This advice was characteristic of Betty Somppi’s lively take on life. Although she passed away this spring just days after witnessing the dedication of the Women Veterans Monument in Las Cruces, her words and lifelong enthusiasm continue to make the media rounds. Her life impact hasn’t stopped. Take a look at the video interview on the City of Las Cruces FaceBook page and notice her lifestory book, the photos and her enjoyment in talking about her life. Below is a profile I wrote about her after a fascinating conversation back in 2016. I’m so glad she took the time to share a bit of her life’s history while she was living. You don’t have to wait till someone is writing your obituary to do the same. (Photo–Betty Somppi, courtesy of her friend, Karen Wood)
A few days ago I had the privilege of giving a workshop to the Las Cruces Association of Educational Retirees, providing some practical inspiration for sharing their stories. Who should I meet later in the audience but one of my favorite teachers, Hannah Monsimer. Seventh grade English teacher extraordinaire! If that’s not a tough job I don’t know what is. Of course, I gave her a big hug and told the group she was responsible encouraging my love of writing. She was kind, tough and an excellent teacher; qualities I am grateful for to this day. Thank you Mrs. Monsimer!
Betty Somppi was enjoying a new career as a lab technician at a Cincinnati hospital “when the war came along…Most women wanted to do something and there weren’t that many choices for women. We were very interested and we wanted to be involved more than just going around the community. So I applied when we first heard about the Women’s Army Corps, which was WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) at that time. She recalls that the bill passed in March and by July the first class of officers were in training. “That shows how quickly Congress can work when they want to,” she laughs.
She served in the WAAC for about a year before it became the WAC (the women’s branch of the United States Army). “We had to apply all over again and had to have our physicals all over again and we didn’t know until the word came back from Washington, whether we had been accepted or not. That was very traumatic for some of the women who had been there for a year. Somppi remembers Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby of Killeen, Texas served as the first director of both the WAAC and then the WAC. “Mrs. Hobby” as she was called built the Corps to over 100,000 in under a year.
Somppi explains that this new organization had no officers or enlisted people. “They picked 1400 women from those who applied throughout the United States,” she says, “We went into officers training with the idea that if we did not complete OC (Officer Candidate) we would be enlisted. They were recruiting enlisted people at the same time…These 1400 women were put into the first nine officers classes.” She was in her early twenties when she entered the fifth OC class.
She arrived at Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School in July, 1942 the day the first class graduated and heard Colonel Hobby speak. “I think if anybody thought this was going to be some sort of a glamour deal, they got a good shock. We got off the train and had our suitcases in hand and got piled into the back of a six by truck and taken to the base. Once we got to the base we were assigned to our quarters. We had all male officers for those nine classes because there were no WAC officers trained yet.”
After graduation she was assigned to the base. “I was in the training section doing the basic training. After they finished that they went either into motor transport or clerks or cooks and bakers. Those were the three fields that they were training for and had schools at Fort Des Moines.” Within a year the army had women in 274 fields in the military. Somppi says,
In December of ’42 she was one of the first to be sent to Chemical Warfare School for six weeks along with five other women at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland. “My job was to go back and teach chemical warfare to the people at Fort Des Moines.”She’s kept newspaper clippings from that time and says, “It (the school) was very very good. There were I think something like 180 army and a few marines and air force, all men and then us six women. We were all single and we had a great time. Everybody was curious about us, we were still pretty new and there were only a few out in the field. We were the equivalent of second lieutenants and wore gold bars. The general down there invited all six of us to all the fancy Christmas parties, he would send his car over to our quarters for us…they always had the general’s star on the car and the people on the ground always had to salute when it went by…it was interesting.”
Somppi says, “The old fort (Des Moines) looked a great deal like Ft. Bliss, big parade ground, big enough to play two horse polo teams. I walked to work every morning. My office was in Boomtown. The trainees came to us as a class, as a unit of a company and we trained them in military customs and courtesies and the history of the army; all those things that they still do today. Boomtown was just being finished, there were not streets yet and those companies waded to our classrooms through the mud. In fact, they used to come in with a shovel to get the mud off the floor before they swept it. It was a lot of fun.” She says the best food the army ever had was in those mess halls.
From there Somppi was stationed at Fort Oglethorpe as Director of Training, later helping close that base down. She says, “I remember the day that they announced that the war ended, the colonel at Ft. Oglethorpe’s son was killed that very day.” She returned to Fort Des Moines and served as Operations Officer at the separations center, processing returning military personnel. During that time the war in the Pacific ended and her husband was sent back from China.
