Her Name Was Irene Helen

Her family helped establish our country. They fought in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the War of 1812 (which Canadians tell us we lost), the Spanish-American War, and World War II. Various family root stocks settled in parts of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in the 200 years before her birth. They produced a lineage that was strong and resilient. My husband tells me I come from warmongers. I’m proud of them.

After the birth of two brothers, she was a surprise and a great gift to her parents, having been born on their sixth anniversary.

Although some would call her unconventional, she was fun-loving. She and her brothers played ukuleles, sang, and put on skits in the family living room. When wallpaper was stripped to be replaced, they drew cartoons on the plaster walls. I can fondly remember seeing them when I was a young child and the wallpaper was removed again. Those skits used to embarrass me horribly when I was a sophisticated teenager. But I think I know where any creative juices I may possess came from.

Good at math and supremely well-read, most people assumed she had a college degree. She certainly had a life degree and was one of the most articulate people I’ve ever known.

Men’s heads turned when they saw her. She was beautiful as well as personable. And unfailingly pleasant. A positive person when life threw her lemons. And she caught a lot of them.

She made history when she became a Sergeant Major in the US Marine Corps during WWII. Up to this time, the Marines were the last bastion of males only among the services. She was:

  • among the first of eight women to be sworn into the Corps in Philadelphia.;
  • in the first class of Women Marines to be trained at Hunter College;
  • chosen with thirteen other women out of hundreds in her boot camp group to attend the inaugural class of Women Marines in First Sergeant’s school;
  • one of the first Women Marines to appear in uniform in Philadelphia. It caused quite a stir, and was featured in the local newspaper;
  • the first of four women to make First Sergeant;
  • the first woman to replace a male First Sergeant.

She was highly intelligent, even though she never finished high school. One of her greatest accomplishment was to see me do well in school and graduate. Assignments were pored over and she constantly encouraged me to be “better” than she was. She was chest-thumpingly proud when her only child got a B.Sc. in Chemistry and an MBA from The Wharton School. It was perilous for anyone who might have asked how her child was doing during that time.

She was an indefatigable single mom, who took care of me, her invalid mother, her father and ran the household like a Marine. She somehow managed to balance everything while maintaining her equilibrium. And her sense of humor.

Our family lost her in 1985. The world lost an unheralded heroine who paved the way for others. I still miss her and can never thank her enough for the impact she had on my life. Happy Birthday, Mom.

This is only a small part of her story. There is much more in my memoir, “Sibling Revelries – Finding Family After 62 Years.” It can be found on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Sibling-Revelries-Finding-Family-After-ebook/dp/B07B7B43WD/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1521120573&sr=8-1&keywords=mary+jo+latham-martin.

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