Blog Archives

Westport’s WWII Veteran Vera Cleaves’ Last Hurrah

Vera is celebrated in the Maine Historical Society’s Veteran’s Voices exhibit

On February 2, about 160 people turned out for the opening of the Maine Historical Society’s Veterans’ Voices exhibit. The exhibit highlighted first-person stories of 10 Maine veterans from World War II to Afghanistan — one of whom was Westport Island’s 102-year old WWII veteran Vera Cleaves.

Unfortunately, Vera died on January 23, about one and one-half weeks before she was to be honored at the exhibit’s opening. At the opening reception, Vera was also to receive medals from the State of Maine for her service in the armed forces and as a veteran of World War II. Her nephew, Brad Cleaves, and his wife, Patty Latham, received the medals and certificates on Vera’s behalf from Adria Horn, Director of Maine Veterans’ Services. They were sensitive to Vera’s pride in her military service and made attendance at the opening a priority to accept Vera’s honors on behalf of the family.

With an introduction from Brenda Bonyun, Tilly Laskey from the Maine Historical Society visited and interviewed Vera in December. Vera reviewed and edited the narrative from the 2-hour interview. She was honored and grateful to the Maine Historical Society for commemorating her WWII service. My last image of Vera was seeing her smile as she looked at the poster for the upcoming exhibit. Vera was looking forward to attending the opening on February 2 and speaking with fellow veterans. She died knowing her story will be remembered.

Read Vera’s story. The exhibit will run at the Maine Historical Society, 489 Congress Street, Portland through April 29.

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Westport Island Remembers John Nelson

A friend to Westport Island and to those he engaged…

The Westport Community Church was full this afternoon with friends and family remembering John Jesse Nelson (1928-2014). He was remembered with love and with appreciation for his good.

John: husband to Ruth, father to their seven children, grandfather, WWII veteran, science teacher, friend, animal lover, neighbor, civic volunteer, John Deere operator and neighborhood road crafter…and active participant in the journey of life and learning. (Apparently, also a devotee of hats, tropical shirts and red carnations.) A man who felt proud to have earned the acceptance and respect of Westport Island families who have grandparents on the island. Although his history with the island “only” went back to 1968, he felt roots in the “rock”….

On the Island, John was a member of the Wright Landing Committee, believing in public access to the waterfront as well as a working waterfront; and he had served on the Conservation Commission and the History Committee. He kept up — reading the town report carefully enough to report typos to the Town Clerk — and he always participated actively in town affairs.

One of John’s sons pondered the idea of describing his father in one word, and he could not decide between complicated and contradiction. John was a man who was gruff and had difficulty expressing emotion, yet turned gushing and affectionate when Snafu, Leonardo or one of the long line of Nelson cats jumped onto his lap. He was extremely impatient in general, but infinitely patient as a teacher…

John’s most significant achievements in life were, of course, the love of a good woman, Ruthie, and seven children who — following his tutelage and caring – excelled, achieved and loved him. They are a credit and a legacy.

He gave his children, his grandchildren, and his students a road map for life:

Be as good a person as you can be
Respect your elders
Respect nature
Have a good work ethic
Be organized, be prepared
Pursue lifelong learning
Walk in another man’s shoes

As another son said, “A person lives until his name is no longer spoken.” It is likely that John Jesse Nelson is a name that will be remembered and spoken for some time to come…

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Westport Island Celebrates Vera Cleaves

Happy 100th Birthday to a great lady!

card with boston post cane pinYesterday, 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.

Vera on boat sitting in her grandfather's lapSince 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 Private Vera in uniform, 1943(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.
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
always works.

Copyright 1906 by M.T. Sheahan, Boston

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