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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Irene Parsons, 2005

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Object ID: WV0311.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Irene Adelaide Parsons’ service in the U.S. Coast Guard SPARS from 1943 to 1946, and her thirty years of service with the Veterans Administration.

Summary:

Parsons discusses her education at Brevard College and Woman’s College, both in North Carolina. Topics from Woman’s College (now UNCG) include: working at home and at school to pay her tuition; her friendship with Kathleen Hawkins; expectations of students; leisure activities; the Alumnae House; and her student teaching. She also shares her experience meeting Art Buchwald at UNCG in 1967 and recruiting from UNCG for the Veterans Administration (VA) in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Parsons recalls the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the rush of people enlisting in the military, her 1941-1942 teaching job, and her experience and duties working as a recruiter with the Civil Service Commission in 1942-1943. Parsons then gives her reasons for enlisting in the SPARs, including the promise of gold braids on officers' uniforms, and talks about being the first class to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Topics from this time include: a USO visit from Carmen Miranda and Bob Hope; learning technical terms and the history of the Coast Guard; white-glove inspections; physical training; and leisure activities.

Parsons shares details from her time working at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. from 1943 to 1946, including: the atmosphere of the city; housing and transportation; and working in personnel. She discusses her reasons for staying at headquarters for the duration of her service, and the interactions between servicemen and women. Parsons also describes the state of the country during WWII and shares her opinions on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, including a personal encounter with the first lady. Other topics include: attending presidential balls; VE Day celebrations; and the death of her nephew in Romania.

Parsons also discusses at length her career at the VA following her discharge from the SPARS. She shares details of her experience recruiting personnel at high school and colleges, hiring the first female assistant director, and later creating a pay grade system for VA nurses. Parsons also describes being appointed assistant administrator and director of personnel of the VA by President Lyndon B. Johnson, including a surprise press conference and personal meeting.Other topics include President Richard Nixon and Watergate.

Topics from Parson's post-retirement life include living in Washington, D.C., and Gardner’s Bay, New York; working as a management consultant; and awards she has received.

Creator:

Biographical Info:

Collection: Irene Parsons Papers

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Full Text:

HERMANN TROJANOWSKI:

Today is Tuesday, August 2, [2005], and I'm at the home of Irene Parsons in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to conduct an interview for the Women Veterans Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro [UNCG].

Miss Parsons, thank you so much for talking with us today. We appreciate it. If you give me your full name, we'll use that as a test to see how your voice sounds on the machine.

IRENE PARSONS:

Irene Parsons, Irene Adelaide Parsons.

HT:

Miss Parsons, if you could tell me a few biographical facts about yourself, such as where you were born, where you lived when you were growing up, and a little bit about your family.

IP:

I was born in Wilkes County [North Carolina], and I went to school at Union Elementary School. My father and mother lived on a farm. My father had a farm for some time, and then he had a little store next to his farm, a dry-goods store. I had four brothers and two sisters, and I was the youngest child, and unfortunately, I am the last child living.

HT:

Where did you go to high school?

IP:

In Taylorsville, North Carolina, Alexander County.

HT:

Did you move over?

IP:

Yes. My father had moved over there to work. He worked some in a new mill that was established over there.

HT:

After high school, I understand that you went to a woman's college in Greensboro. Can you tell me about your life during those four years?

IP:

Yes. The first college was at Brevard College in Brevard, North Carolina. It's a junior college, and I went there for two years. Then I didn't have the money to go on to Greensboro, which was my dream, and I stayed here in Wilkes County and worked in various places. I worked in the courthouse helping the register of deeds, and I worked in a store downtown on Saturdays, and I became a trainee in the hosiery mill during the summertime, working at three jobs at one time to get money to go on to Greensboro, or to get on to Greensboro. But finally Greensboro told me that they had work for me to do, and a scholarship, and I could come on to Greensboro, and so I went there.

HT:

I know you graduated in 1941, so you must have gone there in the fall of 1939.

IP:

I did, fall of '39. I graduated from Brevard in '37, and then in '39. I thought it was a wonderful school. Of course, at that time it only had about two thousand students. I worked in various offices. I worked for the head of the chemistry department and physics department, and later head of the business education department, did office work after school hours, and nights.

HT:

Do you recall the names of some of the administrators and instructors at that time?

IP:

Yes. Dean Harriett Elliott, who was a wonderful woman, was the dean of the school. Walter Jackson was the chancellor, and Dean Elliott left at the time we were doing a lot of lend lease, and President [Franklin] Roosevelt was becoming very interested in helping England. He called Harriett Elliott and asked her to be his consumer affairs person in the White House for the war effort, and it was a great honor to her and to the university, because she was a wonderful woman.

Another person that was head of student activities, or student financial matters, was Kathleen Hawkins, H-a-w-k-i-n-s. She was a wonderful person to me, and after I left to Greensboro I never had to pay, other than my work. I never had to pay any money at all, and if I needed anything she would tell me. For example, I know that she told me once—I told her I was going to the eye doctor. And she said, “Irene, if you need any glasses,” she said, “come and let me know.”

I said, “Oh, what a surprise.” But anyway, I came back and she said she would put it in my loan, seventeen dollars for the glasses. But she was a wonderful friend, and they later named a dormitory for her. She's deceased now, but I was glad to contribute to that in appreciation of her goodness and kindness to me.

HT:

Do you recall anything particular about college life in those days, in the late thirties and early forties?

IP:

Well, I think that at that time compared to now, we were very disciplined, and we had very definite hours, and study time, and quiet time, and it was a wonderful group of students. Of course, we were all women at that time, still called a women's college. But I thought we had some of the finest people in the world that were the teachers there, and I enjoyed my stay.

HT:

Do you recall what you did for fun in those days?

IP:

Yes. We had little parties and dances. We'd usually have a dance every Saturday night, and we had parties, and we would go on hikes and things of that sort.

HT:

Do you recall any of the daisy chains?

IP:

Yes, we were in some of those, and oh, at the McIver Building, we would go over there and have functions, and we could go to the Alumnae House. That was a very nice place.

HT:

It had just opened up a few years before, the Alumnae House. It just opened up a few years before you got there.

IP:

Yes. One thing about the Alumnae House is, when I was called down to receive my honorary degree, I was on a plane with Art Buchwald, you know, the famous comedian, who still writes for the Washington Post. I still take my Washington Post. He was on the plane with me, and they had told me that he was coming down, and that they would meet us together.

We went back to the Alumnae House and he was in one room and I was across the hall. Fortunately, I had friends from North Wilkesboro that came down to take me to dinner that night. But he smoked cigars, and that was sort of unpleasant sitting by him on the plane, and began to smell cigar smoke in the Alumnae House there. So I remember when I came home that night, I crept in very carefully and put a damp towel under my door for the cigar smoke, although it was a pleasure to know him and to talk to him about his reasons for coming back there.

He spoke the next day at our graduation. At that time he said that he made $30[,000] or $40,000 a speech, but that he had offered UNCG that he would come at no cost, because he had once been there and met a girl. Several years before that he had met a girl that was going to school there, and he came down. He had a great crush on her, and she had a date with someone else, but she got him a date with a friend of hers. And he was so sad about all that that the next morning, on Monday morning, he went and enlisted in the army. He was just seventeen, and they told him that he had to have his father to sign the papers. And he took the paper out on the street in Greensboro, and got a gentleman that was having a few drinks, and told him he'd give him a half pint if he would come and sign the thing as his father, and that's how he got into the service.

HT:

That's a very good story. Now, the lady he was sad over not being able to date, the first girl—

IP:

[Unclear]. The first girl. He had come to see her, you see. He thought he had-and she had lined him up with another girl, because she had a date. There has been an article in the Alumnae News, not about that particular thing, but about the fact that he came back there. He had written the girl. As we went down on the plane, he told me that he had written the girl and asked her to come to the ceremony. He was going to speak at our award-honorary degree commencement-and she had not come to that, though she had sent him a note where she couldn't come.

But later he did come back to Greensboro and see her, but it didn't work out as he had hoped. At that time he was getting a divorce from his wife in Washington. It was a very interesting story. [laughs]

HT:

It's very cute. Do you recall any other stories from your time at WC in the late thirties and early forties?

