Big Rapids resident Joan Townend looks back on past 100 years of life

THUMBNAIL SKETCHES: Townend contributed numerous sketches to the Detroit Tigers 1966 Yearbook, depicting players from her favorite baseball team — the Tigers. (Pioneer photo/Justin McKee)

THUMBNAIL SKETCHES: Townend contributed numerous sketches to the Detroit Tigers 1966 Yearbook, depicting players from her favorite baseball team — the Tigers. (Pioneer photo/Justin McKee)

BIG RAPIDS – From London to Detroit, from Sri Lanka to Australia, Joan Townend has been around the world a time or two. When she turns 100 on Monday, Nov. 10, she will have one more milestone to add to her list.

“People ask me, how does it feel to be almost 100? I don’t know how it feels,” she laughed. “I guess I really haven’t given it much thought.”

Though she is a Big Rapids resident now, Townend first came to the U.S. from England, arriving in Detroit with her family in 1925. She’s lived through the Great Depression, World War II, designed the Detroit Tigers 1966 yearbook and witnessed the advances technology has made.

“Things have changed so much since I was a young girl,” Townend said. “Radio and T.V. Electricity. We used to have a gaslight in the kitchen. I remember my mother telling me, ‘Don’t forget to blow it out before you go to bed.’ Can you imagine people doing that today? Everything has changed. I just don’t like the way things are going now, it’s too much. Everyone can get into everybody else’s business. There’s no privacy at all.”

WORLD TRAVELER: Originally born in London, Joan Townend moved with her family to Detroit at the age of 10. Since then, she has lived all over the world, including Singapore, Sri Lanka and Barryton. (Pioneer photo/Justin McKee)

WORLD TRAVELER: Originally born in London, Joan Townend moved with her family to Detroit at the age of 10. Since then, she has lived all over the world, including Singapore, Sri Lanka and Barryton. (Pioneer photo/Justin McKee)

Townend first came to the U.S. when she was 10 years old at the bequest of her grandmother, who thought the family would be better off.

“After the first world war, a lot of people were out of jobs in England,” Townend recalled. “Things were bad in England. My dad was a tool and die maker and my uncle was a captain in the British army. While my dad always could get a job because he had a trade, my uncle couldn’t find one. Eight of us went to the U.S. together. We went to Detroit because that’s where the work was.”

The Townends then headed to California during the Dust Bowl period, staying and working there for two years. Townend recalls they lived for two weeks in a tourist camp where there were a lot of people out of work.

“What they used to do is go fishing every day. They would go out fishing and sell it to the people who had money,” she recalled. “You made money any way you could.”

They later returned to Detroit and lived on the edge of Indian Village.

“I got a job – it was very difficult to get a job back then because it was during the Depression,” Townend recalled. “I was also freelancing and doing these drawings for the Detroit News and they were paying me every month about $40 or $50. My father just thought it was terrible. The work wasn’t worth what I was getting paid.”

Townend freelanced there for 14 months while working for the Michigan Insurance Bureau. She later saved up enough money to get her teeth worked on and also pay her way back to England, where she returned with her aunt, uncle and two cousins in 1935. Her mother and father later followed suit.

“I said, ‘I’m not coming back to the U.S.’ My boss said, ‘Your job will be here when you come back.’ And I said, I’m not coming back, I’m going to stay in England!” Townend said. “That was 1935. Then the war started and I thought to myself, ‘You’ve got to do something.’ So, I joined the Navy.”

Townend served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. Her tour took her to bases in Sri Lanka and Singapore, with a month’s stay in India, doing work like meteorology and serving in the rank of Petty Officer.

“I liked Singapore,” Townend said. “The only trouble I ever had with Singapore was they put a price on something, but then you have to barter. I hate that. I missed when the price that is on something is the price you actually pay. Plus, I’m no good at it.”

She found she had trouble working with members from the Japanese Working Party, who also had a presence on the island.

IN THE SERVICE: Joan in uniform, pictured with her dog. She served in the Women's Royal Naval Service during World War II. She remembers her pet used to be very scared of the bombs that went off each night. (Courtesy photo)

IN THE SERVICE: Joan in uniform, pictured with her dog. She served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service during World War II. She remembers her pet used to be very scared of the bombs that went off each night. (Courtesy photo)

One day, there was a sinkhole and she was sent members of the Japanese Working Party in order to fill it. While she tried to give orders, she found that none from the party would listen to her, which was frustrating, she said.

“Finally I said, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ And someone jumped forward,” she recalled. “Then I had him give the orders for me. It was hard, you know. You couldn’t get them to do one thing. I was just trying to get them to fill the sinkhole.”

She also spent time working with laborers, who had been sent from Japan and other countries to do work for minimum wage. Townend recalls a time a laborer was sent to her office to help clean it.

“The poor fellow. They sent him to Singapore to do the dirty work,” she said. “There were thousands of laborers. And he was absolutely terrified of me. We couldn’t understand eachother. I went out and asked someone what the word was for broom and learned it was ‘sapu.’ So I went back and told him, ‘sapu.’ His face lit up like a Christmas tree. He could finally understand me. You could see welts on his back and on his legs. It was terrible.”

