Elinor Otto, one of the original Rosie the Riveters, revealed the secret of her longevity in reaching 102 years of age last week.
“Just keep moving!” Otto said with a smile as big as the birthday cake which had that piece of advice in white-and-blue frosting.
And move she did. Without sitting down for more than two hours, Otto gave hugs, shook hands and posed for photos with 100 friends and family members celebrating her birthday at the Expo Arts Center in Bixby Knolls on Friday, Oct. 29. She posed in a Jeep and with a model of a bandana-clad woman worker who made famous the saying, “We Can Do It,” while flexing her muscles.
It was a festive event with balloons everywhere and loudspeakers blaring out Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” and other rock-n-roll favorites.
Otto was in a singing mood herself. She sang a couple of verses from “Rosie the Riveter,” a song written after Pearl Harbor: “All the day long, whether rain or shine, she’s part of theassembly line. She’s making history, working for victory.”
In a toast to Otto, Johnny Johnson, who worked with her on the C-17 cargo plane assembly line at Boeing’s plant at the Long Beach Airport, said he was honored and thankful “to have Elinor Otto be a part of all of our lives. She was the best and was a great example to all of us.”
Johnson, who retired in 2014 and lives in North Long Beach, told guests that Otto “was still so beautiful and didn’t look her age.” You could almost see Otto blush the same color as herbright red hair. “May God bless you with many more birthdays,” Johnson said as the crowd applauded. A Certificate of Recognition from Long Beach City Councilmember Al Austin honored Otto as “a true American hero and a pioneer for working women across the nation.”
A special edition purse with Otto’s name on it was recently announced by the R. Riveter company.
“I just love Long Beach,” Otto said. “I feel so at home here.” Otto moved to Las Vegas in 2019 after John Perry, her grandson who she had been living with in Bixby Knolls, died unexpectedly of congestive heart failure. He was 48. Otto, who lived in Long Beach for 55 years, is living in Las Vegas now with Brenda Wynn, her grand niece, who drove Otto to her birthday party.
“Elinor really loves Long Beach,” Wynn said. “We wanted to do a big party here last year but couldn’t because of the COVID-19 pandemic so this year we wanted to return where she has so many friends and memories.”
Wynn said they wanted to have the party at Elinor’s Drinkery, the bar restaurant named after Otto on Pine Avenue in downtown Long Beach, but it is temporarily closed because of thepandemic. Elinor’s sponsored the drinks at the party Friday, with Michael Adelmann, a bartender at Elinor’s, doing the serving.
The Arts Expo was filled with photos of Otto’s adventurous life.
Her actual birthday was Thursday. She was born on Oct. 28, 1919 in Los Angeles, but her parents moved to San Diego. She was 22, recently divorced, with a young son and needing a job, when she started her first riveter job for the Rohr Aircraft Corp., in Chula Vista, in 1942, a few weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
She didn’t know how to use a rivet gun, but she learned fast. “It was on-the-job training,” she told me in 2019, “and we worked hard because we wanted to win the war.”
After the war ended, she was laid off along with thousands of other women. She tried office jobs and even a car-hop job at a drive-in, but nothing satisfied her like building planes. Shereturned to aviation riveting work in 1951 for Ryan Aeronautical Corp. in San Diego and stayed there until she moved to Long Beach in 1964 to work at Douglas Aircraft, which became McDonnell Douglas and then Boeing. She was laid off after 49 ½ years when C-17 production ended in 2014, she said. She has worked on all of the 279 C-17 planes built in Long Beach.
In her legendary aviation career, she has helped build thousands of World War II fighter planes and commercial jets in addition to the C-17.
Linda Schmid, another of Otto’s co-workers in Long Beach, came to the birthday party to help her friend celebrate.
Wearing a C-17 shirt, Schmid, who lives on the eastside of Long Beach, said she started working at Douglas Aircraft in 1966 and retired in 2011 after working there for 45 years. “Elinoris an amazing lady,” Schmid said. “She was always happy-go-lucky and fun to work with. She always did a great job. We have remained friends all these years.”
Several of Otto’s relatives flew in from other states, including Malinda Karpowitz, a great-great niece from Boise, Idaho, and her mother and Brenda Wynn’s sister, Nancy Pickup, from Allen, Texas.
Otto said the pandemic has kept her from going out too much in Las Vegas, she said. She said she recently saw a show with comedian Brad Garrett who starred on the TV sitcom, “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
Otto said she is getting out more and especially wanted to celebrate her 102nd in Long Beach.
She will be honored, along with other heroes, by the American Veterans Center, at a dinner in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 26.
She said she doesn’t have any major health problems. “I just have the normal aches and pains, and my right shoulder hurts sometimes from using a rivet gun for so many years,” she said.
She elaborated on her secrets to longevity which she talked to me about in an earlier interview, “I don’t overdo anything. I don’t drink or smoke. I thank God that I’ve been so fortunate to have people care about me. I think one of the most important things in life is loving the people you’re with. It doesn’t matter where you are.”
Otto does not think of herself as a hero though she is one to many people, especially young girls who have heard her tell her story.
“I was just doing my job like thousands of other women. I am humbled and honored by the recognition,” she said.
Another of the cakes at her 102nd birthday party had a message in frosting that read: “We made history. Now, it’s your turn.”
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