IP:

Well, I just recall that I was very happy and that it was a wonderful school. I felt like I was learning a lot, and although I worked a lot, I did well in my academic work, and I improved as I went along and got more accustomed to being in a large college.

HT:

What was your major?

IP:

My major was business administration and education. I was preparing to teach.

HT:

Did you do practice teaching over at Curry [School]?

IP:

Yes, I did. Yes, I did. They had had some rather rambunctious students there, and when I went to do my practice teaching the monitor came back and sat down in the class, and he said that, this young fellow, he came up and he said, “Miss Parsons, you're fortunate that so-and-so didn't come today.”

And I said, “Oh yes, he was here on the front row.”

He said, “I have never been here in any class, see any teacher that he didn't disturb the class.” [laughs] So he said, “I commend you.”

I said, “Well, he and I have gotten along well, and I have praised him because,” I said, “he does pretty well in math, and he seems to be happy.”

HT:

What grade was this?

IP:

I believe they were in—it's the seventh or the eighth grade.

HT:

So you were planning to teach seventh or eighth grade?

IP:

I was planning to teach high school. I guess it was high school [unclear].

HT:

What was practice teaching like in those days? Did you do it all day long for a period of weeks?

IP:

No, just had certain days that we did classes. I enjoyed it. It was maybe new students.

HT:

And so was all your practice teaching over at Curry, or did you go out into the—

IP:

No, it was all at Curry.

HT:

Well, after you graduated in spring of 1941, what did you do next?

IP:

Well, they had visiting superintendents of schools come there and interview people that were interested in teaching, and a Mr. Davis from Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, came there and interviewed several students, including me, and it happened that the president of Brevard College had been superintendent of Roanoke Rapids schools before he became president of Brevard College.

He always wanted me to keep up with him and tell him what I was doing, and I told him about Roanoke Rapids and he said, “Oh, Irene,” he said, “that is a wonderful school. It's the first school in North Carolina that had eight months and twelve grades,” and he said, “I was there.” And he said, “I know Mr. Davis, and if you have any trouble you let me know.” He said, “You would be ideal there.”

And he wrote the nicest letter to Dr. Davis. I have a copy of it here somewhere. I remember that he told about knowing me and that he had not known a brighter, abler student had ever attended the college, and that—I remember this particularly—that, “She is all wool and a yard wide.”

HT:

And what does that mean?

IP:

That was apparently an expression they had for very fine fabric and fine—everything was perfect if it was all wool and a yard wide. That was his expression. Anyway, Dr. Davis called and said he would be happy to have me as a teacher there.

HT:

So is that what you did that fall?

IP:

That's what I did that fall, and the war, you see, then came along in 1941. It was a Sunday afternoon, that a girl had been down to home for the weekend, and she came in to where we stayed—the teachers lived in a house there—and she came in the door all excited, had we heard about the bombing at Pearl Harbor? Well, we didn't know what she was talking about, and we rushed to turn on the radios. And, oh, they were bombing Pearl Harbor, and everybody was just so upset.

And from then on during the rest of the year, people were leaving to go. The coach, who was a good friend of mine, left to go into the military, and they were sending recruiters from Washington to hire stenographers and secretarial people and clerical people. They came to my school, to Roanoke Rapids, and the lady said that we had the best, the highest passing rate. We arranged for them to come at night—students that might be interested in going to Washington when they graduated—and she said that Roanoke Rapids had the highest number that had ever passed in any of her schools she'd gone to, and she offered all of them a job that wanted to come.

HT:

These were your high school students.

IP:

My high school students that I taught business math and typing, and economics and business matters. Those were subjects. Anyhow, she then asked me if I would like to have a job like she had in Washington, recruiting, and I told her that I liked my teaching but that I would consider it. At that time teachers made $900 a year, and that included for Roanoke Rapids a bonus of $100 that other state teachers, a lot of them, did not receive, and that was our salary.

She went home, back to Washington, and told her boss, and he called and offered me a job as a trainee at $1800, and said he felt sure he could promote me to a higher grade within a few months.

HT:

This was a civilian job.

IP:

This was a civilian job in the Civil Service Commission. So I was torn between leaving my students that I liked, and going there, but I did need money, and I was interested. It was an opportunity for me to do administrative work. Then I was assigned to be an administrative assistant and run the office for employment at the Norfolk Navy Yard, which was in Portsmouth, Virginia, the headquarters.

HT:

So you had gone to Washington.

IP:

I had gone to Washington, and then from Washington they sent me back to Portsmouth, Virginia, to the Norfolk Navy Yard to handle personnel matters there. They were hiring so many people.

HT:

Was this in spring of 1942?

IP:

Let's see. That's in the spring of '43, I guess.

HT:

You actually finished teaching at least one full year.

IP:

One full year, yes, which was in the fall to spring of '42.

HT:

And then you started working for the Civil Service Commission, then, at that time?

IP:

That's right. At that time, then, working there at the Norfolk Navy Yard, my boss was going into military service in the navy, and a good friend of mine was going into the WACs, the Women's Army Corps, and a woman came there and talked to me about going into the WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—U.S. Navy] or the SPARs [from Semper Paratus, Always Ready—U.S. Coast Guard]. The SPARs were under the navy at that time, and Coast Guard did operate under the jurisdiction of the navy.

I took their exam for officer training and they selected me to go to New London, Connecticut, to their Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.

Incidentally, and not bearing on this, but you know the recent Supreme Court decision that's very controversial, that a town can take property, private property, and in the past it was only for public use that you could take it. But now it's for the public good, or something that they, this town, I think—the town is New London, Connecticut that's involved in that. They had a nice little town, but I guess I was interested in their wanting to do that. I don't know whether they were taking any Coast Guard or not, but that is a very controversial decision.

HT:

What finally made you decide to go into the SPARs as opposed to the WAVES or the WACs?

IP:

Well, the SPARs were going to have their first class at the academy. The WAVES had been trained at Smith College [Massachusetts], and I thought it would be nice to go to an academy and be in the first class of officers that were sent there. Also, I had told them, you see, there was a shortage of gold braid. As you know, the officers have gold braids, and all the men have gold braids. And they had told the WAVES that they did not have enough gold braid; they would have to wear a blue braid on their arms when they became officers. So the SPARs were told that they could continue to have gold braids. They would give them gold braids. [laughs] That was not a good reason to go, but I used to get a lot of kicks out of it when I'd tell people why I made that choice.

Anyway, when we got to the Coast Guard to get our uniforms, they announced very sorrowfully that they would have to change to blue braids, there had been so much complaints on the part of the WAVES. [laughs]

HT:

Did you have to take some sort of written examination in order to get into SPARs?

IP:

Yes, yes, we had to take some written exams that were given out by the academy, the recruiters. Then we had classes at the academy. We were there for eight weeks, and we had classes and training and marching and that sort of thing. Because New London, Connecticut is on the river, they had some boats and we would go out on boats, not that we would do any—at that time women were not being trained, any of them, to go overseas. You know, they were all in this country, which I believe they should be, unless in exceptional cases.

We would have some tests on the meaning of words and nautical terms and all like that, so we would not be astonished when we came into contact with words like that when we got into our regular jobs.

HT:

I guess they sort of indoctrinated you in military ways.

IP:

Yes, that's right. I remember a little story that they told us. You know, they have these words like port and starboard and stuff like that that you use on ships. Port, you know, means the left side of the ship, and starboard was on the right, and we had to remember things like that.

They said that there was a captain there once in charge of the ship, and every morning he would go out and open up a big safe with all the locks on it, and get out a little piece of paper and look at it, and then put it back and close the door. They'd seen him for a long time doing that, and they didn't have any idea what he was doing. Well, he was transferred somewhere, and somehow they got that opened, and found the little piece of paper, and it said, “Port left, starboard right.” [laughter] Oh, [unclear] about that.

HT:

Well, we need to backtrack for just a second. How did your family and friends feel about you joining the military?

IP:

Well, they felt well about it, because I had a brother, Lorraine's [Parsons] father, which is my brother, who had gone into the military. I had a nephew that when he became seventeen got his parents to let him go—he was a very favorite relative of mine—to go, because he wanted to be sure he'd get into [the] air force. He expected to be drafted, but he felt if he got in he could choose his own course.

And then working in the navy yard there, my boss that I liked very much, was being drafted into the navy. And there were people all around me—and this other friend was joining the WAC, and then I felt that I wanted to do as much as possible. I mean, I saw them like my brother. My brother had no objective other than her father. He thought we should go. It was terrible what the Japanese had done. Those men were so patriotic, the people that I saw going back at that time. They were not drafted. They were ready to go, and they just felt that they were protecting their homeland and all, and I really was touched by the patriotism that was shown, and I thought that, well, maybe I can relieve [Washington] D.C.

And they had to leave jobs, like my boss had to leave and my brother had to leave. They had to leave jobs that there was nobody to fill at that time. I mean, it had to be women. The men of that age and all, were not—they had to look toward going into war. So I decided that I—I mean, it wasn't not that I was all gung ho to win the war or anything, but I just felt that I could maybe be more helpful to go and see, and work at jobs that the men had had in Coast Guard Headquarters—is where I was sent to work.

HT:

When did you join the SPARs? Do you recall the date, by chance?

IP:

Yes, June of 1943.

HT:

And that's when you went to New London to Officer Candidate School.

IP:

That's when I went to New London, Connecticut. Then I was there until August, the end of August of 1943, and I went to Washington [D.C.] to work. We were sent all around all over the country. This dear friend of mine that had lived in Washington, she put on her paper what she would prefer, she said, “Anywhere in the United States except Washington, D.C.” She grew up in Washington, so when she got her papers it was Washington, D.C. [laughs] We all laughed, said she shouldn't have put that on there.

HT:

Now, did you want to go to Washington?

IP:

Yes, I did. I put Washington.

HT:

And where in Washington did you work?

IP:

Well, I worked in Coast Guard headquarters. They had Coast Guard Headquarters down on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, right near Pennsylvania and 15th Street.

HT:

What was Washington like in those days, do you recall?

IP:

Yes, it was different. It was quieter and it was a dedicated place. It seemed that everyone there was interested in doing what they could for the war effort. People all were just gracious and kind. I saw no evidence of racism or violence. It just was a different atmosphere than it got to be after the war, you know, and a lot of different people came in, and that sort of thing. But I thought it was a wonderful place to live. Things were reasonably priced. I mean, like we had wonderful places to eat, and places to stay, and housing.

HT:

Can you describe your housing?

IP:

Well, at first I lived in a house where there were several girls living. It was like a boardinghouse at first. Then later I was able to get an apartment out in Mount Rainier, Maryland. There was more housing going on out there as far as apartment buildings, so I got an apartment out there and lived there.

HT:

Did you have to share the apartment?

IP:

Yes, I lived with another girl; we shared.

HT:

Because I know housing was very short in those days.

IP:

Yes. I shared it with another girl. And another girl—the one that had been in the Coast Guard with me that wanted to go anywhere but Washington—she and her sister had the apartment next door. We had several as a result of our telling people about it. People that were in the Coast Guard shared apartments there, and we enjoyed that more than being in a boardinghouse.

HT:

How'd you get back and forth to work?

IP:

Well, we had rides. We were very lucky. In this apartment development there were quite a few people, and there was a man there that about four of us rode with him every morning. He lived there and he worked for the navy, and we rode back and forth. We could get rides without much trouble at all.

Of course we took buses if we needed to. There was a bus line from not far from where we were that went into Washington, and whenever we didn't have our ride we would go wait on the bus and get on the bus. Washington had good transportation, you know. It had those streetcars, too, which was a wonderful thing, and they didn't make a lot of pollution or anything. In later years I think they regretted very much that they had torn those up in the interest of buses and cars.

HT:

Can you tell me a little bit about the type of work you did, and what kind of hours you kept, and that sort of thing?

IP:

Yes. Well, I kept usually the regular office hours, unless I had extra work to do. I worked in the office of a man that was supply and personnel. He was a commander, and he assigned me to do—somehow I was always getting into personnel work—to hire the local people that worked there. We had civilians, of course, working there, and to take care of any problems they had, and just sort of keep records on them, and anyone that came in to see him about any complaints or anything, he would have me talk to them [unclear].

And then he had a department under him arrange for a lot of supplies, to see that supplies were going to our Coast Guard ships and all. That was another department under his wing, and if necessary I would help him with that.

HT:

But you did mainly personnel work.

IP:

Mainly personnel work.

HT:

Did you do that for the entire duration of the war?

IP:

Yes, I did it for the duration there as my work at the Coast Guard. At the end of the Coast Guard thing, in 1946 when we were eligible to get a discharge, a couple of the officers there had already been in contact with the Veterans Administration. That was the greatest expansion, you know. With all these millions of veterans coming back, the Veterans Administration was looking for trained people that could move in there and help them, and so I went to the Veterans Administration in 1946.

HT:

So you were stationed in Washington from '43 to '46.

IP:

That's right, in the military, and then moved over to the Veterans Administration Headquarters in '46.

HT:

Now, did the SPARs have the opportunity to go from one duty station to other duty stations?

IP:

Well, I think that we would have if we had wanted to, but I was pleased to be where I was. I was pleased with my work and pleased with my location, and I never asked for any—but some, a few, would go. They'd say they'd like to go to a base near their home, a Coast Guard base or something, and they could apply for that.

HT:

How did you get along with the men who were in the military? Did you have any problems with them, or did they have any problems with you, because I've heard that some men did have some problems with women officers, or women enlisted men and that sort of thing?

IP:

Well, I think we all got along well. I was very respectful of our Coast Guard officers that had experience, and a lot of them had been on ships and all that, you know, didn't feel that women should come in and start telling them what to do in that line of duty, but rather respect what they had to do. They could be shipped out at any time to go on a Coast Guard cutter.

You know, the Coast Guard had many—it was a great, vital part, although it was operating under the navy. But it did really more as far as making the coasts safe, and helping transportation of the regular ships. We had what they call Coast Guard cutters, which spent their time cutting icebergs and cleaning a trail, or seeing that the trails for big ships that were going around.

In fact, if the Coast Guard had, as they said there, had one of the cutters or known anything about it—or had any part when you know they were riding the [RMS] Titanic and thinking that everything was fine—didn't need any help on the Titanic. That was the attitude, this is the greatest ship in the world, and the safest ship in the world, and here was this big iceberg. Well, the Coast Guard went in and would cut those icebergs up, these cutters. They were extremely heavy things, and heavy blades and things like that, that they could go into any sort of ice formation. But they did a wonderful job in that area. There wasn't a lot of value about it, like there might have been about other things, but I really respected the Coast Guard and the people that worked there.

I suppose—and women came in and usually worked for a man was the boss, you know. We had very few women, naturally, because of experience, that were up in admiral status or commander status. I think that most of us felt that we were there to replace or to help carry on what these people were doing that are out on the ships and fighting the enemy. And as far as I knew, I never saw any discrimination, or even any ill will between—and we were pleased as women, we didn't have a subservient role, and wouldn't have, but we felt that we were being given jobs that required a lot of know how and experience to do. It was satisfactory for us.

HT:

What was your rank?

IP:

My rank was lieutenant. I was first ensign, but I never heard of an occasion where any of us, anyone went and said that the men were discriminating, or any of the men. And I think also at that time there was an attitude in this country of, let's all work together. There's Germany, the women over there, and Japan, and we're in trouble, and let's do anything we can. I think it was more the feeling of necessity than some time a war now [unclear], people who you know are out protesting right today against Iraq and Vietnam and all that.

But it was complete harmony back in those days about we had been attacked, and our men had been killed at Pearl Harbor, and the other countries had been attacked, and if we didn't do something the whole world—and Winston Churchill, of course, was a great inspiring man. I think if it hadn't been for Winston Churchill, history would have been entirely different.

HT:

So it sounds like you really admired him.

IP:

Oh, I did. I admired him as one of the greatest men in history. And the longer I have lived, and even studied President Roosevelt, and realized the problems that he had, I have become more of a feeling that he was a great president. I know at that time there were a lot of people that were critical of him, but I think that he, from all my study of him and knowledge of the time, I didn't at the time—I hoped he'd work something out, or more conciliatory, but I think that he was a great president.