The Somppis were married during the war, “We always said those wartime marriages never ended. Ours ended last March at 72 years. We were very fortunate.” They had difficulty meeting up to marry, “Jimmy was about three days later than the date we had set because at that time troop trains were pushed aside to get the freight through…He was a corporal when we were going to get married and by the time he got up there he had his third stripe on. I had just got my captain’s bars a couple of months before.” The couple met seven years before while she was teaching first grade in Pennsylvania. He was a senior in high school at that time. When asked her secret to a long life and sharp brain she laughs, “I always tell people
Jimmy was six years younger than me which at that time was something pretty shocking…that long marriage is a great comfort to me now.” This trip will be in Jimmy’s honor. She lives in independent living at White Acres and celebrated her 101st birthday the day after this interview. She says,
Although the couple was stationed in Washington, DC, they had never seen the memorial. After Jimmy passed away, Betty’s close friend Karen Woods asked her if she would consider going on Honor Flight of Southern New Mexico’s (also serving El Paso) Mission 9 this fall. She says, “I said yes, I think now I should. I felt like this was something I could look forward to, I needed that right at that moment. I’m ready; I’m very excited about it.” The couple had three daughters; their eldest, Sharon, will be going along on the Honor Flight late this September as her mother’s guardian.
What stands out from her service days are she says, “The wonderful people that came through Fort Des Moines. Everybody wanted to come and see what happened… We had Mrs. Roosevelt and many many outstanding people all came and talked to us as an officers group; I’m sure they did to a lot of the enlisted too. We met them and felt personally greeted. Mrs. Roosevelt managed in the receiving line to say something personal to everybody and you felt like you had met her, you know?”
Somppi sounds a bit wistful, “Every person that worked with me or for me is gone, my secretary in my office just died last year and that was the last one of the friends that I had kept in touch with for many years.” She is a charter member of the Women’s Memorial in Washington, DC. If you visit there you can view her biography and photo as part of the data base. She’s proud of her groundbreaking service, “We were right there at the beginning. We got a lot of kidding about it. People around Des Moines were used to us and were very welcoming and very nice to us. It was fun…I became a friend of the general (Major General Gwendolyn Bingham) when she was at White Sands. I was so proud that we had anything to do with that, they recognized us and said ‘Well you got it started you know.’ They talked about how far women in the military have come, they fill every field now and they’ve held every rank and it’s wonderful to see.”
Thanks for taking the time to read about Betty’s life. This next week I’ll be bringing you some tips for capturing life stories of folks a bit younger, the graduates in your life. Stay tuned!
Taking time to intentionally remember, to encourage and help draw out memories for people who are struggling with memory impairment are critical for quality of life and slowing down the process of memory loss. Our memories can help us feel connected and loved. If you have a memory challenged family member or friend encourage their “remember when…” moments by using sensory triggers. These might be a photo, smells like baked goods, apples, green chile or perfume. Or it might be a favorite item of clothing, music or the furry touch of a pet. Get creative and ask them what they remember when you share these prompts. Its wonderful exercise for the brain and you may learn some things you didn’t know about their life.
Medical research has shown that writing down or talking about memories can be therapeutic and healing. It can even help promote increased memory retention and sharpen thinking in some memory impaired people. In her blog The Heart and Craft of Lifewriting writer Sharon Lippincott comments on a memoir entitled Growing Old, by Swiss psychoanalyst Danielle Quinodoz: “The book focuses on the enormous value elderly people derive from reviewing their memories and attaining an integrated overview of their lives, …People who are able to view their lives in this meaningful way experience more joy in living…They tend to approach aging more actively, retaining curiosity and involvement with life and the people around them….”
My mother used the memory trigger of music when her sister began losing her memory. She says, “Right until she got real bad I would call her and we would sing together. Sometimes we’d sing Christmas songs, even if it was July. She would even harmonize up till the last. We kept singing until she couldn’t sing anymore. But she listened.”
This is for my Auntie:
The cancer came back after three years in remission. Only this time she didn’t know it. Those three years had brought a crushing avalanche of change. She was aware of all the changes the first year, then the second she just stopped caring. During that time people had started to look at her funny. During that time her youngest daughter, a grown woman of 42, had died of a massive heart attack; she had just lain down and not woken up. She heard sometimes as people whispered the word “mercy” when they talked about her daughter in voices that were a bit too loud.
She remembered Kelly, but it was as if she had gone somewhere far away and would be coming back soon. She just couldn’t remember when. But she looked for her every day. The anticipation of seeing her was a joy. Her husband never mentioned their daughter anymore. She wondered about that. But he had become kind and somewhat vague and somehow too careful of her. She wondered about that too. But not for long anymore.
Staring out the window at the succulent garden she had planted years ago in pots on the back patio she marveled at the beautiful designs of the leaves. She stared at the swirling patterns of a hen and chick and tried to make sense of it. She asked her husband about the chicken plant but he didn’t know what she was talking about. That was frustrating. After a while she gave up trying to explain it to him. She wondered why he was so dense.
Her sister called often to sing with her. Somehow the words to the songs were still there in her mind. They always came to her. Laughter and singing. And ice cream milkshakes with whipped cream and a cherry on top. These were bright and clear. For a while.