November 2, 1921 - February 3, 2019
Neva Reese was a “Rosie the Riveter” who was important in the founding work to get people in America and Allied Nations to find, get to know and work with living women who worked on the home front during World War II. A book could be written about Neva, as an example of looking at America over the last century – a century that has seen more change than any in the history the human family.
Neva grew up on a dairy farm near Fairmont, West Virginia. Life was hard, and in later life she wrote about farm life during the Great Depression – how she helped on the farm by milking cows, walking a very long way to trace a chicken for staples the family needed. She was a good writer because she was straightforward and uncomplicated, instead of manipulating words as many, polished writers do to pull at people’s emotions but from simply telling what she did. Her honest reports were like she was – the real deal.
Neva was very tall as a teen (at least 6’ tall) and captain of her basketball team. Her fiancé joined the military before the US was in the war and sent to in New Guinea, where he lived in a fox hole for four years.
When she went to Goodyear Aircraft in Akron, OH after graduating from high school, she was assigned to helping to construct the K-ship, which was the control room at the bottom of the Goodyear Blimp that had a bathroom, a bunk and controls that were sophisticated controls for the time.
She was proud of the blimp since so few blimps were lost (they could not be shot down), they were silent, and they provided observations of activities on land and sea. This was very apparent in photos of D-Day.
She bought her own tools (all workers did), painted her tools violet, and still had some. She was uncomfortable with the thought of wearing pants, but once she started crawling on the scaffold to work, she was glad for them, and she reported that there was no harassment or other indignation on the workplace floor (see the attached notes she sent us of her work).
When the war was over and her fiancé was to meet her at the airport, he said he recognized her long legs before he saw her face. They clearly loved each other.
She loved to work with her hands – she make furniture of thread spools and was well known for her lemon cookies. She often said to young girls, “You can do it. Don’t ever let someone say you can’t.
She did not like for other Rosies to “hog the show”. When the Today Show came to Charleston in March, 2019, one Rosie who was already dominating, spoke up as Neva was acknowledged by Ann Curry, and Neva was most unhappy. “If we don’t pull together, with each person respected, we’ll never survive,” she said to me later.
Occasionally, she would join in teleconference meetings, and her message was always the same – “people can to the right thing and do it well, we have to keep at it.”
Memories of Neva
by Anne Montague, Executive Director of Thanks! Plain and Simple, Inc., (“Thanks!”) at Neva’s death
Notes to Give Neva’s Story Context:
“Thanks!” has several photos, interviews and several other kinds of information about Neva. I related to her immediately by phone, but we seldom visited. I have always wondered if she was put onto building the K-ship for the Goodyear blimp because she was tall and with strong hands from milking cow and doing other work on a dairy farm.
I first met Neva about 2012 when her son, Ron, brought her to St. Albans, WV where we were working with Rosies to design and open a park. She is not in our documentary film, which was being finalized when we first found her and did a phone interview.
We visited the MAPS aeronautical museum in Akron, OH in 2012, where Neva saw the K-ship, which she said many times was important to her.
In about 2013, she had a photo taken with her arm in the air in the classic Rosie “We can do it!” pose, which we hoped we could entice the federal government to use as the inspiration of a new US stamp, which has not yet happened. Not long after, she had cancer in that arm, and I have always wondered if she knew that she was at risk of losing that arm when she posed with that arm up.
In April 2015, “Thanks!” held the first event – planting a dogwood trees in four states and eight locations at the same moment – to show that Rosies represent unity. Neva took part in this in 2016, with the help of Girl Scouts who helped to plan it in her home, in Marietta, OH.
In May, 2015, she was not well enough to join with other Rosies when we helped the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to hold a very special ceremony to thank Rosies in Washington. However, we hired Tijah Bumgarner, a videographer who had worked with us extensively, to go to Neva’s home to video tape her, and we showed that video at the event.
Neva is an excellent example of the fuller story of the importance of Rosies. In the process of working with Rosies and various partners (historians, families, the media, etc), we see that Rosies have contributed to America in several ways. Neva fits with all the ways Rosies have contributed, which are to tell the fuller story of:
- The great depression,
- The powerful behind-the-scenes work needed to shorten and win WWII,
- How to care for veterans who were wounded in body and spirit – Neva’s husband had jungle rot and malaria, and the medication he took left him paralyzed
- Raising children in “a free world” that saw better education and social movements (civil rights, women’s rights and Vietnam war protests); Neva’s two boys had good educations (one died of Illness while in the Navy and Ron is recognized for his dedication to high- qualitysocial services in the Athens, Ohio region.
- Being a good citizen as a senior- her helping “Thanks!” is one example.
Neva and I always said, “I love you!” at the end of our conversations. Maybe that’s a West Virginia thing. It helped to keep me at this work.
Once when she was with a group of young girls someone asked her what church she went to, she said, “It took me awhile, but I finally found a church that did not tell me, ‘You need fixin!’ You girls need to know that. You have it in you to do a good job, you aren’t broken and don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do the job.” Later on she called me and said, “That message was for you, too, Anne. Don’t give in to the Nay Sayers.”