HT:

What about Mrs. [Eleanor] Roosevelt?

IP:

Well, now that is one of the things I noticed in your letter—you said any memorable experiences. I feel that one of the most memorable experiences—as I said, we were in Coast Guard Headquarters, which was like near the corner there of where you turn up at the [Department of] Treasury, and the White House was right over on this side.

Well, she had invited us then to send a group of us over. She would like to see some of the Coast Guard women, you know, sort of in marching or detail, or whatever she was going to do. And so one morning we were told that we were going over there about nine o'clock or something, and Mrs. Roosevelt was going to come out and look at us and inspect us, or whatever. And she came out. I have never in my life seen a person who was so different from what she looked like in the newspapers, which is the only way we had ever seen her then, you know. We didn't have TV all the time and stuff like that.

But she, in black and white—and the newspapers seemed to make pictures of her that were not flattering to her at all, and she looked to be a very homely woman. But when she came out that morning, and she had on a purple coat and a nice little fur thing around here, it was cool over there. And her eyes just were like alight. They were blue eyes and bright, and her hair looked like the sun shining on it. She just looked alive in a colorful thing, and we had never seen her in a bit of color, you know, in the papers or anything. And to me she was a beautiful woman, and we talked about it, what a difference. She looked so lively and so interested in what the women thought of the Coast Guard and military service.

So after she had talked to us a little while, she said it was rather cool, and she asked the captain that had gone along—

[End Tape One, Side A—Begin Tape One, Side B]

IP:

—gone along with us to pick out five or six of the officers to come into the lobby with her there. She'd like to talk a little further about what the women did. And so I was fortunate to be one of those [unclear]. We went in the back of the White House there in a lobby, my first visit in the White House, first going in, and she talked to us about whether we liked our work, and what our families thought of our leaving and going into the service, and how the Coast Guard respected us, lots of questions like you asked me. And she thanked us and told us that she would tell the president about us. She was very proud of us.

And she really was. I know you've read that she was the eyes and ears of the president, and you know how crippled he was. We didn't know at the time that it was so hard for him to get around, and he couldn't walk at all. They had to stand him up at a lectern. So I think she performed a valuable service to him.

And then later when Roosevelt was elected again in '44, they had presidential balls, you know, like they still do. But, of course, President Roosevelt didn't come to any of the balls, and at that time they were not so fancy, just all the dancing and carrying on.

But my friend and I, the Coast Guard officer that lived next door to me, we went to the Mayflower Hotel, and here was Mrs. Roosevelt. That's the hotel she had chosen. Of course, that wasn't far from the White House. She recognized us and came over, “Oh, you're the Coast Guard girls.” And she was so gracious to us, and people would come in that were people high in the government, and they would recognize Mrs. Roosevelt, and she would introduce us to a lot of them.

She was just the most down to earth—I changed my mind completely about her, from having that experience of her, and then I followed her and then later after President Roosevelt died, she wrote a column in the paper every day, My Day, and I read it, and I just think she was a great asset to this country. I had friends that thought she wasn't a great woman and all like that, but they just didn't know her like we had had an opportunity to.

HT:

Do you recall meeting any other people while you were in the military, entertainers or—?

IP:

Well, we would go to those balls and see them. I think that one time we saw Bob Hope and his group. At the balls there would be primarily somebody that was rather high up in the government, like some senator or something of that sort that would come to them, or governor or something. But at other balls we didn't see the president, you know.

Another interesting thing I thought is Mrs. Roosevelt appeared not to have any Secret Service around. She just walked over. She was standing by herself as we went in the door, and she came over to greet us, and I saw no Secret Service, no stuff like that. At that time, security was not like today. In fact, President [Harry] Truman got out and walked around the White House and across the streets without any security at all. Times have changed, haven't they? [laughs]

HT:

Quite a bit. If we could backtrack for just a minute to your training in New London, could you describe—I'm just going to list the whole things here—lack of privacy, food, uniforms, just general training, the instructors, and some of the girls that you might have met. Did you want to comment on any of those?

IP:

Well, I felt that all the girls that came there, we were pleased with all of them. You know, usually in a group where you get in a group together, you'll have some that you feel are sort of drags on the group or something, but I never felt that way about any of them that had been selected. I think they were very careful in selecting them.

In the classrooms where we'd have formal meetings, it would usually be a lieutenant or a captain, and they would go over the mission of the Coast Guard and explain to us where, to the extent that they could. I mean, at that time they couldn't always tell us where the ships were, or whatever, but they'd say they were doing such and such, or a group had just been to so-and-so, and the language of the thing, and how the missions were, and how we worked in with the others, the Marines and all, they all worked together, and how they fitted together, and why it was necessary.

And after [unclear] felt the Coast Guard should be a separate entity, even though it was under, in wartime, the jurisdiction of the navy. They felt that the Coast Guard should remain a separate, independent agency—might get lost in a shakeup with the army or something of that sort.

HT:

Who were the instructors at New London?

IP:

Well, I don't recall any of their names, but they were officers, they were male officers that had been in the Coast Guard, and they had been there at the Coast Guard Academy, a lot of them had. Of course, sometimes they rotated them out, you know, around. But generally they had—I can't read this. [laughs]

[Tape recorder paused]

IP:

You said any interesting or humorous things, and I always think of her. The word SPARs, the Coast Guard motto is “Semper Paratus,” Latin, “Semper Paratus,” which in English is “always ready.” So they took those four letters and called us SPARs. So Carmen Miranda went around with Bob Hope a lot, and she was quite a comedienne of that era, and she was a Hispanic. She came to speak to us at some event, and she said, “Oh, I just love your name, SPARs.” She said, “I understand it stands for Seldom Prepared, but Always Ready.” [laughs] We just screamed. [laughs]

So anyone that asked me what was SPARs from then on, they said, “Irene, why are you called SPARs?”

I said, “We're seldom prepared, but always ready.” [laughs]

HT:

I assume she was with a USO [United Service Organizations] troupe, or something like that.

IP:

Yes, she was with a group like that, and you know, Hope would take along USO sometimes. Hope was a wonderful man to go around and bolster the spirits of the military. As you know, the army troops, he'd take them and have them sing and carry on. The troops really enjoyed that.

HT:

Before we started talking about Carmen Miranda, I think you were talking about basic training, some of the things that you remember about that, some of the fellow trainees and instructors and that sort of thing.

IP:

Yes. Well, we had various ones. I mean, they had been in engineering and stuff like that, a lot of them had. You see, the men, they were training them in more technical things than we were. But ours was generally administrative that they were training us, but they wanted us to have a broad knowledge of the Coast Guard, not to be ignorant when we got out and said we were in the Coast Guard, and knew nothing about it.

So they were very good about telling us how many ships they had, and how many of this, and how many of the cutters, and what they did, and instances of where the cutters had saved ships by going out and looking before a big ship was coming to harbor, where they thought there was a place that was extremely cold. They gave us a good overview of what constituted the Coast Guard, and the type of people and what they were doing, and what they did on the ships.

In fact, they took us on a ship, as I said, there that was in the harbor, and would go down and show us the mess, as they called it, where they had the food, and stuff of that sort. Incidentally, when we got there they fed us meals that were fed to the men, and I have never seen such steaks. You know, that was wartime, and we could hardly get it, but they fed us these tremendous steaks and all these—we were just shocked that they had so much food. I think they about figured out that women didn't eat that much, and they cut down on the portions.

But anyhow, they told us all about the history of the Coast Guard, what the Coast Guard is constituted of, and what we could do, and how we could do, and why we were recruited to take the jobs and to relieve the people that were off fighting for us—that we could think about when there was a battle they won, or a ship they sunk, or a German submarine or something. We could feel that we had a part in it, because we had let those men make room for them to go to give their full time and duty to it.

And sort of military history they would go over, great battles and things like that. It was interesting to us that we really [unclear] things we never really knew about the services and what they were doing.

HT:

Now, you were in the first class. Was that a large class?

IP:

We had about forty in the class. It was the first class of SPARs that trained at the academy. They had sent some to Smith College along before that, but they were WAVES, and they felt, the Coast Guard felt that they should train the Coast Guard people themselves, and make room at the academy for them.

