Wilma Steele Herrel, my grandmother, was just an ordinary woman. She wasn’t widely known, didn’t break any great barriers, and never achieved something that might be considered particularly exceptional. She was a wife, a mother, and a grandmother; a church volunteer, a community member, a card player, and a friend. You might have seen her at the grocery store or the church rummage sale and looked right past her. But only if you didn’t know her, because if you did, you'd stop and chat, and your day would be all the happier for it.
Wilma was born in 1916 to Homer and Emma (Schiebel) Steele. She grew up in an assortment of rented houses—14 of them, by her own count—on the southeast side of Columbus, Ohio. She never forgot the day her eight-year-old little brother, Billy, died in a fire that he and a friend accidentally set in their basement. She did well in school, consistently placing on the Honor Roll, and graduated from South High. In November 1935, she and her sweetheart, Fred Herrel, eloped to Circleville and got married on the day of the OSU-Michigan game. She loved to tell how the pastor, listening to the game on the radio, quickly squeezed the ceremony in during halftime. They were both lifelong Buckeye fans after that.
But starting a new life together during the Depression, at 19 years old, couldn’t have been easy. Wilma went to comptometer school and was hired by White Castle, making $18 a week. She worked hard, excited to be earning a paycheck, and was the first local girl promoted to bookkeeper. Fred got a job as an aircraft assembler with Curtiss-Douglas. They saved all the money they could to put a down payment on a little house on the south side of the city. Several years later, Wilma quit her job three months before her first baby was born. Two more little ones followed.
For the next 25 years and beyond, she cooked all their meals. She made her own pickles, noodles, and pies. She took countless potluck dishes to church and social events. Her kitchen always smelled like hamburgers frying or cookies baking. She never had a big dining room table, or a dining room at all, as far as I know. Long after their move to Millersport in the 1960’s, we still ate at the same laminate-topped kitchen table she raised her family on.
Wilma was handy with a needle. She sewed her family’s clothes, did the mending, crocheted afghans, and made all sorts of decorative and (mostly) useful knick-knacks. Cross-stitching, knitting, quilting, you name it—she always had a project going. Her hands were never idle. Nor was her mind. She loved a good game of Scrabble, cards, dominoes, or (my personal favorite) Rack-o. She kept crossword puzzle and word search books tucked into the davenport, where her poodle liked to sleep.
I used to spend a week every summer at their house on the towpath of Buckeye Lake, going to Vacation Bible School at First Community Church. I slept on the pull-out sofa in the second bedroom, where I kept a box of treasured paper dolls stashed in the closet. One summer, when I had outgrown Bible School, Grandma showed me an old book. It had her name and birthday in it. I was entranced. For the rest of the week, while she cooked and cleaned and answered my questions, I poured over The History of the Roush Family in America. I even made a list of my ancestors going back six generations (which I still have, though I realize now I muddled up one of them). And so the seeds that would eventually grow into a passion for genealogy were planted.
Wilma was proud to be a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Even though I had to provide all new documentation when I submitted my own application decades later, she paved the way for me. She worked the Millersport Lions Club booth at the Sweet Corn Festival every year. She enjoyed having family visit, playing cards with friends, and traveling. She and Fred were married for 66 years before death separated them, two months apart, in 2002.
My grandmother was just an ordinary woman who cared for her family, kept her household running, and volunteered her time and talents. Her name will never appear in a history book. But I can’t help feeling that ordinary women like her are the unsung heroes of American life. And that each one, in her own way, is so very special. Thank you, Grandma, for being you.
Written for the 103rd Carnival of Genealogy, “Women’s History,” hosted by Jasia of Creative Gene. All rights reserved by Shelley Bishop, 2011.
The History of the Roush Family in America, Volume 1, was written by Lester Leroy Roush and published by the Shenandoah Publishing House (Strasburg, Virginia) in 1928.