By Martie Thompson
Violet Keels, age 97, was way ahead of her time when, as an adventurous young woman, she left her comfortable life in the Midwest to see the world as a volunteer with the American Red Cross during World War II. An only child, she grew up in Indianapolis before traveling to Langley Air Force Base for training to become a “Doughnut Dolly” assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. She and three other girls traveled with the division and were assigned the task of setting up recreation clubs in each stationed city. The clubs were basically lounges for enlisted servicemen, where they could come to relax, have some doughnuts and coffee, write letters home and find a friendly face. Keels said she lived with the three other girls in small apartments and set up clubs in Paris, Belgium, Holland and three other places in France before the war ended and she returned to the United States with the 82nd Airborne Division. Keels recalled that they were treated to a ticker tape parade in New York City and a delicious dinner at the Waldorf Astoria.
She later became a stewardess for Chicago and Southern Airlines, a precursor airline to Delta. It was on a flight that she met her late husband, Albert “Buck” Keels. They were married for 62 years and had a daughter, Patricia and son, Michael. The family was stationed overseas since Buck Keels was in the Air Force and even spent time at some of the places that Violet Keels had been during the war. Their last duty station was in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., and Violet Keels lived there until moving to Jacksonville about six years ago to live closer to her son. She is a two-year resident of Starling San Jose and is proud to have two grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
Q: How did you become interested in volunteering with the Red Cross?
A: I was attending college at Indiana University studying to become a teacher because that’s what my mother wanted me to be. I volunteered at a USO Club in Indianapolis and that gave me the idea to volunteer overseas with the Red Cross — because that sounded more fun to me than teaching.
Q: What was the scariest part of your time with the Red Cross?
A: I was in London during the nighttime bombings, but that wasn’t as scary as when we first went to Europe on a troop ship that sailed from New York City. We were a few hours away from docking in Liverpool after crossing the ocean and the captain said submarines were detected in the area and he had to cut the engines and be quiet. He also told us the sea water was so cold that we could only survive for about five minutes in the water. The girls I was travelling with and I decided we’d rather go down with the ship than jump in that water.
Q: What was the most rewarding memory of your time with the Red Cross?
A: I’d say it was seeing the service men come into the club that I had set up and see their smiles and know that they were happy for a time. I always encouraged them to write to their families back home. It was very rewarding when the men would come back to me and say their mother was glad to hear from them.
Q: How did you meet your husband?
A: As an Air Force pilot, he had delivered an airplane somewhere and was on one of my flights (when I was a stewardess) coming back to Memphis. I said to a friend, “He’s a lot of fun and a good dancer, but nobody to ever be serious about.” I married him a year later.
Q: What do you enjoy doing for fun?
A: I played golf until I fell on the golf course about seven years ago. I read, especially Danielle Steel books. I think I’ve read all of them. And I watch lots of sports on TV, especially golf, tennis and baseball. But I like all sports and watch all the games for college football and the NFL. My favorite teams are Florida State, Georgia and the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Photo by Martie Thompson