They taught us about cleanliness and keeping our rooms shipshape, and I remember these two admirals. We'd heard or were told that we were to be inspected on a Saturday morning and for us to have everything in place, and neat and cleaned up in our place. So here we got all up and cleaned up everything, and stood at attention, and here came the two admirals, and they had on white gloves, I'll never forget, and went over the windowsills, ran their fingers along. We just cringed, thinking, golly, I hope I dusted that windowsill. [laughs] They didn't say very much, other than, you know, “Nice to have you ladies in the Coast Guard,” or something like that. They didn't say very much about what they gave us, but they didn't criticize us, so—

HT:

You obviously must have passed.

IP:

That's what we assumed. [laughs] They didn't see any dark—. We all looked to see, well, did their gloves look all right after they did that.

HT:

We had those in the air force. We called those white-glove inspections.

IP:

Oh, is that right? You had that, too? [unclear] that with us that day. I'll never forget that morning. I can see them standing there with baited breath, looking at what they were doing, hoping they didn't uncover something that we hadn't intended to; thought it was clean.

HT:

Well, while you were with the SPARs, what was the hardest thing you ever had to do physically?

IP:

I suppose that it was when we had these boats, you know, they had the little boats that you paddled, and we got in one of those, several of us—it's rather long—and had to paddle, had to move the boat, make it go up and down. Now, that was pretty hard on our shoulders and arms. I remember some of us kind of got back complaining to each other about our shoulders, and the next morning we were rather sore. We hadn't been doing too much exercise.

HT:

So did you have a regimen of exercises you had to do every day?

IP:

Yes, we did have exercise. We had to do exercise, none of it too strenuous, though. We marched quite a bit. One of the interesting things about our marching I remember—church is on Sunday morning, and we marched everywhere we went. Someone led the crew chief. So we went down to the church, so here's this group marching down the street, lined up. So we got to the church steps and we went too far before she told us to stop, you see, in front, about halfway up the church, down in front of the church steps. So what she wanted was us to back up and turn there at the corner, and go up the church steps, you see. And she didn't exactly know what the commands were. But anyway, she said, “Take two steps backward. Forward march.”

Well, now, some people went forward, some went backwards. [laughs] People were standing out there to let us get in the church first, you see, seeing all this. Some didn't move at all. They didn't know what to do.

HT:

I'm sure it was an unusual sight.

IP:

It was. We laughed about that for many, many moons, “Take two steps backwards; forward march.” And she was embarrassed to death that we had all just gone off in different directions, so finally she said, “Well, we've got to get back here, so use these steps on the side.”

HT:

We talked earlier about the difficulty that you had physically. What about emotions? Did you have any hard times emotionally about anything?

IP:

No.

HT:

I know I've talked to the nurses and, of course, they always have emotional ties with their patients.

IP:

That's right, the patients, but we didn't see any injured people, or any violence of any kind. It was really very serene and a lovely setting there. We were pretty much scheduled for our classes, and time for dinner. Everybody came at the same time, and all that. Our life was pretty structured. But I never had any emotional problems. We looked forward to where we would be going when we completed the thing, and getting into working.

HT:

But during the time with the SPARs did you have any embarrassing moments, other than at the foot of the steps?

IP:

[unclear] [laughter] No, I don't recall any. I used to think that we had a wonderful group, and it was wonderful training. There's a mixture of things, you know, that we considered it good discipline, and we felt that we were useful. We had a feeling that we were useful to people that we read about that were in these ships and fighting, being lost and whatever. That made us sad, but I think we were pleased that we were going to be a part of it.

HT:

Now, this refers to your three years in SPARs. What did you do during your off-duty hours, because you were in Washington, so that's a pretty good-sized city.

IP:

Yes, it was, and you had lots of nice places to go. We would go to movies sometimes, a group of us would, before we went home at night. We'd go and eat dinner. There was a wonderful S&W [Cafeteria] there, you know. There's the K&W [Cafeteria] down in this area, but it had the most wonderful food, and we would go to dinner a lot there, and then go to a movie. Or when we had time off, like on the weekends, we could go over on the [Capitol] Hill to congressional hearings. See, I had never been to Congress before, and see what was over there.

Later in the VA I went to Congress. We went to hearings and all like that, but at least we got to know our way around the Congress and what was there, so it was helpful to us when we later got in the Veterans Administration and had to go appear on a budget.

And there would be certain shows and things at the Smithsonian Institute, lots of things going on all the time. And the Ford['s] Theater had plays, you know, where Lincoln was killed, and that always was a thoughtful place to go to. That was a great tragedy.

HT:

Do you recall where you were during VE [Victory in Europe] Day, which was in May of '45?

IP:

I was at my home out in Mount Rainier, Maryland, and we heard about VE Day. We had a little victory garden. There was a plot across the street, and people at that time had victory gardens. I was over there, and you know that some cars began passing by with the people screaming with happiness and all along the streets, and I sat down and cried, thinking of the losses that we had, the people that had won this war that wouldn't come home.

And although my brother, her father, came home, he had been wounded twice, and had a terrible shot and all that had gone into his face, which they couldn't completely repair, and I was full of sadness, as well as so glad that it was over. But to think of the people that we lost, had been lost, and the wonderful people.

HT:

Did you know anybody who had lost their life?

IP:

Well, I knew that my nephew had lost his. He was shot down in a plane over Romania, the oil fields, the Ploesti oil fields. He was in Italy, and they would go—I recall those days. After that happened I went over to the [U.S.] Department of Defense. See, my poor sister and brother lived in Taylorsville. They were just stricken. They began wishing they had never signed for him to go in at seventeen, and [unclear] because he was just their whole life.

So I went to the Department of Defense and talked to a high-ranking man there, and he got out the file and searched it and searched for what happened, and he said that their plane, the other plane—they went along, you know, a group of them, and he said that their plane was shot down and it went to the ground, and some of them turned around to look, and it was a fire. They said it was smoke, and nothing appeared to be.

But later they had rescue people, and people were somewhat—the natives were somewhat willing to gather up things like that, so they gathered up the remains that were available there, and then after the war they sent them home, and buried them in a common grave in Rock Island, Illinois. The administrator sent me to Iowa to visit the hospital there about a matter, and I told him that I was interested in coming back to Rock Island, Illinois.

He was pleased to have me go there, because then the Veterans Administration was taking over the Defense Department burial grounds, and so I came back there and saw his grave. It's a big, beautiful, marble thing, and showed all the names on it. I believe there were nine of them buried in a common grave, because they came from all parts of the United States.

HT:

What type of plane was he on?

IP:

You've asked me a question I haven't thought of.

HT:

Probably a bomber.

IP:

A bomber, a bomber. He was a navigator. But eventually, you know, they did put those oil fields out of commission, which took away the oil that Germany was using a lot of.

HT:

And in August, of course, they had VJ [Victory in Japan] Day. Do you recall anything particular about that day?

IP:

Well, I remember having the same feeling at that time, and I was at home. That was when we got the word, back at my apartment, doing something. I had this feeling about victory, and wishing that people could partake of it that had gone and done the fighting and all, but I don't know. We were so happy the next day, I mean, such a happiness among the people in the headquarters that it was over and that we were winning the war.

HT:

You got out of the Coast Guard in 1946?

IP:

Yes.

HT:

Do you recall when?

IP:

Let's see, it was June '46. No, I believe it was August. It was June of '43 when I went in, and I got out in August '46. That's when I went to the VA.

HT:

Now, not very many women stayed in the service after the war was over. Did you have that opportunity that you could have stayed in the SPARs?

IP:

Yes, I could have stayed, or I could have stayed in the reserves, as they called it. The Coast Guard, I think that they would have kept any women that wanted to stay in the reserves, and they certainly offered to let me stay longer. But, you see, they had certain criteria for how you could get out, how many years you served, and this, that, and the other. So I got out then.

I would have stayed if I hadn't had the offer of the VA job, but the Coast Guard was eager to cooperate with the Veterans Administration, because a lot of our Coast Guard people were wanting services, you know, homes. They were providing loans for homes, and giving them, trying to get them jobs, and giving them unemployment insurance. That was the GI Bill, which was a wonderful thing, and we had the biggest education program in the country that's ever been undertaken, and a lot of those veterans went to school at that time. A man that later became administrator of the VA went to school, went to law school, under the GI Bill, and I went to the American University at night and took courses under the GI Bill. It was a wonderful way to educate the people that were coming back.

