Retired teacher honored for service
CHESTER-Virginia Conklin has been recognized for her military service before, but never by girls old enough to be her great-granddaughter.
On Sunday, Conklin, 89, of Chester, joined the teenage girls of the 2013 Rhododendron Girls State at Wheeling Jesuit University for their opening assembly, including an awards ceremony for two women veterans.
Conklin, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard SPARS from 1944 to 1946, was recognized along with U.S. Army Sgt. Billie J. Wesseling, who served from 1994 to 2004. The awards were presented by the American Legion Auxiliary, Department of West Virginia, sponsor of the week-long event.
“There’s probably not a better group of women,” Conklin said of her Girls State hosts. “A wholesome group of girls.”
Conklin, a retired Hancock County teacher, said she especially enjoyed interacting with the teenagers and answering their questions. “They were in awe,” she said. “They kept saying, ‘I can’t believe everything you’ve done,’ but when you’re my age, you’ve done a lot of things.”
Conklin said she also took something away from the event. “I was inspired to see that there were still so many young people who wanted to learn and to give back to their community,” she said.
A similar sentiment motivated Conklin, in 1944, to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard during a time of war. Working at a grocery store at age 20, Conklin knew she wanted to do something more with her life. She thought about the Navy WAVES, but then a Coast Guard recruiter from East Liverpool came knocking.
“He said the SPARS offered all the free education, same as the Navy, only they trained in Palm Beach, Fla., instead of Illinois. Florida sounded very good, so I spent the winter months there,” she said.
Women’s reserves such as WAVES, WACs and SPARS were created during World War II to provide domestic replacements for the men who were deployed for military service overseas, Conklin said. SPARS is a contraction of the Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus,” Latin for “always ready.”
“We were trained in every male duty, except steering a ship and flying a plane,” she said.
After boot camp, Conklin elected to continue her training in Florida at cook and bakers school. From there, she went to Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., where she was one of 12 female replacements for men sent to war.
“When we reported to Capt. John in Savannah, he was in total shock. He was expecting 12 men, not women,” she said. “Capt. John was a career seaman who never married and obviously had a great dislike for women.”
Six months later, Conklin reported to Cockspur Island, Ga., a demobilization center where she typed discharge papers for men returning from overseas – until she, too, was discharged in June 1946 with the rank of Ships Cook 2nd Class.
Conklin married William E. Conklin, a Navy veteran who served in New Guinea, and, together, the couple pursued their dreams of an education via the GI Bill of Rights at West Virginia University.
“My purpose (in enlisting) was to get an education,” she said.
Virginia Conklin put her degree on hold to raise a family, while her husband went to law school and became a lawyer in Chester. The couple had three children: Karen, Kathy and Kim.
At age 46, Conklin went back to school to finish her degree – a bachelor of science in English and elementary education from Youngstown State University. Two years later, in 1973, her husband died at age 51.
Conklin struggled through the loss by going to night school to earn a master’s in speech and communications from West Virginia University. For the next 18 years, she taught English at Oak Glen High School. She chaired the English department and coached tennis, retiring in 1987.
Since then, she’s stayed active as a literacy volunteer, a tutor, a member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church and a member of Chester American Legion Post 121.
Girls State dismisses today after the final assembly.