Ask 104-year-old local resident Elaine Ooley her thoughts on life and she’ll tell you, “Just like the wind, it goes by fast.”
Though it may go by fast, Elaine’s life has been full – and full of memories, including special recognition as a hero.
Elaine was born Jan. 27, 1914, on a snowy day in Two Harbors, Minnesota. Her father’s job as a railroad worker caused the family to move frequently but they eventually settled in Mattoon, Illinois.
In the first years of her life, the United States was rocked by the start of World War I and the Flu Pandemic of 1918. Her parents and sister grew ill from the flu; her best friend died. Even the family doctor died. But 4-year-old Elaine managed to remain healthy and learned how to prepare meals for her sick family.
“That flu … It was the talk of the town,” Elaine said. It was one of her earliest memories, but she has so many more.
“I remember the flapper stage. Women started cutting their hair and wearing short dresses. Of course, I wanted to be one too,” Elaine said. “I was only about 12, but I still wanted to learn to dance and do all that good stuff. Well, my mother didn’t go for that one.”
She graduated high school in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. With no money for college, Elaine found employment sewing tongues onto the vamps of shoes for 10 cents a vamp.
“Sometimes I could make a dollar, a couple bucks … I got pretty fast at it,” Elaine said.
Eventually, Elaine was able to attend one year of college before returning home to take care of her ailing parents. Then, came Dec. 7, 1941.
Elaine’s boyfriend at the time, an officer in the military who later would become her husband, survived the Pearl Harbor attack. Elaine said everyone stepped up to do something.
In November 1942, she followed her sister into the Women’s Army Corps. She joined as a stenographer, then went on to serve as a personnel administrator specialist and aircraft dispatcher at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She served until the end of the war.
Elaine, a widow who never had children, is a self-described “people person” who devoted her life to volunteering and making relationships in the community.
“I like to be around people and I like being active. I’ve never really stopped,” she said. “I’ve belonged to the American Legion for around 40 years and I’ve been very active at the St. Louis Veterans Home. I’d say that probably the most important thing I’ve done is volunteer.”
She never considered herself a hero – that is, until January, when she was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime gift.
“It is with great pride and admiration that we present this quilt to you … every stitch, every seam, each piece cut and sewn together – all made with love and gratitude for what you have done,” a letter to Elaine from Piecemakers Heritage Quilters read.
Linda Kuennen, of Piecemakers Heritage Quilters, a branch of the national Quilts of Valor Foundation, caught wind of Elaine’s story through a mutual friend. “I thought, ‘Wow, she has got to be the oldest living WAC. We have to do something special for her and her service. What an honor it is to still have her around.’”
Kuennen shared Elaine’s story with her fellow quilters, who decided Elaine would be the recipient of their next Quilt of Valor.
“[Linda] called me and said, ‘We are going to present you with a quilt. A quilt for heroes.’ I was just overwhelmed and humbled,” Elaine said. “I knew about the Quilts of Valor but I’ve never been approached. It’s quite an organization and the quilt is gorgeous. It’s a museum-type quilt.”
Quilts of Valor are presented as a symbol of comfort and peace to select veterans across the country who have been touched by the effects of war. They include personalized details down to each stitch, with a beautiful patch detailing the recipient’s information and history.
Receiving the quilt has helped Elaine reconnect with people from the past.
“I had three men come to the door and they said, ‘Elaine, do you remember us?’ They were longtime friends of mine as a young kid.”