HT:

So when did you join the VA?

IP:

In August '46.

HT:

Okay, so directly from Coast Guard.

IP:

Directly from the Coast Guard to the VA, yes. And fortunately, a couple of the fellows that were captains and commanders in the Coast Guard went to VA, and they did some other military. In fact, we gave preference to veterans for jobs in the VA.

HT:

What type of work did you do when you first joined the VA?

IP:

Well, I went into personnel work. I became a personnel trainee, and my first job was—because they were so desperately in need of stenographers and clerks and typists, they asked me if I'd go on a recruiting trip, because they knew I'd had some experience in that. I went to Ohio, and Texas, Dallas, went into Neiman Marcus [department] store. I'd never been there. And several places in Texas that I went.

HT:

When you went on these recruiting trips did you go to schools?

IP:

I would go to schools. Of course, I would get in touch with the VA office, like we had a VA office in Dallas, and a VA hospital in Waco, Texas, for example. I would go there and get in touch with them, and they would make arrangements with schools for me to come and give tests.

HT:

Were these high schools that you went to?

IP:

Yes. One place that I came to was Greensboro, UNCG. They were naturally very helpful to me, and I hired a group from there, and one of the girls became a secretary that I hired from Greensboro. You know, they have a commercial course at Greensboro, one year, and so I hired—most of the girls that I hired were from that, although there were a few four-year students. And one of them, I remember, became secretary to the administrator of VA, which didn't hurt me at all. [laughs]

HT:

So all the recruits would go to Washington to work?

IP:

Yes, they would, and we'd help them get housing, boarding places and things like that. I had a group that did that. But we hired quite a few from North Carolina. They always said the ones I brought from Greensboro were the best. I thought so, too.

HT:

So how long were you a recruiter and trainer?

IP:

Well, I was a recruiter, but while I was back in the VA, after I'd go on a trip I'd go back to my regular recruitment place of work. You know, I had a regular desk there, so I began moving along in the hierarchy from there [unclear], and the next step. You know, we had certain grades and all, became unit chief, and then a section chief, and eventually a division chief.

I worked hard and I stayed after hours, and then I began to do a lot of work for the field offices in connection with filling jobs in the field. You see, the main division jobs and directors' jobs and all in the field were approved in the central office, and we knew everybody in the country. We had management development papers on people and their qualifications and all, and when one was ready, some vacancies in higher jobs, like assistant manager trainee, we would reach out and call the directors and all, and ask them if they had anyone they wanted to suggest for those jobs, and I began to want them to suggest a woman.

I'd say, “We need a woman [unclear] assistant director,” and the administrator thought that was a good idea, so we did hire the first woman, made her an assistant director trainee, and then after that we had several women that became assistant directors.

HT:

This was in the late forties, I guess.

IP:

Yes. And then in the fifties I worked with VA in the fifties and the sixties, and I moved up in the channels. We arranged training classes for our management people, and I arranged a course with the George Washington University. You see, we were training some of their medical students in our VA hospital there in Washington.

We tried to get hooked up with universities, like we did with Duke [University]. Duke, you know, has a VA right in its yard almost, and the administrator sent me when we dedicated a research wing in our building in Duke, and Duke sponsored it, and I came there and spoke for the VA We built a new hospital at what they used to call Oteen [North Carolina]. That's up near Asheville, and it's Asheville Hospital now, it's called. But I came there, and Senator Sam Ervin, I came with him. We were brought down on the plane with him to dedicate that hospital.

HT:

So you stayed in Washington for the most part.

IP:

For the most part, from then on I was always in Washington, except going to these field places and help them out, or to [unclear].

HT:

And you stayed with the VA till you retired, I guess.

IP:

Yes. In 1960 President [Lyndon B.] Johnson appointed me to be an assistant administrator and director of personnel of VA. Bill Moyers [White House Press Secretary, '65-'67] called me to come to the White House. The administrator had told me that he had given my name to the president. He wanted names of any women that qualified for top jobs, and this was in '65. So I got a call asking if I could come over to the White House in time for a press conference, on August 5, 1965.

Well, fortunately I had a new suit hanging in my little wardrobe in my office that I had saved for that purpose, after I thought that he might be calling me, so it only took me a few minutes to change, and got a VA car downstairs, and I went over to the White House. In front of all the press he announced my appointment, and then he invited me into the Oval Office, which is a better location than when I had come with Mrs. Roosevelt, not that I enjoyed it any more. He had the press in there and they could ask questions, and then he talked to me a while about the VA He was very down to earth, and I just thought the world of him. We were just a block away, across Lafayette Park there, and I was on the eleventh floor of my office, and of course he was down. He said, “I'm going to keep my eye on you.”

And I said, “Well, I can keep my eye on you better. I'm on the eleventh floor over there, a block away.” [laughs] So he was the most gracious person, and in my opinion he received a lot of criticism that he didn't deserve. I don't know that this has to go in, but I feel strongly about it.

You see, President [John F.] Kennedy was killed, and we all loved him. He was full of life and all, and it was such a sad day, such a horrible thing, but everybody just cried. Nobody wanted a new president to take his place, and Bobby Kennedy didn't want Lyndon Johnson. None of the people, or very few of them that he had brought in, like [Robert] McNamara and the people that were directly responsible to Kennedy, had been in Kennedy's clan, did not want Johnson, didn't think he was the man for the job, I suppose. Although, you know, Johnson had been put on the ticket to help him take Texas. If it hadn't been for that, he wouldn't have won the thing.

So President Johnson had an uphill battle to try to do what he wanted to do, without offending the Kennedys. And he was just as gracious to Jackie Kennedy and to all of his close buddies as he could be. But Johnson could be a rough, I mean. By rough I mean he wanted to get something done—could punch it out sometimes. But he got the civil rights bills through. He got the legislation through that Kennedy could not get through, and, frankly, he knew much more about the government.

You know, he'd been the majority leader in the Senate, and he knew the government and the bureaucracies, and how to mold it and handle it, and who did what where. He was the president that knew more about that than any other president. Working in personnel we could see his influence and his views about things, because he was a knowledgeable man.

HT:

Do you think he was a better president than President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower?

IP:

We all loved President Eisenhower, and you know, things went along just fine and quiet, but President Eisenhower was not aggressive. He's a wonderful general, but things sort of just sort of coasted along, and fortunately everything went along okay. But I think that Lyndon Johnson was more interested in government and more interested in seeing what needed to be done. We need some changes.

As you know, that was the great time of Martin Luther King, and the races in Birmingham and that sort of thing, and you needed a president that would think of new legislation, and I think that he did a lot in that area. I mean, people sit back now that were close to him at the time, and can see the things that he did. I thought he was a—

HT:

Well, you spent quite a number of years, then, with the VA.

IP:

Yes.

HT:

All told, what are your fondest memories of the VA, and what are you most proud of having accomplished during those years with the VA?

IP:

Well, I think that we were able to, in our budgets and our planning, to develop and carry out programs that were very beneficial to the veterans, and in our hospitals for those that were wounded, that needed care, we really worked the hospitals, and I'm telling you, we had strict personnel regulations on how to treat the veterans, any sick veteran.

If anybody ever, a maid or an orderly or anything, ever struck a veteran, that was the end of them. They were fired on the spot. Not that we didn't train them and teach them to be good to them, and most of them were. But you know, in any place like that you'll sometimes have workers that might speak sharply to them or something like that. But we never—we wanted them to have the best care, and I think did provide care, and we got wonderful nurses that we recruited.

And when I got in my job I told President Johnson that I wanted—he asked me what were some of the things I wanted to do, and I told him, well, that I wanted just to keep on doing the best job for veterans, but I thought that I'd like to see nurses and doctors, medical personnel given attention, and that I especially wanted to see nurses paid, I said see nurses receive more pay. And he said, “Well, Irene, as you said, you're not far away, and you're up there on the eleventh floor.” He said, “If you have any problem with it, you call me.” He laughed and I laughed. I didn't have to call him on that.

