Famous Women at Pleasantview
OLTMAN, GRABER, GUGEL
Posted By: Misty Christner (email)
Date: 6/18/2018 at 14:47:26
Source: Kalona News 11/3/2005
Famous Women at Pleasantview
By Jim Hussey
Several months ago, Helen Oltman had an idea - to discuss the famous women of World War II with her fellow Pleasantview residents. And as has been her habit for more than 100 years, on Monday, October 24, she not only atlked about it, she did it, holding forth on Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and with Lois Gugel and Martha Graber, on Rose Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt as well.
"Can everyone say Generalissimo?" asked Mrs. Oltman of 20 residents assembled for her talk. She then explained that when Soong Mei-ling married Generalissmo Chiang Kai-shek in 1927, she added another adventure an already exceptional life that had begun with her birth in China in 1897, picked up steam through her schooling in the United States, and continued decades longer as she served as her husband's translator, confidante and adviser - and as a leader in her own right, as Secretary of the Chinese Air Force.
"Mei-ling went to the Wesleyan School for Girls in Macon, Georgia starting in 1908," recounted Oltman. "She quickly picked up English, or I should say 'American', and spoke with a Georgia accent the rest of her life."
Speaking with a clear, strong voice, without notes for 20 minutes, the 102-year-old Oltman explained how Madame Chiang helped her husband through the Chinese war with the Japanese, and then with the Chinese communists.
"I remember that very well," said Oltman. Speaking of her late husband, she added, "We too were in China at the time. There was the Chinese-Japanese War, which became the Japanese-American War after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor."
She recalled that Madame Chiang was the second woman and the first Chinese national to speak before a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 1943, and how Madame Chiang moved to New York upon her husband's death in 1975. She stayed in New York until she passed away in 2003 at the age of 105.
Madame Chiang could easily have been Mrs. Oltman's sister, having been born just six years earlier. For most of their lives, they also shared residence in the same countries, whether it was China in the first half of the 20th century, or America in the second half.
"Last month was our 75th anniversary of going to China," said Oltman of she and her husband, who were medical missionaries in China and the Dutch Reformed Church. "We arrived in 1930, and I didn't come home permanently until 1950. My husband was held by the Communists and didn't get to come home until 1951."
Oltman made several trips across the Pacific, always by ship, and always with an infant in tow.
"I brought the children home in 1941," said Oltman. "We all saw war was coming. I was at home with the children during the war for five years. Two of my children were born in China, and two were not."
At the same time Oltman was traveling back and forth to China, Eleanor Roosevelt was serving as the eyes and ears of her husband Franklin, the American wartime president who had been stricken with polio while serving as governor of New York.
"Eleanor was a shy, awkward child who lost her mother as a little girl, and her father two years later," said Gugel, "but she became the eyes and ears of Franklin. I really think he would have never become president had she not been there to help him."
Also examined by the group was Rose Kennedy, the wife of businessman and diplomat Joseph Kennedy, the mother of World War II heroes Joseph Jr. and John (the future president), and the daughter of "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, a former Boston mayor who skirted the edges of political propriety.
A half-century after pinning her daily "to-do" list on her dress to help keep track of her nine children, Rose Kennedy reminded her children who had not been lost to accidents, war or assassination that they were not only Kennedys, but Fitzgeralds - who had "come to America before the Kennedys, made money before the Kennedys, and been elected before the Kennedys." A devout Catholic, she attended Mass every day, and encouraged her children to learn second languages so they could still pray should Americans ever become victims of religious persecution.
As a former missionary in a country turned Communist, Helen Oltman understands what it means to be persecuted, and the value of a second language. Fifty-five years after leaving China, Oltman gave Pleasantview residents a brief lesson in speaking Chinese. She also expressed her wonder at the longevity of Madame Chiang and Rose Kennedy, both of whom lived to 105.
"Madame Chiang was born in 1897, and died in 2003, so she spanned three centuries," said Oltman. "We started off calling this 'The Famous Women of World War II,' but when you look at how long they lived, we changed the name to 'The Most Famous Women of the Century.'"
Oltman concluded the session by thanking her fellow presenters, as well as the residents who asked questions and added remembrances throughout the hour-long session.
"Thank you," said the centenarian, whose recitation of the current events of her life became a history lesson to the people in the room. "You picked up the idea and really made it come alive."
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