By Marion Filler
A member of the Greatest Generation met the generation of the future when Elinor Otto, 98, addressed Ginny Hussey’s 3rd grade class at the Borough School in Morris Plains last week.
Otto is one of very few surviving “Rosies,” women who helped build airplanes during WWII and were immortalized in the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster prominently displayed for the event.
She is a member of Spirit of ‘45, an organization dedicated to keeping the memory of WWII alive.
Otto also is the national spokesperson for Rosie the Riveter Rose Gardens planted throughout the country to honor those women.
The 3rd graders planted the first such garden in New Jersey, adjacent to the Morris Plains train station. The youngsters were guided by Nancy Critchley and Linda Toscano of the town Beautification Committee.
“It’s important for the children to know why they have what they have today, why they live the way they do today,” said Toscano.
Wearing red bandanas around their heads and waving miniature flags, the students greeted Otto enthusiastically as she entered the auditorium.
Everyone was delighted to see a beautiful, trim, and stylish woman who seemed to defy her age.
Handsomely coiffed and wearing a black pantsuit, she flashed a million-dollar smile that captivated the audience before she uttered a single word.
After a brief address by Mayor Frank Druetzler and acknowledgements to everyone involved, Ginny Hussey, who proposed and organized the event, introduced Otto.
Otto began by explaining that in 1942, because men were away at war, “They advertised for women to step in and help in factories all over the country. They didn’t have time to train us, but we learned fast because we wanted to learn and improve ourselves.
“We paved the way for women to get the top jobs they have today, but it took years and years for this to come about. Being appreciated now is really great.”
Then, to loud applause, she added: “Now they run everything.”
Laughing as she lamented the presence of “iPhones, cell phones, smart phones, all those phones,” Otto described how her generation managed perfectly well without them, and without television and computers.
What did they do all day?
“We socialized, because in those days people were more important than machines. Now it seems machines and robots are becoming more important than we are,” said the Long Beach, Calif., resident.
She was happy to take questions from the well prepared pupils.
“Why did you go back to being a Rosie when the war was over?” one child asked.
“I didn’t stop working until I was 95,” Otto answered.
According to Councilwoman Sue McCluskey, it was not a voluntary retirement: Elinor Otto worked until they closed the Boeing plant where she was employed.
“I typed and had office jobs, but when I had a chance to go back and work building airplanes, I did. I jumped at the chance. I love working with airplanes and I love working with people. I did it for 68 years,” Otto said.
‘SMALL, TIGHT SPACES’
Another child asked what was the most difficult part of Otto’s wartime job.
“Getting into small, tight, spaces,” Otto replied.
“We did a lot of drilling, got the holes cleaned up and everything, then put a cap on the holes and shot it in. I recently visited a Boeing plant, and standing in front of a highly technical machine, all I had to do was press a button here and there and it all got done.”
And how does she stay fit?
“I love what I do. I drive everywhere. I’ve been active all my life. When I was a kid I took care of the house, cooked, washed, and cleaned. As I got older I kept doing it anyway. I’m so lucky at this age that I can still do everything,” she said.
What advice did Otto have for children starting out in life, one little girl wanted to know?
“Don’t give up on anything and study as hard as you can. Be good to each other,” she advised.
The audience was shown a short film clip of her appearance on Ellen DeGeneres; it had the best one-liner of all. Otto was 95 at the time, and when asked what she would do when she retired, the answer was: “Take care of old people.”
She did retire shortly after the show, but soon became involved with Spirit of ‘45, crisscrossing the country in appearances that would exhaust a person half her age.
For example, her day in New Jersey began with the 9 a.m. visit to Morris Plains, followed by a scheduled meeting with Evelyn Carroll, a local Rosie who was unable to attend the program.
Next on the itinerary was a stop at the New Jersey Aviation Hall Fame in Teterboro, to learn about the many Rosies who worked at the Curtiss-Wright complex in Wood Ridge.
From there, she planned to attend a Rosie the Riveter Memorial sponsored by Girl Scouts, and on the following day, yet another Rosie garden event at Battery Park in New York.
The program at Borough School ended with songs, gifts, and overwhelming admiration for this very special Rosie.
She reminded students about what women achieved in the workplace during WWII, and how that first step led to the many opportunities available to women today, proving beyond a doubt the words of the famous wartime poster:
“We can do it!”