my husband] would have his martini, and we would play gin rummy.”

It seems like “we lose the personal” due to the electronics that we’ve created.  Rhea continues to attend a card group every week, and was annoyed to that effect as one of the ladies would bring her tablet and continually interrupt the game to show pictures.  Rhea finally told the acquaintance to please keep it put away during the game because that’s what they were all there for.

Rhea also remarked that technology is changing how families are brought up.  She observes them on family night at the country club, and can see that there is no interaction between family members, even during dinner.  Everyone is absorbed with the screen in their hand.  She honestly wondered to me if they ever speak to each other.

Her son, teaching a class at New York University on Communication, reports that it is so strange that the class is necessary.  But the students are stunned by the lessons in class.  They just haven’t been socialized in the common-sense ways those aged post-25 seem to take for granted.

She elaborated on all this when asked what we’ve lost to technology.


Rhea does admire how we can stay in contact with people in other places, things happening in other countries, and the ability to be empathetic to the goings on elsewhere.  She doesn’t remember doing so, even after World War Two, when there was a good deal of suffering after so many towns and cities had been decimated.  Today, we know when another country is in hardship, and can react in a meaningful way.

“There have been more changes, through the years, except I never think of myself as 99 years old.  I still drive, I still am very active.  There was a gal at the hospital… that kept asking, ‘Why won’t you join our service?’ and I responded, ‘I am too old.’  She said, ‘What do you mean you’re too old?’ I could not go into the room of a 60-year-old woman dying of cancer, and try to cheer her up… nor do I want to go into the room of a very ill 30-year-old who sees me as this healthy old lady with white hair.  Am I wrong?”

Virginia Dare Sears

“When I went to high school, that old car wouldn’t start [in the winter].  And every day I was late to high school… I hated driving up to the front of the high school, ’cause all the kids could look out and see you coming in late.”

Sitting in front of a woman who is over 100 years old brings an amazing feeling.  Virginia has seen so much, and has amassed so much wisdom, one can’t help but be in awe.  It’s hard to imagine meeting anyone who was born before World War One, but there she was in front of me.

Virginia Dare Sears was born January 27, 1915 in a farmhouse in LaGrange, Indiana.  The doctor came to the house to bring her into the world.  She smiled as she recalled what her mother told her about her older sister, who was two at the time of her birth.  Her sister was so nervous about Virginia’s being born, her mother instructed that until she heard the baby cry, Virginia wasn’t born yet.

Having been born before the Great War, Virginia has lived through many events we’ve only heard about in history books, so I wanted to know what she remembered.  She didn’t have much to say about the War since she was still very young, but she did remember the Great Depression.  I found it interesting as she described her family’s start as tenant farmers, which reminded me of The Grapes of Wrath.  They were lucky enough to have a good crop one year, and bought their own farm before the crash, though they almost lost it.  Here is what it was like:

I was struck by Virginia’s description of what it was like to live with an early car.  I knew they were difficult to start at times, but it was interesting to hear the differences between winter and summer, and how its stubborn starter would regularly make her late for school.

Virginia told me her father was Japanese.  He came to America when he was 15 — his parents had died, and his older brother didn’t want to take care of him, anymore.  He met his wife after a time in Colorado, whose mother asked them to farm their land in Indiana.  Because they’re last name was Nishimura, Virginia had a hard time finding a job in the early 40’s as the second War was starting.  The family eventually changed their name to Westdale, but this story takes place before that change.  Here she describes the discrimination, but also a beautiful gesture her university advisors made for her career.  It made me well up to hear.

The last thing we discussed are the gays.  She told me of a little girl that she came up with whom they called ‘odd’.  I supposed that the little girl was gay, but Virginia wasn’t explicit in her description.  She simply said that the kids avoided the girl.  She followed up by talking about today’s society, that gays can marry and adopt, and how different that is.  I really appreciated a perspective that has 100 years behind it.  I don’t know if age alone gives a person the best understanding, but I think it makes a difference.  In her words:

Podcast

Episode 16 – Ann Atkin

Kansas City, MO
83 Years Old

Meet Ann, a big band singer from Kansas City, MO, who grew up during the Great Depression.  She is a gifted story teller, and describes the things that she saw while a child.  The dust bowl, poverty, and her dad having to work extraordinary hours to make ends meet.

Episode 13 – Ray Green

Detroit, MI

86 years old

Ray Green lives in the suburbs of Detroit, and is a serial entrepreneur (like me!).  He used a lot of technology in his offices, but still fears it.  Hear Ray discuss growing up in the Bronx during the Great Depression and his fear of Facebook.

Episode 6 – Hal Royer

Longmont, CO
Aged 86

Hal Royer can trace his family back almost ten generations.  He talks vividly about the Great Depression, and what it was like to come up during the Dust Bowl.