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March 12, 2012

A salute to those who helped make National Women's History Month


Daily Star

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March is National Women's History Month.

Women's issues have been in the news lately, for better or worse. Women have been in the political spotlight this year (a bona fide female contender for the GOP nomination), in entertainment news (an unbelievable 17th Academy Award nomination for Meryl Streep), in international news (the recent tragic death of Marie Colvin, perhaps our country's greatest war correspondent) and other arenas.

But I wanted to single out a couple of specific females to honor in this column for National Women's History Month.

Everyone who knows me knows that I love a good story. So here are a couple of women with wonderful stories.

Ruth Gruber is a tiny, birdlike woman from Brooklyn who was working in Washington, D.C., during World War II. In 1944, her boss, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, chose her for a top-secret overseas mission.

With grim stories coming out of Europe of an evil Nazi "master plan" targeting Jews, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to defy America's prohibitive immigration quotas by inviting "1,000 Jewish refugees to come to the United State as his personal guests for the duration of the war."

Ruth Gruber was picked to go to Italy, find the refugees, get them safely aboard an American ship and escort them to America.

Her charges, culled from the sad waves of humans flooding the mountains of Italy, consisted of the elderly, children, whole families, young couples and the infirm. Some were starving, all were desperate.

Under harsh conditions, she ushered her flock to the coast near Naples where they all boarded an American troop transport ship, the S.S. Henry Gibbons, and set sail for America. Also on the ship were thousands of wounded GIs.

The voyage across the Mediterranean and out into the vast Atlantic was harrowing. German wolf packs shadowed the zigzag route of the Gibbons, which was sailing without lights until out of reach of the enemy submarines. "Mother Ruth" escorted her trustees along the journey with gentle encouragement and a steady hand.

They landed safely in New York and then were transported by train to, where else, Upstate New York! In far northern Oswego, these "personal guests" of FDR resided on the shore of one of our Great Lakes at the decommissioned Fort Ontario. After the war, they successfully petitioned to stay in America.

There is a little museum, the Safe Haven Museum, in Oswego today at the site of the last existing building from the only refugee camp ever located In America. I have been to it twice and have been moved by the story of courage and inspiration told in its few spare rooms.

While most of "FDR's guests" have passed away over the years, Ruth Gruber is still very much alive in New York City. She will be 101 on her next birthday.

Closer to home, I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of Arlene Murphy, 86, in Oneonta. Many years ago, when I first arrived in Oneonta, I just had to stop in and visit Murphy's Shoe Repair, just off Main Street.

I mean, I have "shoe repair" in my DNA. My Italian grandfather, Louie D'Imperio, was a shoemaker (That's what they called them and, yes, that is what he did!) for a half-century in Sidney. So when I saw the sign "Murphy's Shoe Repair," well I just had to go in and check out the Irish competition.

Arlene was a diminutive, white-haired dynamo at the shop. I visited her on several occasions and we swapped "shoe repair" stories. I always found her to be delightful, charming and possessive of the most twinkling eyes you could imagine.

And as my dear old grandpa would say, "she's-a pretty good-a shoe lady!" I saw Arlene many years after her retirement when I visited Robynwood Adult Home to entertain the residents at Christmas time.

She remembered me and we visited, laughed and reminisced about the business. She always said she and my grandpa shared one thing in common.

Bent thumbs! That's what you get from working the leather all those years. It was good to see Arlene again. And her eyes never lost any of their twinkle.

So, for National Women's History Month, I guess I will pick these two ladies to honor in my column. The world's "Mother Ruth" and Arlene Murphy, Oneonta's "Irish shoe repair lady." They both had great stories.

I salute you both.

I'll catch you in two ...

"Big Chuck" D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.