Ask 104-year-old Weldon Spring 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 has managed to make the most of her 104 years here on Earth, most recently receiving special recognition as a hero.
Elaine was born Jan. 27, 1914 on a snowy day in Two Harbors, Minnesota amid a harsh winter. Her mother was taken to the hospital via horse and sleigh.
Elaine’s father’s job as a railroad worker caused the family to move frequently, until they eventually settled in Mattoon, Illinois.
In the first years of Elaine’s life, the United States was rocked by the start of World War I and then the Flu Pandemic of 1918. Her parents and sister all grew ill from the flu; her best friend died. Even the family doctor died. As just a 4-year-old girl, 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. That was one of her earliest memories.
As a centenarian, Elaine has been around for 100-plus years of different trends, eras and turning points throughout history.
“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 jobs scarce and no money to attend college, Elaine managed to find employment at a local shoe factory, 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. I always brought [the money] home and the folks used it; I didn’t keep it.”
Elaine, who happened to be an exceptional typist, earned extra money typing papers for university professors for a penny a page.
“25 pages, you know, 25 cents. That was a lot of money, plus what we were earning otherwise,” she said.
Through hardships at a young age, Elaine’s parents taught her to be thankful for what they had. She remembers her father taking her to a local shelter during the Great Depression so she could see the lines of people waiting for food.
“My father hunted, fished, had a garden and a house,” Elaine said. “A lot of people didn’t have [what we had].”
Eventually, Elaine was able to attend one year of college before returning home to take care of her ailing parents.
Then, the day came that would change her life, and many others’, forever – Dec. 7, 1941.
“The morning Pearl Harbor hit, it didn’t mean a lot to me, but mother just cried and cried and cried. [My parents] were devastated. I didn’t really know what war was,” Elaine recalled.
Elaine’s boyfriend at the time, an officer in the military who would later become her husband, survived the Pearl Harbor attack. All eligible men, including Elaine’s sister’s husband, were drafted, and women stepped up to the plate as well.
“At that time, everybody worked; everybody did something,” Elaine said.
Elaine’s sister joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps [WAAC], which later became the Women’s Army Corps [WAC], and, in November of 1942, Elaine followed suit.
“One day, I went to my boss and said, ‘I’m going to join the service.’ And he said, ‘That’s wonderful.’ And so I joined the WACs. I served and, after that, my boyfriend came back from Pearl Harbor and I got married.”
Elaine joined the WAC 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, who never had children and whose husband has since passed away, is a self-described people person who has 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.
With her giving nature and outgoing spirit, it’s no wonder why Elaine has chosen to devote so much of her life to a cause to which she holds dear, one that reflects the most influential time of her life.
“I have still have friends that I’ve served with around the country. WWII meant a lot to me. I was raised very patriotically. 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.”
Through her longevity of life and service to the country, both military and volunteering with veterans’ causes, Elaine has made her mark on many. But the fact that Elaine could be considered a hero is something that never occurred to her – that is, until January of this year, 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 Quilt of Valor Foundation based in Florence, Arizona, 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 and was greeted by unanimous approval that 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 selected 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 of Valor is not only a huge honor, but it has helped Elaine reconnect with people from the past, receiving phone calls from old friends and visitors from near and far.
“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. The notoriety of the quilt let those people know what had happened to me. [People] keep showing up.”
For being 104 years old, Elaine is in remarkably great shape. She lives fully independent, is mobile and aware, witty and caring. She has lived a “wonderful” life, of which the Quilt of Valor has opened her latest chapter –bringing dear friends back into her life and making evident the impact her work has had on others.
So what is her secret to such a long, fulfilling life?
“Avoid anger and stress and worry. They are the things that keep you from enjoying life. Find something good in everybody, whether you really like them or not. Everybody has got a certain amount of good in them.”
Elaine is thought to be the oldest living Women’s Air Corps veteran in the United States.