Westport Island Celebrates Vera Cleaves
Happy 100th Birthday to a great lady!
Yesterday, Vera Cleaves turned 100. She became the first recipient of Westport Island’s newly acquired Boston Post Cane. The cane will be displayed at the Town Office with a plaque commemorating Vera’s stature as Westport Island’s oldest resident. She was given a pin attesting to this place of honor in our community.
Despite hail and pouring rain, friends and family turned out to celebrate Vera at an informal “party” at the Ship’s Chow Hall in Wiscasset hosted by owner Tina Fitzsimmons. Lincoln County News reporter, Charlotte Boynton, was on hand to record the event.
Since she was eight years old, Vera has been a part of Westport Island visiting her grandparents’ camp overlooking the Sasanoa River. On her first visits to the Island around 1922, the Steamer Wiwurna was a primary mode of transportation to the Island; Black Friday and the Great Depression had not yet occurred; and the Great War was not yet a part of history. Vera has seen a lot of history go under the bridge; she has played a groundbreaking role in some of it.
Vera has lived her life with distinction as a veteran of World War II and as an educator. When the Second World War broke out in Europe, she volunteered with the Red Cross in Boston becoming an ambulance driver part-time while working in the actuarial department at John Hancock. Three months after it was created in 1943, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). From basic training, she was sent to Stewart Field in Newburgh, NY, the “Wings of West Point.” There, she learned to fly the Army’s AT-6 as part of her training to teach coursework in flight maintenance to U.S army aviation recruits and West Point cadets. She also instructed fellow WACs serving alongside her in physical fitness and marching – all 123 of them. She served the duration of WWII at the West Point airfield as one of the pioneering women who served with their male peers in the US Armed Forces.
After the war, Vera earned an education degree at Pennsylvania’s Millersville State Teachers College on the GI Bill. She was the only woman training in the industrial arts and drafting program. Her wartime credentials, along with her age, allowed her to once again break new ground in the workplace. Progressive school systems in the New York City area and Philadelphia that “saw the future” heavily recruited Vera as a female role model making her way in a man’s field.
During 45 years as an educator, teaching in Philadelphia, New York, Massachusetts and Maine, Vera changed with the times. After achieving her Master’s Degree in Education at Penn State, she moved into school administration and college-level education instruction – always keeping a hand in industrial arts. As an administrator, she created and tested educational programming for exceptional and gifted children. Preparing young people with practical skills and knowledge to take on the challenges of the real — and very dynamic — world has always been her passion.
She brought that passion back to Maine with her. Past students and educators in Gardiner, Bristol, Millinocket and Boothbay Harbor may remember Miss Cleaves and have stories to share.
Vera’s mother gave her the following motto on a postcard that she’s carried with her since she went away to college – perhaps an insight into what has moved her as an adult in these last hundred years…
Pluck will win – its
average is sure.
He wins the fight who
can the most endure.
Who faces issues.
he who never shirks.
Who waits and
watches and who
Copyright 1906 by M.T. Sheahan, Boston