Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor two months before Nadine arrived in Washington, D.C. that late winter in 1941. In another two months, the cherry blossoms would be in full bloom, a prior gift from Japan before the countries became enemies. Twenty-two-year-old Nadine would be reminded of their message that life is beautiful, but short and fleeting.
Today, Nadine is 100 years old. Her eyesight has clouded, which frustrates her because she doesn’t want to miss anything. It’s how she’s lived her life every day–with an ardent sense of discovery.
“When I arrived in Washington that February, the city was still spacious and beautiful,” Nadine reminisces from her Kansas City home. “The streets were lined with lovely restaurants and organ grinders. Later, it would become so congested, but that’s what war does.”
How Nadine went from a tiny rural town in southern Missouri, to a technical trainer in the war effort, to a pillar in the Plaza district is a testament to her indomitable spirit, sharp mind, and whole-hearted embrace of whatever comes next.
After WWII began, F.D.R. wanted faster communication in his administration. Nadine’s technical skills would help make that happen. She was barely an adult, uncultured, without college education, and a female in a male-dominated industry.
“I wasn’t scared though,” Nadine says. “It was an adventure. I wanted to learn everything. My mom was a teacher with lots of get-up-and-go, but she got cancer. When she died, I didn’t have a home anymore. I was 16 and on my own.”
Nadine’s father, a quarry steam shovel operator, had already deserted the family. Her older brother had moved out. Nadine learned early how to forge for herself.
“My dad married a wicked stepmother who wouldn’t let me live with them. He gave me $20 a month–not much, but something–so I got a room. In the summers, he wouldn’t give me money and said I could work instead. I had an alcoholic aunt with a baby boy, so I helped her in exchange for room and board.”
Nadine spent summers with her until she finished high school, then moved to Kansas City to live with another aunt and work for Hall Brothers. For three years, Nadine worked as an airbrush artist in the art department. When she made a mistake, she came in after hours without pay to correct it.
When the war hit, F.D.R. asked the department head and Nadine’s co-worker, who was a friend, to come to Washington.
“After two months, my friend got homesick and recommended me instead,” Nadine says and grins. “They offered me $1,420 a year, and I said no. They called back and offered $1,620. I said, ‘That’s better, but I’m broke. How am I supposed to get there?’”
“I’ll send you a ticket,” he said.
“Fine, but what will I eat?”
“I’ll loan you enough money to live on till your first paycheck.”
Nadine agreed and rode the train to Washington. When her superior saw her, he nearly fired her.
“I was such a hick.” She laughs. “I had a big straw hat and was dressed in my best get-up, but he got to liking me.”
One day at the federal building where she worked, she watched a man walk back and forth until finally she asked him if he needed help. He said he was looking for Miss Nadine Jones.
“I’m Miss Jones,” Nadine replied.
“Dear me,” he said, “I wasn’t looking for a woman in bobby socks and hair ribbons!”
Eventually, she had 87 people working for her. She flew in a DC-3 or traveled by train to 10 major cities installing technical equipment and training workers.
“It was a breeze for me, but some men resented it. One man told me he hated women who carried a screwdriver. But it never made me bitter. I knew I was there to help them. If you don’t get too upset in life, you can still work hard and come out on top.”
Nadine recalls how she was one of 17 staff living in a stone mansion, now restored and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It was in the Maryland woods near the Delaware River with a big veranda and 87 steps to our floor. It had a huge staircase, ballroom, and a fireplace in every room. Oil and gas were scarce. We had no heat, so visitors brought their own firewood.”
Nadine was frightened of the men at first.
“I’d never been around a full family before. My dad left when I was 7, so I’d always lived with my mother or aunt. I thought all men were mean, but these men were so sweet and kind and loved their wives. It was enlightening for me.”
In 1943, Nadine got a new supervisor. She told him that their department needed to downsize due to installations in other cities.
“We’ve outlived our usefulness here,” Nadine told him.
Her supervisor replied, “If you think I’m going to lose enough employees that I no longer carry a Grade 12, you’re crazy.”
The next day he put Nadine on a train filled with soldiers to Barstow, CA, and said, “That plant needs checking.”
She had no food for two days except some candy in her pocket. After realizing this, some soldiers tried to get her food, but it had already been devoured by the hungry men.
By 1944, Nadine was “frozen” in her job, so she got creative. She fenagled with the San Francisco shipyards to let her help rebuild discarded equipment and train sailors to operate them. Classified as war work, it allowed her to move there. She became their first female trainer in customer relations.
Later, Nadine flew to Chicago to train a man. When she arrived, she discovered he was a Japanese-American released from an internment camp.
“I took one look and thought ‘Oh no, I can’t teach him. He’s Japanese. We hate Japanese.’ He took one look at me and thought, ‘Oh no, she’s a woman. No woman’s going to teach me!’”
He kept trying to catch her in a mistake, but after finally trying her technique, he became her “greatest fan.”
“He wanted to hire me for his business. We became friends, and he attended my wedding.”
When Nadine left San Francisco for Kansas City, it wasn’t a difficult decision. Her aunt needed her.
“She was office manager of the largest law firm in KC. She had a nice house and car and was successful even during the depression. But she’d married a con man. He wrote a bunch of bad checks and went off with a judge’s wife. My aunt had lost nearly everything and was having a nervous breakdown. She’d been there for me, and I wanted to be there for her, too.”
When Nadine was 28, she met her future husband (a civil engineer who worked on the atom bomb) at the Pla-Mor at 31st and Main in Kansas City. The Pla-Mor was the largest indoor entertainment complex in America with a 14,000-square-foot, spring-loaded dance floor, bowling alley, ice rink and the largest swimming pool west of the Mississippi River.
They had three children before her husband passed in 1969. Nadine ran the business for the next 20 years until her son assumed leadership. For several years, she traveled the world, especially enjoying Australia and China. Her only regret is she never made it to Rome: “I went to Venice and thought I’d go back but never did.”
She did, however, return to work, retiring in 2018 at age 98 1/2.
“I’m proud of my record and reputation with the business I built in Kansas City,” Nadine says. “We did high-quality work with personal service. We always had fun and built close friendships with our customers.”
At her recent 100-year birthday party, it was standing room only. When asked how this centenarian would most like to be remembered, her reply is simple.
“Just be remembered.”
“Love your country. Love your family. Be honest. Work hard. Accept a challenge. Do your best always. And don’t overeat.” – Nadine Jones, Age 100
[The story above is true, but real names and some details have been concealed to protect privacy.]