But I did come back and have a little study group work up things so that nurses—you know there are good nurses and bad nurses, as you know, or nurses that are not so good. And you see, most places, most hospitals—in most places they pay the nurses all the same. Every nurse feels she should get what the other nurse gets, and I didn't feel that way, but yet we didn't want to embarrass the nurses by saying, “No, this one is good, and that one is not as good,” but rather to work up duties that a nurse could have which put her in a different grade.

Set the grades—one would do some training, you see, of young nurses. There'd be a group that could do that, as well as the regular nurses. They would be called upon to train. Others would be called upon to do minor duties, maybe injections or something in the medical areas that the doctors felt they could do, that the regular nurse—you wouldn't have to assign them to all nurses. That way we made a distinction, so that the nurse didn't feel bad if she wasn't one selected to train others, I mean, that that woman had gotten it [not] because she was better than she was as far as the salary, but rather because she had more work. She had to train some of the new nurses and all.

HT:

Now, were the nurses inducted into the GS [General Schedule] System?

IP:

No, they had a different pay system, and we had more authority, more flexibility for them. You see, the civil service system was rather rigid, although if you knew how to work it you could get things done.

HT:

That system's still in existence today, I mean the dual—

IP:

Yes, they have the dual thing today.

[End Tape One, Side B—Begin Tape Two, Side A]

IP:

Now, you know there's a thing going on now that, for example, the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security, they want different pay structures now. This has been going on in the Washington Post and a few friends have been telling me about it, that they want something called performance-based pay. Well now, in our system we could give someone—if you gave them an outstanding rating we could also recommend at the same time that they be given a superior pay change at the same time. We had that. It was tied in with the performance rating.

But I don't think myself that they should throw out all the rules and regulations that went into civil service, because that's what made it [tape mualfunction], you know. But I've achieved satisfaction from seeing young people come in, and people new to the things that we were doing, and seeing them trained and enjoying their work, and helping veterans. We certainly emphasize treating veterans nice, and responding. Even the correspondence clerks and people that did that, writing nice letters.

We would every once in a while get a sample of the letters that were going out, and see what kind of letters we were writing, and generally we wrote very nice, kind letters. One letter that I'll tell you about, this woman wrote back, and they had filled it in about her children and who might be eligible for what, you know, and their names we put on there. She wrote back and she said, “You have made my little girl a boy. What do I do now?” [laughter] On this form, she said. “On this form you have made my little girl a boy. What do I do now?” [laughs] Well, we corrected it.

HT:

When did you retire from the VA?

IP:

Well, I retired in 1975. Now, I've gone to several places, as I said. I had a house there in Washington, down in Foggy Bottom. You know, that's right near the Watergate, and I had lots of friends down there, and it's a nice area to live in. I had good friends, a couple in New York, and they lived out at East Hampton, New York, and lived on the Gardner's Bay [New York], the bay there. It's a beautiful place, East Hampton. I don't know if you've ever had an opportunity to go out there, on Long Island.

So I bought a house there, kept my one in Washington, and I stayed there a while. I enjoyed the community work there. They did a lot of community work and I went to a lot of their meetings. There were a lot of interesting people that were very interested in the government and that sort of thing. But that was just a temporary sort of thing, and in the meantime I kept up with some of my management consultant stuff. I'd go back and go whenever we'd have a project that I was interested in.

HT:

So after you left the VA you became a management consultant?

IP:

That's right, for [unclear], five or six years.

HT:

That's a business?

IP:

Well, yes, we had a business. There was three or four of us that went into a management consultant group, and we worked some for the Federal Housing Administration and the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, where they would want matters that bordered on personnel matters that we could help them with, like promotion plans or disciplinary plans, or whatever.

But in the VA, my great satisfaction came, as I said, from seeing the people come and develop, and be able to help veterans. There's a lot of difference in a veteran coming into an office and wanting to talk to you about a problem, and it takes a special person to make them feel that they're appreciated and that they're doing everything they can to help them.

Now, as you know, there are veterans, and some people call them professional veterans, people that have never even been out of the States, and have not suffered any disabilities in the service, but forty years later they'll come up with flat feet or something, and they can cause the agency a lot of trouble, or the person a lot of trouble, that they're entitled to a pension for life, and you have to deal with them also. But there's a lot of veterans that are really deserving and that were wounded, and didn't push in and want everything, and they're satisfied that they got a fair treatment.

But anyway, out of it, I think that most of the veterans were well treated, and that most of them appreciated the Veterans Administration, and that was a satisfaction to me. Just recently a lady that had done some alterations for me, she said her husband goes to Salisbury [North Carolina] to the VA hospital, and she said it is the nicest place. When she found out I had worked with the Veterans Administration, she said it is the nicest place. She said he enjoys going there and they treat him so nice, and it's so clean and it's a great help to him. She said, “I can't tell you how much I think of the Veterans Administration.” She just thinks it's the greatest agency.

HT:

Now, you were at the VA almost thirty years.

IP:

Yes, thirty years.

HT:

What kind of changes did you see over those thirty years? You joined right after the Second World War, and then, of course, Vietnam ended.

IP:

Then I stayed in the Vietnam thing, and [unclear] in Korea, you know, in the fifties. I guess that I feel, and I'm sort of reluctant to categorize some of the veterans this way, but I think particularly those from Vietnam, you know, they have sort of been made to feel that they were not—it was an unnecessary war, and people have told, in my opinion, such things as they were such a rough bunch, just like—well, without getting into politics, the presidential candidate [John] Kerry, you know, said how we had done, and testified before Congress, cut off people's heads and all like that, and I don't believe any such stuff as that.

But it did cast some sort of a pall over Vietnam veterans, and it affected their attitude. And we had more problems with the Vietnam veterans as a result of that. They had sort of a—and were in some cases entitled to it, because of the criticism and the Jane Fondas. I saw on TV last night she's traveling around now, anti-Iraq. But I think that some of them felt that in Vietnam that they did not receive the treatment and appreciation that they deserved, but I think the VA has done a lot to try to make amends for anything like that.

HT:

If we can backtrack to your time in the military, do you think that you were an independent person before you joined the SPARs, or did joining the military make you an independent person?

IP:

I think that it helped to make me a more independent person. I think that I felt, you know, once we went off up there to—once I had joined and gone off up there to the Coast Guard Academy, I was away from relatives and so on, and living in a different climate altogether, and you sort of had to—you felt more independent, and felt you had to be more independent, to take care of yourself in the situation, and to put forth with more effort to help wherever you could was your purpose, and to do it in the best way that you could.

I think that I was not afraid to go around or to do things, and venture into wherever I wanted to go and do in my career. I had a very good idea that I wanted to go to the Veterans Administration, and what I would do there, work in personnel. I think that, like, gradually coming out of a sort of a secluded life, if you talk about your time in North Carolina, you know, in teaching and that sort of thing, into one where you're seeing wider horizons that needed to be addressed.

I think it helped me in being more independent. I think it helped me in my career, in the fact that I was a veteran and had gone through this, I think helped me in the Veterans Administration, and it helped me with groups. You know, I would go out and speak to groups like the American Legion and stuff like that, and Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the fact that I was a veteran made me more acceptable to them when I told them something about the veterans and what we wanted to do for them and all.

You know, it was just a psychological thing that, well, here's somebody that's not standing up there, some little old girl that doesn't know anything about the military, but rather she's had experience in the military for three years, and did help a lot of veterans in combat back in the headquarters, and so she's trying to do this in the Veterans Administration, help. It was more sympathetic with them.

HT:

Well, many people consider women who joined the military during World War II to be trailblazers or trendsetters. Do you consider yourself along that sprout?

IP:

No, I don't necessarily do that. I feel that I worked hard. I feel that I had the Wilkes County work ethic in me. I felt that I wanted to do well for the country, and certainly it would be helpful for my family to see me do well, which it was. I just had a satisfaction from a job well done. There's, to me, nothing better than that, just no matter what it is. If you are able to get something done and do it well, you get some satisfaction out of it, and you feel that you have not only done something, but you've also learned and helped yourself by doing a good job.

HT:

What impact do you think having been in the military had on your life in the long term?

