Real-life 'Rosie the Riveter' honored at 90th birthday surprise in Madera

The Fresno BeeMay 24, 2014 

— Tears started flowing from 89-year-old Elizabeth "Betty" Lee's eyes soon after she opened the door.

There in a Madera banquet room on Saturday were five generations of family and friends -- about 70 people -- happily waving American flag handkerchiefs for a glorious birthday surprise.

Several tied their hair back with an iconic red-and-white polka-dotted bandanna -- the signature trademark of "Rosie the Riveter" -- the iconic character used to encourage women to take factory jobs to help with the war effort during World War II.

But those at Saturday's party weren't just trying to mimic that stern-faced, muscle-flexing woman who famously proclaimed "We Can Do It" on all those posters. They wore the bandannas to honor Lee, their real-life "Rosie."

It was a fitting birthday party theme, since the Madera woman will turn 90 on Memorial Day -- when veterans of World War II and other wars will be remembered.

In the back of the banquet room at the Holiday Inn Express were many framed photos of Lee, including a couple from her "Rosie" days. In one, she is surrounded by a group of young women at a shipyard in Richmond, where she worked as a welder. Another frame proudly displayed a black and white snapshot of a ship she helped build.

She learned how to weld from her older sister, Carmen, who also worked as a "Rosie." At 18, Lee was so small, weighing just 82 pounds, that she became a perfect candidate for welding in hard-to-reach spaces. During her year working as a welder, she even welded upside down -- lowered into the bottom of a ship by two men who each grabbed one of her ankles.

She had a personal connection to her work supporting the war effort, since three of her brothers fought in World War II.

Lee enjoyed welding. "Whenever I did a job, regardless of what it was, I always gave it my best shot. I always tried to do the best job that I could, and I'm still doing the best job that I can," Lee said with a laugh. "I'm trying to live to be 90!"

It shouldn't be tough: Her grandmother lived to be 113. Lee doesn't need glasses or contacts and can "still thread a needle." She lives alone, has a driver's license, and has no problem working outside in her yard, pulling weeds.

Lee, who was born in Los Angeles as one of 14 siblings, went on to raise five children and work as a truck driver and cook after WWII. She's lived in Madera for more than 45 years.

Her sister Eleanor Ramirez and daughter Susana Mora describe her as "tenacious." Lee's great-grandson, 12-year-old Manuel Mora -- one of more than 30 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandchild -- shared a warmer description. "She is very sweet and kind and she's very gentle."

Lee said she "almost got a heart attack" when she walked into her birthday surprise. Susana Mora, who organized the gathering, told her she was going to an interview to talk about Joaquin Murrieta since she is a direct descendant of the man known by some as a "Robin Hood" of the California Gold Rush era.

"I was overcome with emotion," Lee said of walking into the room, filled with family and friends. "I was so amazed to see so many people and I thought to myself, 'This isn't an interview, this is an invasion!' Oh my goodness."

Her family formed a line and, one by one, gave her a big hug.

"It was a wonderful feeling," she said of those hugs. "I can't even describe it."

"They are all here to honor her," Mora said, "and I hope that she feels that."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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