Mark Brejcha: A rose like no other: Local woman was a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ during WWII

In 2008, Evelyn Dunn attended her grandson’s U.S. Air Force Basic Training graduation at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. She is pictured next to a B-24 Liberator on display. During World War II, Dunn was part of a two-person rivet team manufacturing B-24 wing assemblies. (Courtesy photo)

By Mark Brejcha

Special to the Pioneer

When we think about the men and women who were the Greatest Generation, we can’t help but admire their sense of duty stemming from their love of country. We also admire their strength; not just because they emerged from the Great Depression, “tough as nails,” but also for their all-too-often painful goodbyes to loved ones who were going off to war. One local woman who demonstrated unmatched duty, love, and strength throughout her life is still in our midst – Mrs. Evelyn Dunn.

I met Mrs. Dunn during the winter months of this year in the halls of Big Rapids Middle School where I teach. While correcting papers, I noticed two women stroll by my room on their fourth lap around the building. I had to inquire who they were; after all, they had already walked over a mile and were heading to two … mighty impressive.

I learned they were Evelyn Dunn and Fran Brackett; I went further and asked their ages. Evelyn, I learned, was 93; Fran, 84.

“Oh my gosh, you’re part of the Greatest Generation,” I said.

Evelyn Dunn (left) and Fran Brackett (right) walk inside Big Rapids Middle School for exercise. They posed for a photo in front of a reprint of a World War II poster of Rosie the Riveter. (Courtesy photo)

Small talk ensued from there until Fran said, “Evelyn was an original Rosie the Riveter.”

I had to know more about these two remarkable women. I wish to share with you their story. Let’s start at the beginning.

In 1925, Chrysler Corporation was formed, Prohibition was in its sixth year and on Jan. 5, Nellie Ross became the first female governor in the United States from the progressive state of Wyoming. Twelve days later, Miriam Ferguson became the first female governor of the great state of Texas. It was an amazing year for women’s rights. In 1925, Paul Newman, Tony Curtis, Robert Kennedy Jr, and Barbara Bush were born, along with Evelyn Totten, who was born on April 10, 1925, to Will and Faun Totten, of Big Rapids.

Evelyn Totten (later Evelyn Dunn) was part of the Big Rapids High School Class of 1943. Following graduation, she went to work in the River Rouge (Ford Motor Company) defense plant as a rivet girl on B-24 bomber wing assemblies. (Courtesy photo)

Evelyn was the middle of nine children. As I listened, she freely shared eye-opening stories about her home life and living with eight other siblings.

“We had no electricity until I graduated from high school, no indoor plumbing so we hand-pumped our water, and we also had no refrigeration,” she said.

Evelyn graduated from Big Rapids High School in 1943. After graduation, with the war in its third year, she worked at a local Navy P-Coat manufacturer making 25 cents an hour. At that time, everyone and everything was dedicated towards “winning the war.” In November of that year, Evelyn moved to Detroit to stay with her aunt and uncle and got a job in the River Rouge (Ford Motor Company) defense plant working as a rivet girl on B-24 Bomber wing assemblies.

“I was the block girl on a two-person rivet operation. One girl operated the heavy rivet hammer and the other was on the back side holding a block that helped press the rivets flat. That was me,” she said, smiling. “I made $1 an hour. It was enough for me to be independent and on my own.”

The famously inspirational “We Can Do It!” poster, adopted as a feminist symbol of strength and an icon of American wartime resilience, brought honor to thousands of women who worked in the factories during the war making tanks, planes, ships and ammunition.

Evelyn Dunn flexes her muscle next to a reprint of the World War II icon Rosie the Riveter. Dunn worked as part of a two-person rivet team during WWII. (Courtesy photo)

Created by the artist J. Howard Miller, the poster was originally produced in 1943 by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and displayed in its factories to encourage more women to join the wartime labor force. The poster was only displayed by Westinghouse for a period of two weeks in February 1943, then replaced by another one in a series of at least 40 other promotional images, few of which included women. In the 1980s, Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster resurfaced and was widely reprinted on T-shirts, mugs, pins and many other products.

But who was Rosie? In 1942, 20-year-old Naomi Parker from Tulsa, Okla., was working in a machine shop at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif., when a photographer snapped a shot of her on the job. In the photo, released through the Acme photo agency, she’s working at an industrial machine, wearing a jumpsuit and sensible heels, with her hair tied back in a polka-dot bandana for safety. For many years after that, no one knew who the “poster girl” was for this now famous poster. Through historical research Ms. Parker was surprisingly located in 2016 at her home in Longview, Wash., and given credit as being “The Original Rosie the Riveter.” Sadly, on Jan. 20, 2018, less than two years after finally getting recognition as the woman in the photograph, Naomi Parker Fraley died at the age of 96.

You would think being an original Rosie the Riveter would be enough for one person to lay claim to doing “their bit” for the nation. But working in a factory to “free a man up to fight” was but a portion of Evelyn’s incredible life story. You see, while she was riveting bombers, her sweetheart, Bill Dunn, was fighting the Japanese in the Pacific with the U.S. Army.

“I clearly remember the day I said goodbye to him at the bus station, which was then located across from the downtown armory (now the location of Bernie’s Place). It was April 17, 1942. He briefly came back on furlough after training, but then I didn’t see him again until after the war in September of 1945. We stayed in touch by V-Mail (Victory Mail) but he never told me he was wounded twice; mainly serving during the liberation of the Philippines,” she recalled soberly. “Thankfully, he came back to me and we (coincidentally) married on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1945.”

Sweethearts Evelyn Totten and Bill Dunn are pictured on April 17, 1942, standing next to the bus that would take Bill away to the U.S. Army, in which he would eventually serve in the World War II Pacific Theater. (Courtesy photo)

Evelyn and Bill Dunn enjoyed 62 years of marriage until Bill’s death in 2007. Together, they had six children, authentic “Baby Boomers” born from 1946 to 1969. All six graduated from the same Big Rapids High School (now the middle school) where Evelyn still walks the halls today during winter. Did I mention Evelyn was also Big Rapids Public Schools’ first woman bus driver? She drove busses from 1965 to 1989, positively impacting the lives of thousands of Big Rapids students. She’s lived two lives into one and the Good Lord is not done with her yet.

When you’re 93, it’s no fun to walk alone, so Fran Feikema Brackett walks with Evelyn during the winter months. She has her own story, but with limited space, here’s the “Reader’s Digest” version on Fran. Born in 1933, she was seventh of 13 siblings. Fran attended Sylvan School just north of Sears. She later moved to Evart and graduated from high school in 1951. Unlike Evelyn, who was of working age during WWII, Fran was a young middle-schooler during the war. However, she clearly remembers the times.

“We had war-time ration cards like everyone else, but sometimes it wasn’t enough when you’re feeding 13 children. We milked our own cows, had several workhorses, and a couple of riding horses if we wanted to go into Sears for provisions. We also had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Eventually, dad installed a hand water pump in the kitchen. We were farmers and we worked hard,” she reminisced.

Fran’s family farm proved to be an amusing memory for her as she laughingly shares her own war-time story.

“When I walked home from school, my father taught us to walk on left side facing traffic for safety purposes. There were no busses, so we walked to school and back. Well, during the war, he sternly told us to switch to the other side of the road. It was because German P.O.W.s, located at camps nearby, would be in our fields throughout the day and we had to pass them on the road on our way to the house. Walking on the other side of the road would be furthest from them, but we never had any problems and they seemed nice. I tell people that we had Nazis in our backyard during the war. The look on their face after that is pretty funny.”

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