Service and Spunk:: Helen Holloway, Dedicated Volunteer and ‘Rosie the Riveter,’ Dead at 95

Posted

When I first met Helen Holloway almost 20 years ago, she was Lewis County’s most vocal advocate for senior services. By her mid-70s, she had already been volunteering with seniors for three decades, so I called her “the senior citizen with seniority.”

I soon learned more about her unique and compelling life story. As a teenage girl she had been a “Rosie the Riveter” back in Chicago, part of America’s hard-working home front during World War II. From test-firing rifles to building military gear, she energetically supported our troops from the shop floor.

Then she married and her new husband brought her to Lewis County, where her life story is like a picture book of what came before today’s familiar landscape, from the submerged timber town of Kosmos to strawberry fields underneath Great Wolf Lodge.

Helen still had all her good sense, candor and energy when I last saw her, on Christmas Eve 2018. She told me of her life story and my children listened, amazed, as the past came alive.

“She was a firecracker,” said her longtime friend, former Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund. “Full of energy, full of history, and never a dull moment.”

I was sad to hear last week that Helen’s 95 years had finally come to an end. It was an adventure and an education to know her, and I’m honored to share her story as she told it to me and other chroniclers over the years.

 

Eager to Work

Helen Dilbo grew up in a walkup third-floor apartment in Chicago with shared toilets and only cold water. She went to work early, altering a copy of her baptismal record when she was 13 to suggest that she was 14 — the minimum age to get a certificate allowing her to take a job.

She worked in printing plants and at one point zoomed around a warehouse on roller skates to file customer reports in banks of filing cabinets in a vast pre-computer credit bureau.

After graduation, she worked a variety of wartime jobs.

She test-fired rifles — the first time she had ever seen a firearm, let alone shot one.

She discovered that the afternoon swing shift paid five cents more per hour, so she applied but was told that because of her age, she would need a note from her mother to work a shift ending at midnight. She brought the note and got the job, bumping her up to 55 cents an hour. They were paid in cash in an envelope every week.

She took the streetcar home at the end of her shift but said she never felt worried about her safety.

“It’s strange. Chicago had lots of big-shot criminals, but nothing ever happened to anybody,” she said. “People weren’t bothering people. We were trying to win a war.”

All production in the city was dedicated to the war effort.

“They weren’t making anything but guns and ships and airplanes and tanks,” she said. “You couldn’t buy anything. We even had to have stamps for shoes. Nobody made anything like furniture or cars or anything. Everybody was working in war work and most of us were women.”

After six months or so testing rifles, her job ended abruptly at 8 o’clock one morning after their contract was fulfilled. She retrieved her lunch and started walking down the street looking for a new position.

She followed a “help wanted” sign to a little factory making electronics for helmets used to communicate in tanks. She used a soldering iron to put wires together. A couple hours later, nearing lunch hour, a voice over the loudspeaker told all the workers to gather in the street for a strike.

“They said, ‘Everybody when you hear the whistle go off, go downstairs out on the street. We’re going to strike.’ I almost fainted,” Holloway recalled. “Who is going to strike with a war on?”

She retrieved her lunch for a second time that day and ate it as she walked down the street looking for another job. She found a good one at Bendix Aviation, paying 10 cents more per hour.

All this time, her beau, Merle Foote, was serving in the Pacific. She left Chicago and headed to California in the summer of 1945 when his letters suggested he might be home soon.

She was hitchhiking home from work one day in Santa Barbara when word came that the war had ended. There were spontaneous celebrations on the street.

“Everybody was crying and screaming and hugging each other,” she said. “I mean, it was just chaos.”

Eventually she was reunited with Foote, who had suffered jungle pneumonia that affected his health for the rest of his life.

 

To Kosmos and Beyond

After the war she and Foote finally married. They moved to the Lewis County community of Kosmos, a now submerged timber community south of present-day Glenoma.

"He always said he'd take me to a place where it rained all day and you never got wet," she once told me with a laugh.

He drove a truck and she’d go along to keep him awake on long trips. They delivered groceries to the crew building the White Pass Highway and would haul just about anything, from furniture to liquor. Once they carried 50 pounds of cash for a bank in Morton.

They eventually bought a farm west of Morton (on the property that now is home to Raintree Nursery) and raised fryer chickens.

Each Tuesday they’d have a thousand 2-day-old baby chicks delivered from Winlock, and each Monday night they’d make room for them by processing the batch of chicks they’d received four weeks before.

It was an all-night project. Merle would butcher the birds. Helen and a neighbor would de-feather and get them ready for sale to stores all along Highway 12.

They eventually moved to Chehalis, where she worked at the now-demolished wooden Providence Hospital in Chehalis (site of today’s American Behavioral Health Systems). She was a “field boss” for strawberry pickers at fields from Newaukum Hill to the site in Grand Mound that now is home to Great Wolf Lodge.

Merle Foote, the father of her children, died after a long illness related to his World War II service. Helen, now a widow, went on to work at a plywood company, Boeing's Renton plant and at a photo finishing lab.

A Lifetime of Service

It was after marrying her second husband, Ralph Coolidge, that Helen started volunteering with senior programs while she was still in her 40s. She would walk to the homes of nearby seniors in Centralia, delivering meals. After her second husband died, she married Ernie Holloway, to whom she was married for 27 years. 

When the Twin Cities Senior Center was built just south of the fairgrounds, Helen raised money to expand it as it became clear the building was far too small. She was creative and enterprising in her fundraising — stitching dollar bills onto a sunbonnet and raising $250.

She was volunteer of the year at the senior center, served as treasurer for their nonprofit, was president of the service group Altrusa, helped allocate funds for United Way, served on the board of the Lewis-Mason-Thurston Area Agency on Aging, and much more.

Later in life, she became part of an active speaker’s group about her experiences as a Rosie, talking to students, adults and anyone with an interest.

“No matter what the question was from a child, she’d always been willing to answer them,” Fund recalls. “She wanted to give them the full history.”

From her earliest days until the end of her life, Helen Holloway stayed busy and, like the rest of the “Greatest Generation,” helped create and defend the world we know today.

“I hope and pray my health holds up,” she told me 19 years ago. “I try to do whatever I can.”

•••

Brian Mittge is a community columnist for The Chronicle. He can be reached at brianmittge@hotmail.com.

These Stories Live on

You can learn more about the life of Helen Holloway and many more stories of what it was like here at home during World War II in “Life on the Home Front,” a wonderfully readable 197-page oral history and photo book published in 2005 by Julie McDonald Zander.

The book is available for purchase at the Lewis County Historical Museum or to check out from the Timberland Regional Library (the Chehalis branch has a copy on the shelves).

Comments

1 comment on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Jhl97030

A Lovely writing and story. Well written and evoked many happy memories.

Tuesday, April 20