IP:

Well, in the long term I think that the military is such a large part of our whole lives, and has been for years now. The Cold War—and it seems that we've been in a state of concern about military buildup and military considerations. I think having been in that, it makes me feel a part of it more than I would, especially some lady over here that's always been staying at home, or working downtown in a dress shop or something like that.

I think it made me want to go ahead and get more done, and see that there was more room for things to be done, and see that the world was a big place and it revolved around a lot of matters, and the military part of it is certainly very important. We don't see anything, almost, today that it doesn't have some aspect or be affected by the military, and a great percentage of our population—I know at one time it was seventy percent or something, of people that are either veterans, relatives of veterans, dependents or beneficiaries of veterans. They tie in with a veteran. Most every family has somebody who's been in the military, and you just feel more a part of the larger group than you would if you were not.

I feel it helped me to get to the Veterans Administration, and helped me to do my job there and to advance. Because if somebody was promoting you, it's be nice for them to be able to say you were a veteran, as well as that you'd done a good job.

HT:

If you had to do it over again, would you join the SPARs again?

IP:

Yes. I'd get me some gold braids. [laughter]

HT:

You never got any gold braids?

IP:

No, never had gold braids. [laughs] I wish I had kept one of my [unclear].

HT:

I was just going to ask, did you ever—

IP:

And I wish I'd kept my hat.

HT:

Do you keep any of your military garments?

IP:

I didn't keep any single one of my garments. You know, I moved around quite a bit and I had several uniforms. In fact, after I went to Washington I had a couple tailor-made, you know. It wasn't the standard GI. Frankly, I don't recall. I think I gave some to somebody who wears a jacket and a skirt, you know, and taken off any decorations or anything, but I don't know. I regret very much not having kept them, especially my hat, which I enjoyed.

Do you have a picture, Laurie? Where do we have this picture of—

LAURIE [possibly niece Lorraine Parsons]:

Of you in a hat?

IP:

Yes. I can give you one of those.

[Tape recorder paused]

HT:

If you could tell me about some of the awards you received over the years that would be great.

IP:

Well, I received the Federal Woman's Award in 1966, which was an award given to six outstanding women in the government. They had a committee of judges. Katie Lockheim, Assistant Secretary of State, was the chairman, and other prominent people in government who selected them.

I also received the Civil Service League Award, which is for exceptional service in government by men or women, and I received the—I don't know that I should tell you this, but this Civil Service League Award, at that time a thousand dollars was quite a chunk. They gave anyone that received it a thousand dollars, but I don't need to put that in.

I received a commendation for distinguished service from President [Richard M.] Nixon. I want you to find that. Oh, you did find it? We have one that shows the people there. That's okay.

I received from the colleges that I went to, and universities, there were three—Brevard College, my name was placed in the Hall of Fame as an outstanding graduate, and George Washington University, where I received a master's in public administration, they gave me the Distinguished Alumnae Award. And in 1967 the University of North Carolina at Greensboro gave me an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

Those are some that I received, and it reminds me, telling you about all these awards, there was a general in the army, and he had a large number of medals on his chest, just loaded with medals, and someone asked him where he got them. And he said, “Well, do you see this one?” He said, “I got this one several years ago by mistake. They got my name mixed up with someone else, and they gave me this medal, and even though it was a mistake they told me I could keep it.”

And he said, “Then, because I got that award, another organization gave me this award. And then that organization knew I had these awards, and they gave me this one.” [laughs] He said, “All the others followed on,” because he had gotten the other awards. [laughter] A truthful man, I guess.

There I was making a speech one time. I used to speak at conferences. Let's see, did she give you the one from Nixon? I'll tell you, no politics was involved in any awards, I can tell you that, because at the time that Lyndon Johnson appointed me I was an Independent. I was an Independent, because I believed that anybody that had anything to do with the Veterans Administration and benefits for them and all, that no politics, even the slightest, would ever be thought about in connection with what you did for programs and so on. So I thought to be an Independent, politically, was the best way.

And Johnson appointed me, but Richard Nixon gave me a commendation, and I liked every president. Where I worked, I liked every president that worked for us, worked for the country. I think they all had some good qualities and worked hard. And I think here again, regarding President Nixon, it's easy to kick him around, and so many people do today that don't even know what it's for. They've just heard of Watergate, and that's all they know.

And if you start telling them what happened and how it happened, see, he was one of the most-hated men by the press that was president that we've ever had. I think the press hated him more, and wanted to bring him down, and although he certainly made mistakes in connection with that little burglary, that was somebody that wanted something at the Democratic National Committee files, that they had heard that they were going to use against President Nixon or in connection with the election.

The press made a great deal of it, and these bunglers sort of bungled it up, and then people went along trying to keep it quiet, and as we recently learned, this man at the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigations], the man that was really acting director of the FBI [William Mark Felt Sr.] was going meeting in garages, criminally telling what was going on, and he was sworn to secrecy as far as this country, giving out information that was confidential and classified, and to me he was the criminal. And the Washington Post rode to glory on this. Every morning there was a big headline of something that they'd been told by the FBI man, nobody knew at the time.

And Nixon was just harassed to death with the press. Anybody that would watch a press conference in those days could see how they hated—how they tried to trip him up. And Nixon, if he had been able to serve out his second term, he had a plan for reorganizing the government that he had worked on the first four years, and in my opinion, we would have had a different, better government for this country in years to come if he could have put that plan into effect.

It had been sent to agencies for comments, sent to the Veterans Administration. We were able to study parts of it, and it was a masterpiece of how the government could have been more cohesive, and just some of the things that we've done in recent years, like try to get intelligence together, that was what he wanted to do. And, of course, the intelligence people didn't want it done. They didn't want to be put together. They each one wanted to stay separate.

HT:

Was this President Nixon's personal plan?

IP:

That was President Nixon's personal plan he developed, and had developed with some of his advisors, and also going to some of the agency heads and talking to them. I did at one time have notes about it, about the different departments that he would have, and have more reporting. I know in the case of the Veterans Administration, which was at that time sort of—it had administrations and offices and all, you know.

He would have gotten them better, and had fewer Cabinet departments, and they would have been stronger departments, and you could have gotten top-flight people to head them up, by having more powerful-and just like we now have gathered the stuff like the Homeland Security. He really developed a plan to draw things together that were similar and not being duplicated in other agencies, or where there was conflict between agencies, to put them under one head. I thought it was marvelous what he was planning to do. And all of that went out the window the minute this Watergate stuff began. Nobody was working on that or doing anything.

But you come back down to what was Watergate. Watergate was somebody going-my little house, my bedroom and my patio window looked straight into the Watergate, where this place was. If I'd been looking out that night and seen the light over there and gone over, I might have saved the presidency. [laughter] But this nut that somebody had gotten to help out with something, that knew how to burglarize or something, had put a piece of tape on a door, over the door keys where he'd gone in, to go up to the Democratic thing, and along came this guard. Do you remember there was a guard, a black fellow that was a guard?

HT:

I don't recall that.

IP:

Well, you don't remember, you wouldn't, the details. Well, he came up and found this little piece of tape on the door over there, and that's when he pulled that off and went and told somebody, and they called the police, when what they were up there doing was looking in some of the files to find that material that they were going to use against Nixon and the presidency, whatever it was. And Nixon I do not believe knew that they were going to do that. He later did find out about it, according to the tapes, but then he knew that if he owned up that he did know about it, they would tear him to pieces. So he tried to keep it quiet.

But when it all came out in the wash, what harm had he done to government? What law had he really broken, other than just going along with them on covering up, you see, on who was there and what? I never could fathom—I think the man from the FBI that was doing all the feeding of this stuff, and building it up, and giving it to [Robert] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein was the person that had the criminal intent.

HT:

Miss Parsons, I don't have any other questions for you this afternoon. Do you have anything you'd like to add to your interview that we haven't covered, because we've covered quite a bit of information this afternoon?

IP:

Yes, yes. Well, I want to say that I'm very impressed with you and that they sent you. You know, they wanted to send somebody right after I came down here, and I was thinking of some young whippersnapper that they had, you know, that's running around, and I just didn't have time. And I know Betty Carter sent me a letter. I have a few letters, and I like her and I'm not being critical of this, but I thought, well, she's kind of—

HT:

Do I need to turn the tape recorder off?

IP:

Yes, oh yes.

[End of interview]