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Punxsy woman savors 99 years of memories

January 29, 2012

Ella Whitaker.

PUNXSUTAWNEY — If there was only one word to describe Ella Whitaker, the most appropriate choice would have to be “determined.” From her choice of careers, to her decision to marry, to her travels across the globe, to her ability to deal with major physical problems, the remarkable 99-year-old lady has consistently demonstrated a strong will to deal with life head-on.

She has faced every roadblock with an “I’ll show you” determination that won her the respect and admiration of family, friends, employers, co-workers and doctors alike. Even now, she refuses to let her age or her health prevent her from enjoying life in her cozy home in Punxsutawney.

Ella’s story began in Josephine, a small town in Indiana County, where she was born Jan. 8, 1913, a daughter of Lewis Edward and Bessie Doutrich. A graduate of Blairsville High School, Ella and her family moved to Punxsutawney in 1931 when her father “Ed,” an agent for the Pennsylvania Railroad, transferred here to serve as the company’s freight and passenger agent.

From 1930 to 1934, Ella attended Indiana State Teachers College (now IUP) where she earned a B.S. degree in secondary education. She began substitute teaching in the Punxsy schools. When the head of the two-year high school in Anita died unexpectedly, the district closed the building for three weeks. Officials then asked Ella to take his place, a substitute assignment she accepted at the salary of $145 per month for the remaining three months of the term.

“There were 45 students in grades nine and 10,” she explained. “Each teacher had to provide the instruction for every subject. I had no problems with English, geography and algebra, but, boy, some of those other high school subjects meant that I had to study late many, many nights just to keep ahead of the kids. Fortunately, the other teachers knew what they were doing, so things went along fine.”

Determined to try her hand at other careers, Ella had quietly sought a clerical position in Harrisburg, even if it paid less money. The day before she was supposed to sign her papers to return to Anita, she received an offer to work in the state capital. The biggest obstacle she had to face was telling her parents about the upcoming change.

“My mother and dad both told me, ‘You cannot go to Harrisburg and hope to live on $95 a month. I was determined to show them that I could. Since my father’s job provided railroad passes for the family, I packed up and went to Harrisburg on the train,” she continued.

“When I got off the train, I didn’t know anything about the city, and I didn’t know anybody there,” she said. Undaunted, Ella went to the YWCA, where she met another girl who told her about a rental vacancy at a home.

As it turned out, the landlady, nicknamed “Aunt Kit,” was acquainted with Ella’s aunt. When she found out that her prospective tenant was the aunt’s namesake, the homeowner quickly welcomed the newcomer.

“I paid $6 a week for room and board, except for weekends. When I told them that my landlady knew my Aunt Ella, my parents were happy. After I started my new job, I was able to return to Punxsy two or three weekends a month. Since there were few cars, drivers who lived in this area would provide rides for a carload of passengers on the weekend for $3 round trip for gas. That shows you how much gas cost back then,” Ella chuckled.

When World War II broke out, Ella successfully passed the Civil Service Test as a Clerk Typist, GS3, and was assigned to the New Cumberland Army Depot. Thus, she began her career with the Federal government, employment that continued from 1942 to 1973.

Setting up the training program, Army officials noted she had been a teacher so they gave her a “nice promotion” to become an instructor. She was not in charge of the program, but she had to teach recruits everything, including how to operate a forklift. Although she didn’t actually operate the machinery, she attended frequent training sessions in Washington where the Department of the Army gave her “a good background” to be a training instructor. “Everything worked out well,” Ella said.

Temporarily unemployed at the end of the war, in 1948, she responded to the Pentagon’s call for Americans to work with the Army of Occupation to instruct Germans in setting up personnel files. Ella had 10 days to round up and pack “enough clothing and supplies for two years.” Thanks to the help of Mom Watson, her wonderful landlady in Washington, they were able to shop for everything required.

Following another delay when officials lost her papers, Ella finally had to fly out of an Army Air Base in New England. Never having flown before, she nearly changed her mind while boarding the plane. A captain behind her in line told her to keep moving. She found herself aboard an “uncomfortable Army style plane outfitted with benches, not individual seats so the space could accommodate the wounded soldiers on cots on the return flight.”

The flight stopped twice to refuel. At the second stop, the weight of the fuel forced her and the other women aboard to wait for three more days before another plane would take them to Frankfurt. Eventually, she was assigned to Munich where her skills earned a series of promotions and raises. More importantly, while she was working in Germany, Ella met Captain Dale (“Whit”) Whitaker, a native of Iowa, who later became her husband.

“When we met, I really didn’t like him at first. I thought he was a bit snippy,” she reminisced. “But, he started calling me and asking me to lunch. We began to date, even though that meant very hectic weekends going back and forth between Munich and Frankfurt for about a year.”

The couple never thought of living together because, “in those days, people just didn’t do that sort of thing,” Ella said.

