Friday, July 15, 2022

Windham’s ‘Rosie the Riveter’ shares lighthearted version of life in 1940s

Barbara Tolman of Windham shows her
official 'American Rosie the Riveter
Association' certificate which acknowledges
her membership in the organization.
By Lorraine Glowczak 

Barbara Tolman of Windham was just 17 years old when she stepped into the workforce in 1942, unknowingly becoming one of many women celebrated as an iconic ‘Rosie the Riveter.’

She, and many other females at that time, filled jobs in factories and shipyards to replace the gaping hole left by male workers who joined the military and were on active duty during World War II. But Tolman did not seek out this role; she was recruited.

“When I was a senior at Watertown [Massachusetts] High School, Mr. Van Keuren [of Van Keuren Manufacturing] sent a letter to the high school asking if there were any senior girls who were taking physics class,” Tolman said. “There were two of us. He offered us both a position at the company and I started at the end of April during my senior year.”

Tolman, whose job at Van Keuren was to inspect copper wires, using a Light-Wave Micrometer, to make sure they met the precise shape and length, said she had more than enough credits to graduate high school. So, she left during her last few months of classwork and began working immediately, returning upon graduation day with the rest of her class of approximately 300 to accept her diploma.

She loved her manufacturing job for many reasons, but the income was essential to her satisfaction.

“I made the magnificent sum of 50 cents per hour,” she said. “Back then, that was a lot of money. I worked eight hours daily, Monday through Friday, and four hours on Saturday. With the overtime, I was bringing home $23 per week. That was much better than the girls who worked in office settings making only $15 to $18 per week.” 

Born Barbara Clarke on May 10, 1924, in Cambridge, Mass., Tolman grew up in nearby Watertown as an only child in a supportive and loving family. As a result, she admits the shock she experienced as a 17-year-old by the tomfoolery that transpired among the much older factory workers.

“There was always mischief happening between the older workers, and I didn’t always understand what they were saying or doing until I was older and ‘wiser,’” Tolman said with a laugh. “They would do silly things. I remember one time, a group of workers cut rubber bands and put the rubber bits inside someone’s cigarette. They would laugh and be amused for days at these shenanigans.”

Tolman also shared another memory of a coworker who carried a unique talent.

“One coworker always amazed me at how he could capture a fly without destroying it and tie a very, super tiny string on its leg,” she said. “We would all laugh as this fly flew around the room with a string hanging from one of its legs.”

This 98-year-old ‘Rosie’ has a sharp memory and acknowledges this fact.

However, there is one detail that escapes her.

“I can remember so many things about my time during those years, but the one thing that I can’t recall is how I got to work,” Tolman said. “I lived two miles from the manufacturing plant, and I didn’t have a car or access to public transportation. So, I either walked both ways or made arrangements with others to drive me to work. To this day, I have no clue how I got to my job.”

Despite working more than 40 hours per week, Tolman found time to enjoy life.

“Often, I would take a trolly from Watertown to Harvard Square and then get on a subway to go into Boston,” she said. “I loved going to the USO dances to meet other people – especially men. Those English men sure knew how to waltz.”

Although the nation began rationing certain high-demand items such as tires, flour, sugar, meat, and cheese, Tolman only remembers one rationed item that affected her.

“There was only one shortage I experienced – and that was the availability of men, - or the lack thereof,” she said

And speaking of men, she recalled a trendy song during that era that was well-liked and sung by Rosemary Clooney (aunt of actor George Clooney).

“I remember my favorite lines of a popular song back then,” she said, repeating the lines verbatim. “’They’re either too young or too old. The pickings are poor, and the crop is lean. What’s good is in the army; what’s left will never harm me.”

While working at Van Keuren, she admits to learning many essential things besides how to tie a tiny string to a fly’s leg. She recalls one important lesson.

“I was astonished to discover the precision that is needed for tools in order to make things work accurately,” she said. “I just thought a wire was a wire, and a screw was a screw. I had no clue that these things really needed to be accurate in order for the tool to work properly.”

After three years of working at the manufacturing company, the war was over. The men returning from war needed their jobs back to support their families. As a result, Van Keuren ‘let her go’. She was making 85 cents per hour when her job ended.

“I found a new job in Boston as a cashier and bookkeeper for Liberty Mutual Insurance – making a lot less money,” she said.

But this ‘demotion’ wasn’t an issue for her. Tolman accepted what life gave her and did those things she enjoyed most when she wasn’t working. This includes her love of dance.

“One weekend, I attended an English Country Dance Camp in Plymouth, Mass.,” she said. “I somehow convinced two friends to go with me, and we ended up having a good time. This is where I met my future husband.” 

That was June of 1946. Tolman married Charles Bill Tolman 14 months later in September 1947. Together they had a son, Gerald, and a daughter Laurel (many know her as the former Windham Public Library Children’s Librarian, a carillon bell playing expert, and historian at Windham Hill United Church of Christ).

While Bill, as he was known, worked for the company Texaco in several roles after receiving a bachelor's degree from Boston University and a Master’s from Northeastern, Tolman did what she loved best.

“My aim in life was to be a professional volunteer,” she said. “I have volunteered with many organizations such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and as a board member and President of the YWCA in Nashua, New Hampshire, a member of the Longfellow Garden Club, and am also a member of the Friends of the Windham Public Library – just to name a few.”

Her husband Bill passed away in 2017. Tolman enjoys her life in Windham as she looks on to the lives of her three amazing granddaughters and one amazing, great-grandson.

If there is any advice she cared to share, there was one thing she said with reflection.

“There are two things I need to share,” she said. “In my marriage, we were a team. We worked together to be a success. We saved money; we worked hard and found time to have fun. Secondly, it's not about how much you have; it is what you do with what you have at the moment that really matters.” <

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