Gladys Chaney Wessels
- Published: November 14, 2013
Gladys Chaney Wessels of Yellow Springs died at home on Aug. 24. She would have celebrated her 92nd birthday on Sept. 13.
The following obituary contains Gladys’ recollections during a 2003 interview with a friend, former Yellow Springs resident Dee Krieg.
“I grew up in Hillsboro, Ohio. My father, Newton E. Chaney, was a local businessman and lawyer who owned the skating rink and movie. He met my mother, Elsie, when he hired her to play the piano during the silent movie era. She was 25 years younger than he.
“In 1939, at age 17, I went to a girls’ school in South Carolina: Limestone College, or “The Rock.” Because I whistled very well I got into the girls’ choir and we traveled all over South Carolina, Georgia and to New York City on an NBC radio program. I gave the whistle descant with the choral background and also sang alto. I dated boys from nearby Clemson College at the weekend dances and we girls would stay in dorms. I was part of the entertainment and whistled. In the summer, I counseled at South Carolina camps.
“At that same time, my uncle had signed up to go to Chillicothe, Ohio, to try out as a whistler for the Major Bowes amateur talent radio hour, which was broadcast all over the country. He couldn’t go and I went instead, and won. After that my mother, who was my pianist, and I performed at meetings of the Farm Bureau, the Grange, in school auditoriums, whatever came down the path. If Mother couldn’t go, my friend who played a marimba accompanied me.
“After college at the University of Cincinnati, I began to teach swimming at the YWCA. The national YWCA was interested in my program and sent me to Columbia University grad school in summer studies in 1945. Columbia, at that time, only accepted women in their graduate program. I lived in a studio apartment over a bar that was near a women’s prison in the St. Mark’s Square neighborhood and their relatives were always yelling up at them. I shared a toilet and the bath tub was in my kitchen with a big board on it for my table. Eventually, I lived in the Village off Washington Square with one of my former college roommates. We saw lots of free plays because my old college friends were show people who appeared in Showboat, Cyrano de Bergerac and Oklahoma.
“I went back to Warren, Ohio, at the end of summer in 1946. I received letters from the University of Chicago and Columbia offering me scholarships to finish a sociology master’s. The national YWCA wanted me to finish the master’s, so I chose Columbia and went back to New York City in the fall of 1946 and got a job at the Bronx YWCA. I met an old friend who had been a young people’s director at the Warren YWCA, and she was also a Communist. She was a director in the Brooklyn YWCA, and set up a walkout because the YWCA wanted GIs to be able to vote overseas during the 1946 election and Truman’s campaign against Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate. Another friend applied for a Special Services job in Germany. She said she was going to Washington, D.C. and I thought, “Why not?” I went with her to the Pentagon interview. The interviewer said we had high qualifications and wonderful references, but we were a year too young. She accepted us anyway. We got our shots at the Pentagon and went home to tell our mothers. My family came to New York in 1946 and we had a series of parties before we shipped out on an Army transport. We had to buy our light blue uniforms with a big rainbow Special Services patch on our left sleeve. We would be organizing recreation clubs in the American zone for the troops in occupied Germany. U.S. Special Services booked movie stars, orchestras, jazz musicians and circus acts for the troops. Eleven women shipped out of Hoboken, N.J. and the ship’s manifest held hundreds of nurses, three WACS, 11 Special Services “hostesses” and three old colonels.
“There was talk coming from Frankfurt American Military Headquarters about plans to set up a recreation club in Frankfurt on the site of a huge club originally named “The Palm Garden” that had been deliberately spared by U.S. bombers. Staff was being organized, liquor was to be allowed, a night club was to be set up and there were also tennis courts. There was a huge, glassed-in conservatory with date palms, two restaurants and kitchens, a big marble staircase with a second-story balcony. The club was to be a show place for Special Services.
“Our logistics command general lived in Berlin, but the headquarters was in Frankfurt. The command transferred to Heidelberg in 1948. The Palm Garden was given back to the Germans, some of us Special Services women went to other service clubs in the zone, like Wiesbaden and Mannheim, and I joined my friend in Heidelberg to set up a new big service club with three restaurants and a big ballroom. We had a big building on the Neckar River. I had to get all the equipment, set up two professional kitchens with huge refrigerators and stoves. We fed 200 to 400 people every night. I had to have stages built with hardwood flooring and stage curtains. It was like going to Coney Island and taking it all to Heidelberg. In the war, Americans did not bomb that building, nor did we bomb Heidelberg, and the Germans, in turn, did not bomb Oxford, England. We Americans did not bomb Kyoto, Japan, and those fools have bombed Baghdad!
“We had a fantastic artist, Madame Duverche, who also worked for us in Frankfurt. She always wore a big black cape and a jockey cap and pants, long before women were wearing pants in public. She said she had been in a madhouse and we believed her.
“In Heidelberg, European Command Headquarters, enlisted men had pulled out. Special Services was taking over the Stardust Drinking Club. We had to redecorate it into a big show club like the Palm Gardensand shows. I loved the concerts featuring pianists.”
According to Krieg, after the war Gladys came home to Hillsboro, but was recalled by Special Services to set up recreation clubs for American soldiers during the 1950s Korean War on duty at prison camps holding North Korean soldiers. She told a hilarious tale involving a coup by those Korean soldiers who captured the American general on the base. While in Korea, Gladys met Dutchman Philippe Wessels, who was attached to a United Nations mission at the camp, and after a quick courtship, she eventually found herself in Amsterdam with husband, dour Dutch in-laws and pregnant. Seeking advice from the resident Episcopal priest, she managed to extricate herself from her predicament and found her way back to New York City with her gear. She discovered there was no way to get back to Ohio with her belongings, so she bought a second-hand hearse and drove home to Hillsboro in 1955.
In the years following, Gladys took her mother and young son to Florida, where she taught elementary school during the McCarthy witch hunt era. When her principal ordered staff to sign loyalty oaths she refused, and was promptly fired. Back in Hillsboro with her small family she taught school, acquired a library science degree and was hired to teach as entering faculty at the new Wright State University in the early 1960s. While there she developed a course, “Women in the ‘70s,” and brought Gloria Steinem to campus in 1972 at the height of the women’s liberation movement, along with other notable representatives of local women’s causes. Denied tenure at Wright State, she eventually sued, and lost.
Living in Yellow Springs for over 40 years, Gladys was instrumental, along with others, in organizing the local Women, Inc. club in 1976, whose members decided there should be a place in downtown Yellow Springs for women to gather at night, other than at local bars. Gladys also obtained grants to film area movies and spent a few years as an absentee landlord, growing tobacco on 100 acres in Kentucky. With a close friend she drove cross country to the far west in an old Volkswagen van and launched their rubber tube boat onto a roaring, ice-cold western river, living to tell the tale. Enjoying good food, she entertained her friends with sumptuous holiday feasts.
According to Krieg, “Gladys represented women of her era and ours who are feisty and ready for anything that comes down the block, but whose accomplishments are often never recognized. She was indomitable.”
Gladys was preceded in death by her parents, her brother David Hall Chaney and her ex-husband, Philippe Wessels, the Netherlands. She is survived by her brother John Chaney of Greene Valley, Ariz;, her son Kim Wessels of Springfield, her two grandsons, Wyatt and Wesley Wessels of Yellow Springs, her granddaughter, Mackenzee Klontz of Clark County, and by her dedicated caregiver, Pam Beyers, of Beavercreek.
Gladys deeded her personal papers to Wright State University’s libraries, special collections and archives. Contributions in her name may be made to juvenile detention centers, children’s and young people’s books and to agencies who provide women’s clothing for entry into the workplace.