Before their return to America, Captain Whitaker invited Ella to watch the famous Berlin Airlift, at the base where he was stationed. Dozens of airplanes lined up at the Frankfurt Air Base to fly food to Berlin. In a breath-taking display of efficiency, “There was one plane taking off, and another one landing once every minute,” Ella recalled.

Months later, the couple’s plans took a dramatic turn when Ella’s plane was struck by lightning, forcing her to go back and change planes. Back in Munich, she learned that her request to return to the United States had been granted; the two could go back together.

“Whit,” however, had been assigned to depart on one ship, and Ella on another. Knowing the ins and outs and contacting the right people, “Whit” finally arranged for the two of them to sail together from Bremerton.

After he visited his family in the Midwest and several other locales, “Whit” was stationed at Richmond. Ella “was very lucky to get a job with the Federal Reserve in Washington.” The two exchanged wedding vows in June 1950 at the Walter Reed Chapel.

Whitaker resigned from the Army and took a job with the Pentagon at the Army Tank Automotive Center in Detroit where the couple relocated. Ella continued her work in personnel at another facility. Her husband’s job frequently took him all over the country and Europe. “He was so hard-working, but he really loved those tanks. He knew every detail about them. I used to tell him that I thought he loved those tanks more than he loved me,” she laughed.

Although she continued to receive promotions and raises, Ella demonstrated her love for her husband by quietly turning down a position that would have let her earn more than he was earning. “I told my employer that I didn’t think that would be such a good idea,” she said.

Only when “Whit” later received a higher rank and salary did his wife accept an increase in her wages.

Their happy marriage, however, was not destined to last very long. “Whit” contracted a kidney infection that eventually claimed his life in 1958, just eight years after their wedding. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, where Ella will also be interred.

After losing her beloved spouse, she worked in Detroit until 1966, when she learned that the Pentagon was looking for more employees. Returning to the nation’s capital, she was hired. She continued to work on the civilian personnel staff at the Pentagon until she decided to retire at age 60 in 1973. She had begun her career with a ranking of GS 3. Thanks to her intelligence, her skills, and her determination, she retired as a GS 12.

Knowing that neighbors back in Punxsutawney had been looking after her father, who was then in his 90s, Ella chose to return to the area to take care of him. In 1974, she purchased her home on Beyer Avenue and, in a sense, brought her life full-circle. Her next-door neighbors were Eugene and Pauline Curry, with whom she had ridden the train back and forth to Indiana while attending school back in the early 1930s.

Ella and her father moved into their new residence. She recalls that she waited three weeks to have a telephone installed, because she wanted to have one of the touch-tone phones that were just becoming available in this area. Mr. Doutrich had his first ever visit to a hospital in his 90s. Several years later, Ella hosted a party to celebrate his 100th birthday. He passed away at the age of 104 in 1984.

Ella’s love of travel had been evident throughout her life. Not only did she work overseas, but also as the years passed, she continued to explore the world. Her excursions have taken her to Europe (Germany, England, Austria, France, Italy), the northern parts of the United States and southern Canada, Japan, China, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and a number of cruises to the Caribbean.

Her three favorite locations include Oberammergau, the city in Germany that stages the world-famous Passion play every 10 years; Ella has seen it twice. She also loved her journey through the breath-taking scenery of Alaska and the memorable Christmas she spent in Switzerland.

Perhaps, Ella’s attitude toward life is best reflected in the ways she has faced and conquered numerous health problems, which may have defeated a less determined person. Pointing to her body, she said, “Except for the few major organs, there’s really not too much of me left inside here.”

Even a fall that resulted in a broken neck several years ago and a later accident that led to a broken shoulder and an arm shattered in three places have failed to deter her will to keep going. Although she now uses oxygen and struggles with deteriorating eyesight, Ella remains upbeat. She has a special lighted magnifier that she uses for reading and with her computer where she plays solitaire and does crossword puzzles. Although their numbers are diminishing, Ella is happy to tell that she still keeps in touch with some of her co-workers from the 1940s, 1950s and so on.

No matter what she is doing, though, her faithful dog, “Lucky” is right beside her. “I can’t take a step without him,” she declared. “He keeps his eye on me all the time. I’m so glad I have him. He is going to turn 12 soon.”

Ella also maintains close ties with her many friends at the First Baptist Church, which she attends whenever the weather and her health permit. She longs for the day when the church will install a chair lift so that she and others can regularly go to services.

When problems arise, she is always quick to point out that “God is in charge.” Asked about the secret of her longevity, she reminds folks that her father died at age 104, and her mother passed at age 84. “It must be something in the genes,” she says.

Those who know Ella Whitaker best, however, tend to believe that it is her determined spirit that keeps this remarkable 99 year old lady going and going … just like the Energizer Bunny.

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