By Wade Linville
All those familiar with United States history already know of the great sacrifices World War II veterans made, but today there is less mention of the hard work many of the women in America put in to aid in the war effort while many male soldiers were fighting overseas. One of those hard-working women would find herself on the big screen, going from a small-town girl of Science Hill, Kentucky to become a national icon and an inspiration for women throughout America. Her name was Rose Leigh, but she became more famously known as “Rosie the Riveter.”
She was one of millions of American women to answer the call when work was needed at home to aid in the war effort, and as a young mother she took on employment at the Willow Run bomber factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Her dream was to be a pilot, but after her application for Women’s Flying Training was denied due to her being a single mother, she took on a job as a B-24 riveter at the factory. The fact is, Rose Leigh never wanted to build airplanes; she wanted to fly them.
Rose Leigh wouldn’t officially become “Rosie the Riveter” on the big screen until actor Walter Pidgeon paid a visit to Willow Run to shoot footage for short films that would push the sale of war bonds. Since “Rosie the Riveter” was already a popular character in song and print, Pidgeon was on the lookout for a riveter at the factory by the name of Rosie. Due to a clerical error on her original birth certificate that listed her first name as “Clara” rather than the “Sarah” name she was given, her parents chose to call her by her middle name “Rose”. Being an attractive young lady and a riveter at the factory, Pidgeon felt that Leigh would be the perfect fit for his film.
Long after World War II at the age of 50, Leigh lived out her dream and earned her private pilot license, becoming the only woman in her local aeronautics club. She was later involved in a plane crash, losing one kidney and the sight in her left eye. This would end her flying career, but she still enjoyed flying with others. She died in 1977 from kidney failure, but helping to keep her memory alive is Kelly O’Connell Brengelman, a Chautauqua actress for Kentucky Humanities Council. While portraying “Rosie the Riveter”, Brengelman tells the story of the life of Rose Leigh as if Leigh herself were telling her life story.
On Sunday, July 22, Brengelman brought her act to the Union Township Public Library annex in Ripley to perform as “Rosie the Riveter” for a large crowd of locals.
“I honestly was not expecting this many people,” Brengelman said following her performance at the Ripley Library. “I’m really glad that you guys chose to come inside, avoid the rain and weather, and see my show.”
“This is a Kentucky story, but the wonderful thing about ‘Rose Leigh’ is that it’s America’s story, as well,” Brengelman added. “There were women all across the nation who were ‘Rosies’.”
“Rosie the Riveter was informative and fun,” said Ripley Librarian Alison Gibson.