By Barry Dalton
Her mother was just 17 when Bertha, also known as Bert, was born in Farber on April 28, 1921. Her father had only recently fought in World War I. Little did these proud parents know that their first born, a hardy 10-pound baby girl, would soon be an important part in winning a second world war.
Bertha Mae was the first born of five children to Albert Shotwell and Harriet Mae Marie Kendall Shotwell of Farber on April 28, 1921. Her siblings were Hoyt, Arline, Mary and Dorothy, the second youngest, who is 94 and plans to attend Bertha’s 100th birthday celebration that will take place on May 1 in Mexico.
Her family moved around quite a bit when Bertha was a young girl. She was born just in time to experience historically hard times–the stock market crash (1929), the Dust Bowl (1930) and the Great Depression (1929-1933).
“I remember my dad, you know, after he got out of World War I, [he and my mother] were married, and the grass was always greener on the other side of the fence,” Bertha recalls. “And he went out to [the country of] Mexico to work on the highway they were putting out there.”
During a family conversation years later, Bertha recalls somebody saying that the family had “lived in a tent,” but her father, Albert, replied, “Well that tent had floors!”
“The highway department put up some housing for the workers to live in,” Bertha said.
By all accounts, Albert was quite the character, even into his senior years. At some point in his life, Albert had lost his eye in a work accident. One of the family’s favorite stories is the time he accidentally flushed his glass eye down the commode one time when he was trying to empty a glass of water that he kept his eye and his dentures in.
“[After the first world war], Dad would mooch off everybody,” she remembers. “If it was somebody he knew, he’d stop, and we’d spend the night there whether you were invited or not. Five kids. Little ones, you know. But we’d go on with it. We traveled around quite a lot.”
Albert did his best but times got so bad that once, the family had to feast on cheese and crackers on the side of the road for Thanksgiving. Fortunately, times got a little better, Bertha recalls, when Albert finally found a steady job in Oklahoma.
“He worked in the oil fields in Osage, Okla., is where we ended up,” Bertha says. “The oil fields kind of closed up, and they hired him to be a watchman there. We got to live in a real nice house. Everything was shut down, and we lived there several years. Three of my sisters were born there in Oklahoma: Arlene, Dorothy and Mary.
“I guess I was a sophomore when we came to Laddonia,” she remembers.
As a teenager, she enjoyed playing basketball and was a very good student. She graduated from Laddonia High School in 1940.
On March 28, 1942, she married George Oliver Clark, a young soldier drafted during World War II. He was sent to the state of Washington as a member of the military police, even though he was legally blind in one eye.
The story goes that George was born premature, weighing only three pounds. During those years, there wasn’t much that could be done to save his eye, even if his family had the money. They say that right after he was born that he was kept warm in a shoe box in the oven.
George would often joke about his war service, saying he was sent to the west coast so that he could be one of the first ones for the enemy “to shoot” if they invaded. It had only been about a year since Pearl Harbor, so there may have been some truth to it, Bertha says with a chuckle. Nevertheless, she followed him there.
“When my husband was stationed out in Seattle, I went out there for about a year and I worked about six or eight months in Boeing’s Aircraft bucking rivets,” she says.
She may, in fact, be the oldest living “Rosie the Riveter” in Missouri. Representatives of Boeing plan to visit her this month before her birthday and present her with a small replica of one of the airplanes that patriotic women like herself helped build.
“I stood there on a platform and had a little thing you held in your hand, and you’re supposed to get it up there against the rivet when they shot that thing through to the other side,” she explains.
She was paid 92 and a half cents an hour for her work and says she was happy to get it.
“That was good wages,” she says.
She later went on to become a homemaker and active community volunteer in Laddonia, where George also served as postmaster. The couple had four children–Cheryl, Evelyn, George Albert and Paula–who all graduated from Community R-VI.
Bertha was a substitute librarian, volunteered in the school cafeteria and was a Republican poll watcher and judge for many years during election day. She and George loved to garden.
“We ate fresh vegetables,” she says. “And I canned green beans and raised some corn and cut that off the cob and freezed it. We had an apple tree, and I made applesauce and apple butter. I was always busy.”
In 1981, the couple moved to Mexico on Randy Street, and then later to a newer home in Mexico. Over the years, she says she’s done various part-time jobs, such as nannying a set of twins and taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient.
George died in 2004, so Bertha now lives alone. She says she kept her mind sharp by reading, though she can’t do that anymore due to glaucoma. She enjoyed murder mysteries, but audiobooks are not for her, she says.
She also made a name for herself among friends, family and neighbors for her baking. Bertha was especially known for her angel food and burnt sugar cakes. She was once even featured in the newspaper for one of her recipes.
Bertha “retired” when she was 85, she says, but she didn’t stop driving until she was 95.
You don’t become a “Rosie” if you’re not a strong woman. She beat breast cancer in 1987 and again in 1994. She also broke her hip when she was 97, so she needs a walker to get around these days.
“You’re not supposed to break your hip when you’re 97 and live,” she says.
She even once fell through her own roof, she says. Her grandson, a toddler at the time, ran into the living room shouting to his Grandpa George that “grandma’s just hanging from the bathroom ceiling.” She had actually fallen through the attic floor, leaving a big hole for George to patch.
“It’s been a long time. Lots of things happened,” Bertha says. “Some of them I remember, and some I don’t. Some of them I think I do. Of course, I don’t have anybody my age anymore to talk to. My old school friends and thangs are all gone. It’s good I have my children. They’re a blessing. And grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
As for advice to anyone who asks, which she gives reluctantly, “Just take one day at a time. That’s all I know to do. Things could always be worse. Live with the idea that things are going to be better.”
Lisa Schoneboom, Bertha’s granddaughter, and Paula Belcher, one of her daughter’s, contributed to this story. Schoneboom works at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia and Belcher works for Audrain County Hospital in Mexico. Another one of Bertha’s daughters, Cheryl Schlemmer, lives in Laddonia.