In 1946, Townend’s tour was completed and she returned home to England.

“I really liked Singapore. I came back to England on the ship to Liverpool,” she said. “There was a Royal Marine standing near me with a ring in his hand. He turns to me and he says, ‘I daren’t go home with this. Do you want it?’ And I said sure, put it on and it’s been there ever since. It’s got a Chinese inscription on the inside. He had taken it from a Japanese soldier, who took it from a Chinese woman.”

Five years ago, while on a tour of Scotland, Townend finally learned the meaning of the inscription. Two young Chinese girls translated it for her.

“I gave them the ring and said, ‘Tell me what it says,’” Townend said. “I had been itching to know. They looked at it and started giggling. I said, ‘Come on, tell me.’ They said. ‘Solid gold. 24-karat gold.’ Oh, my hopes were dashed.”

She came back to the U.S. in 1947.

“I had a hard time coming back because they were sending all the war brides back,” she recalled.

She returned to Detroit and began working once again at the Michigan Inspection Bureau.

SKETCHING FOR THE WREN: "The Wren" magazine still features many of Townend's original thumbnail sketches. Townend receives the publication regularly. (Courtesy photo)

SKETCHING FOR THE WREN: “The Wren” magazine still features many of Townend’s original thumbnail sketches. Townend receives the publication regularly. (Courtesy photo)

In 1965, she received the opportunity to design the Detroit Tigers 1966 Yearbook after writing to sports broadcaster Ernie Harwell, letting him know her father, who lived in England at the time, also listened to Tigers games over the American Forces Network and was appreciative. She included a sketch at the bottom of the letter.

“I don’t know why I did that,” she laughed. “It was just something I came up with. He must have showed the letter to their PR man, because he wrote me back and asked if I would do the artwork for the Tigers 1966 Yearbook.”

An avid Tigers fan, Townend still watches every game the team plays, though she said she hasn’t been to a Tigers game in more than 40 years. She went to her first game, the Tigers versus the New York Yankees, in 1935 with her father after receiving tickets from H.G. Salsinger, sports editor at the Detroit News.

“I used to spend my vacations at the ballpark. I love the Tigers,” Townend said. “I enjoy games. I go over all the trades they do and the ones I do agree with or don’t agree with.”

As a thumbnail sketch artist, her work also was featured in “The Wren” magazine, which is the magazine of the women’s royal naval service that Townend still receives regularly. Her work later was recognized by the magazine in a personal thank-you letter.

“I am so thrilled to know after all this time who drew these delightful original drawings, which are so full of life,” the editor wrote to Townend in 2010. “I am afraid they may have been slightly corrupted by being copied so many times and I also have a fear that some may have been lost when we moved printers. Thank you so much!”

Townend stayed in Detroit for 28 years, living at Van Dyke and Lafayette in the building she first lived in with her family, long enough to retire from the Michigan Inspection Bureau.

“I had to get out of Detroit. It was becoming too dangerous to even go outside to go for a walk. People were getting mugged – they had the riots there too,” Townend said. “I remember when they happened.  I said, ‘I’ve had my war, I don’t want another one!’”

She moved to Barryton after she retired, where she lived for 30 years.

“This lady who lived across the street from me in Detroit bought this house in Barryton and I came up to weekend with her,” Townend said. “The house across the street was for sale. I put $50 down on it. That was in ’74. I paid $12,500 for that house. I had to sell everything I could to get the money. The lady I was rooming with in Detroit told me I’d be sorry, but I never was.”

Townend still visits England once a year to see family, though she missed the past year. She also has family in Houghton Lake. She’s made two trips to Egypt, New Zealand and eight trips to Kenya, where her cousin had a farm.

“Australia was my favorite place I’ve ever been,” Townend said. She first visited in 1999. “I had to sell my car because I couldn’t see well and thought I should sell it. The man said to me, ‘What do you want for it?’ It was seven years old and had only 14,000 miles on it. I said, ‘Enough money to go to Australia.’ That cost $6,000 and that’s what he gave me for it.”

Townend has noticed a few major differences between the U.S. and England – namely the education system here. She said her family in England all are educated but did not have to go into debt to afford a higher education. She thinks the best way to get an education in the U.S. is to join the Army.

“I think it’s disgraceful the way they do it here,” she said. “I think to give students four to five years to study at college, they should be able to do it, not run into debt.”

While she misses family in England, she also said she misses living near the sea.

“There is no place in England that is no more than 58 miles from the sea,” she said.

Looking back on her life, Townend’s accomplishments may seem large to some, but she doesn’t see it that way. She recalls when a nurse thanked her for her service in WWII.

“I told him, there were millions of us! We all gave something!” she said. “I was there for Dunkirk, I was there for the Blitz, I was there for D-Day. I was there. But we were all the same. We didn’t have protection. Even the Queen.”

If you would like to send Joan a card wishing her a happy birthday, address it to Joan Townend 130 Maple St. Apt. 201 F Big Rapids, MI 49307.

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