Rhea Currie

“In 99 years, there’s not much I can say hasn’t changed.”

Rhea was referred to me by a friend, and I was impressed the moment I met her.  A small woman (probably only 4’11”) with a huge heart, she welcomed me with homemade cookies, declaring that she always sends people away with a box full.  As you can see in her portrait, she is a lover of books, a topic we were able to meet on right away.  With a cold glass of water, we sat down in a pair of beautiful arm chairs in her vaulted living room, and began the interview.

Rhea Wark Currie was born July 29, 1916 in Peck, Michigan, near Lake Huron.  The only states she has ever lived in are Michigan and Florida, which she visited with her husband during winter.  They always lived on a golf course in Florida, because her husband loved to play golf.

“It was a quieter time.  People stayed put more than they do, now.”

Rhea was born early enough to vaguely remember World War One, something remarkable for any living person today.  Her father wasn’t drafted because he was a government employee at the State Department in Washington DC (he later was diagnosed with a lung condition and was told to live in the country, so moved to Michigan as a Postal Worker).  His only sibling was a sister, who, of course, was not drafted.  Rhea’s mother had several siblings, but they were mostly farmers.  Her main contact with the war, then, was through conversation and news clippings her dad took that talked of their friends who went to war.

She told me that the Great Depression wasn’t talked about in her family.  Really, the Depression didn’t come until she was entering college.  What she told me she later found out about that time made me tear up:

She loved to roller skate with her friends and cousins near home.  When she was twelve, a new highway had just been lain, which she had been explicitly told not to go on.  But one evening she and three of her girlfriends chose to skate down it, and realized their folly as the sun went down and they were quite far from home.  They decided to turn around and go home, but they were scared they wouldn’t make it before dark.  A car soon appeared and they got excited since they were tired and scared.  It turned out to be Rhea’s father.  Her friends scrambled into the car, but she was not permitted.  He remarked, “I’m sorry.  You were not to come out here, tonight.  You skated out, and you will have to skate home.  But I will not leave you.”  He drove next to her the entire way.

Rhea met her husband while at school at Alma College. They moved to Midland, MI so he could work at Dow Chemical and use his degree in chemistry. She got her degree in teaching, and taught until their first son came along, at which point she began volunteering at the Red Cross answering phones (during World War Two). She says Midland still feels like a neighborhood, though the town has grown into a vibrant small city.  I could tell she loves it there, and she is deeply involved in the community as a volunteer to this day.

“I’m just not getting [the electronic world].”

Rhea does have an iPad and uses it quite a bit for email, but she still feels like an outsider to the technological era we’ve entered.  She remarked that every other change came about gradually, so people could keep up.  She feels electronics have taken off like a rocket, which has made it hard for her (and others) to learn them.  Rhea finds it funny that when she does her banking she never sees the cash.

“Every evening at five o’clock, [we] sat down wherever we were, and [my husband] would have his martini, and we would play gin rummy.”

It seems like “we lose the personal” due to the electronics that we’ve created.  Rhea continues to attend a card group every week, and was annoyed to that effect as one of the ladies would bring her tablet and continually interrupt the game to show pictures.  Rhea finally told the acquaintance to please keep it put away during the game because that’s what they were all there for.

Rhea also remarked that technology is changing how families are brought up.  She observes them on family night at the country club, and can see that there is no interaction between family members, even during dinner.  Everyone is absorbed with the screen in their hand.  She honestly wondered to me if they ever speak to each other.

Her son, teaching a class at New York University on Communication, reports that it is so strange that the class is necessary.  But the students are stunned by the lessons in class.  They just haven’t been socialized in the common-sense ways those aged post-25 seem to take for granted.

She elaborated on all this when asked what we’ve lost to technology.

Rhea does admire how we can stay in contact with people in other places, things happening in other countries, and the ability to be empathetic to the goings on elsewhere.  She doesn’t remember doing so, even after World War Two, when there was a good deal of suffering after so many towns and cities had been decimated.  Today, we know when another country is in hardship, and can react in a meaningful way.

“There have been more changes, through the years, except I never think of myself as 99 years old.  I still drive, I still am very active.  There was a gal at the hospital… that kept asking, ‘Why won’t you join our service?’ and I responded, ‘I am too old.’  She said, ‘What do you mean you’re too old?’ I could not go into the room of a 60-year-old woman dying of cancer, and try to cheer her up… nor do I want to go into the room of a very ill 30-year-old who sees me as this healthy old lady with white hair.  Am I wrong?”

“In the good old days, you knew things were well made.”

I was told I just had to speak with Dot, and I loved meeting her.  She is a kind, thoughtful, strong woman who has made an incredible life for herself.  She founded the Midland Aviation Camp and began flying airplanes as a hobby before instruments became digital, before GPS, and has watched her students transition from analogue to tech aviation.

Dorothy “Dot” Hornsby was born August 27, 1934 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  She’s lived in Cincinnati, San Antonio, Charlotte, Wichita Falls, Casa Blanca, Geneva, Hong Kong, and Midland, Michigan.  She married her high school sweetheart and had three boys (two of them twins).  Much of their travel was a consequence of his enlistment in the Air Force during their younger years, but some came later in life through working for Dow Chemical.  Dot told me that when she was young she decided she wanted to travel and go around the world, which she eventually did.  From Hong Kong, she took her youngest son to many of the countries that weren’t accessible by normal travel from the United States.  She let him choose two places he wanted to go – climb the Eiffel Tower and see Lenin’s body – and they traveled the Far East with those detours.

When they were in Hong Kong, China was still closed to foreigners.  When the borders opened in the late 1970’s, Dot decided to return and enter China, completing a goal she set when she lived nearby.

“Even in high school my goal was to go around the world, which I got to do.”

Dot is a teacher.  She taught English in Hong Kong and math in Midland, and continues to teach flight classes today at the Barstow Airport in Midland.  She began teaching flight school after her husband died.  Really, flying was her way of coping with his death in 1992 only a short while after they retired.  In her words:

She told me, partway through our interview, that she wasn’t sure why she chose flying as a coping mechanism for her grief for loosing her husband.  My initial thought was that he was in the Air Force – perhaps that would create a closeness to his first occupation.  But as she talked about her youth and family, she thought of her father, and told me this anecdote:

Dot struck me as a very strong woman.  She did and continues to do so much that was before her time.  She supported her husband by teaching while he went through graduate school, traveled independently with her son because she felt it was important and wanted to see the world, got her own Masters Degree in Counseling and Guidance, and chose to go to flight school at a difficult time when most would never have considered it.

Of course, I had to ask her how technology has changed flying.  Obviously the GPS has been an influential tool, and I’d assumed that it had influenced her experience with flying, but I was sure to ask her and learned how very much it had changed.  In her words:

“What worries me is that kids have the attention span for cartoons on TV, but in the classroom we have to worry.”

I loved hearing about the first television Dot ever saw.  How strange it was, this thing in the room.  

“I don’t want the future my grand kids are going to have.”

At the end of our interview, Dot really thought hard about what technology has done, its benefits and losses.  She considered the phenomenal progress we made, that space travel is able to happen, but also the ‘throw away society’ we’ve become.  To wrap up, here are her musings: