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Ruby the Riveter: 95-Year Old NKY Woman Remembers Answering WWII's Call

Ruby Wiley has lived a lot of life in her 95 years.

Born in 1926 in Pendleton County, Ruby Green was the second child in her family, and she doesn't remember a time when she wasn't helping her mother or her father.   She learned to do the washing, climbing up to sit on her knees on a chair to scrub the clothes up and down on a washboard.

She learned to cook, mimicking her mother's example, and always helped with her little brothers and sisters.  

Ruby remembers babysitting for a couple who worked nights in Newport. The baby was under a year old and Ruby was 13, arriving at the home after school, and washing the dishes, mopping the floor, vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom, all the while caring for the baby. 

When she had bathed the baby and put him to sleep, she would sleep on the sofa until the parents came home. For this she received $1.50 to $2 for the night.

Ruby met a young man, Johnny Sellers, 20, who went to her church, and who had just signed up for the Army in 1941, and he asked her to marry him.

"I had just turned 15," she said. "But when we went down to the clerk's office, I lied and told them I was 18. Back then, you didn't have sex unless you were married. I think the clerk felt sorry for Johnny because he was shipping out, so she signed the marriage certificate."

Sellers went off to World War II and Ruby returned to work at the Ice House in Newport, making powdered eggs to pack in ready-made meals for soldiers.

At the time, a popular war-era symbol was emerging: Rosie the Riveter, who appeared in a series of posters created by J. Howard Miller and commissioned by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation to inspire women to fill positions vacated by men called up or volunteering to serve in the military.

The most popular poster featured a young lady with a bandanna around her head, and her arm raised and bent in a muscle pose, with the phrase, 'We can do it!' above the picture.

A song called "Rosie the Riveter" debuted in 1942, and in 1943 famed American artist Norman Rockwell created a cover of the Saturday Evening Post with a picture of his version of Rosie the Riveter, a young lady in work clothes eating a sandwich from her lunch pail with her name on it, with a flag in the background, and with her foot on a copy of Adolf Hitler's book, Mein Kampf.

Women participation in the workforce soared in the mid-40s, and at one point represented 65 percent of all workers.

Ruby was among them, while her husband, Johnny Sellers, was storming the beaches at Normandy.

She changed jobs and ended up at Kinsey and Johnson, making flashlights for the Army. She was just 16 years old.

Two years later Ruby worked for Crosley Radio, a company that made radar parts.

"We had about ten girls on a 2- to 3-foot wide assembly line belt," Ruby remembered. "We would put soldered joints together. I was very quick. I could do the work quickly."

When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima by the U.S. and the war ended, the boss at the plant came in and told the workers to take a half-hour break in honor of its end. 

He told them that the parts they made were designed to detect enemy planes and ships, and that they helped to save soldiers' lives.

In all her other jobs, it was a known fact that the workers could not talk about what they did, and all the employees were made aware that they were working in governmental jobs for the war effort, and they could put lives in danger if they talked.

Ruby did not attend school during the war but ultimately earned a GED, scoring perfectly on the test.

Her memories serving among the Riveters were reignited years later while at the Kenton County Public Library in Erlanger. A presentation was underway explaining the Rosie the Riveter effort during the war.

One of Ruby's companions said to her, "You used to do that!"   

Ruby was introduced at the library event and had her picture taken with the representative, who told Ruby she was now officially a Rosie the Riveter.

Her husband, Johnny, returned from the War but struggled, she said, and the marriage ended. They had a daughter.

Ruby married again, in the mid-fifties, and she had a son. That marriage also ended.

"I have rules," said Ruby. "I told my second husband I did not tolerate drinking, or smoking in the house, but it didn't work."

Her last marriage was more lasting. Ruby warned Lilbon Wiley about her rules, that eh could only use alcohol in hot toddies, and that he would have to smoke outside the house.

They were married for 46 years.

Ruby remained in the workforce, and was employed at Decca Records from 1955 to 1971. She met celebrities in her role at the record label, like Charleston Heston

Ruby worked for Decca Records from 1955 to 1971, and met a lot of celebrities during the time.  She remembers meeting Charlton Heston, who was recording music for the film Ten Commandments, and she talked to him, finding out that he had a baby due any time.

"He told me they filmed the second part of the movie first, and the first half second, and his baby played the baby Moses in the basket," she related.

Ruby never let the grass grow under her feet. She describes herself as a person who has always been busy. Having grown up perpetually taking care of household chores and children, those tasks were always done, but she also worked outside the home, and volunteered for committees and groups.

Ruby served on the local airport board, voting to keep Northern Kentucky in the name of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, which is located in Boone County.

In Erlanger, she was part of the Citizens Patrol, learning about government and police.

Ruby has several medals, showing how she participated in the Senior Olympics, and in some cases won the 5K races. Even today, although Ruby has a cane and a walker, she regularly navigates her house without help.

Her last job was at Chuck E. Cheese, a popular entertainment destination for kids known for its pizza parties. She worked there from 1981 to 2004, when she retired.

Of everything she has done, Ruby said that her greatest achievement has been the birth of her children, calling them her "best presents" and what she is the most proud of.

Now, approaching 100 years of life, Ruby has advice for others.

"Always be positive," she said. "It doesn't cost you a penny to say hello to people, and ask how they're doing. And if you can help anyone, if it is in your power to help, well, that's what God made us for, to help each other."

She went on to exhort people to say, God bless you, and, I love you, in parting, because then if something happens, people will have the satisfaction of knowing that the last thing they said to that person was positive and caring.

And, her rules:

"Don't drink, smoke or dope," she advised. "Don't use hate in your life. There isn't one person on this earth that I hate. If you reach out to help people when you can, you will feel better, and live longer." 

Written by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor