Tuesday, November 02, 1999

The daring tales of Mary O'Driscoll

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In honor of Elsie the Borden Cow's 60th birthday, I went to meet the woman who handled Elsie's mail. Secretary to the president of Borden Cheese Co., Mary O'Driscoll answered letters from schoolchildren that came in to the company mascot during the 1950s. She used beautiful lavender stationery with a purple drawing of Elsie at the top.

        Cute, I thought. This might be cute. Sometimes I am so silly even I can't stand me. Mary has never aspired to cute. Brave. Smart. Interesting. Funny. Daring. But not cute.

        In England, she dodged Hitler's buzz bombs while serving as a “doughnut dolly” for the Red Cross. She lived in “cigarette camps” in France, places named Lucky Strike and Old Gold, where she fed milkshakes to American boys who had been prisoners of war, “trying to help get them in shape to go home.”

        After the war, she worked for an airline in Los Angeles. One of her jobs was to telephone billionaire Howard Hughes every day for a month, helping him find an airplane. She worked at a Palm Springs dude ranch where she met Alice Faye and Phil Harris. She turned down a job with a television producer in New York who was putting together a new show, The Huntley-Brinkley Report.

        I am not supposed to mention her age, but you can probably do the arithmetic. Mary — then Mary Sullivan — graduated from Western Reserve University in 1942 and went to work in the office of a machine tool plant in her hometown of Cleveland. After war was declared, “I became restless.”

        She put some slips of paper in a hat with things she thought she might be able to do, places she thought she might like to go.

        “Somewhere out of the country,” she says, maybe working for the United Nations or joining the WACS. She drew the paper where she'd written “censoring mail in the Bahamas,” making those big black marks through the mail of servicemen writing home with too much enthusiasm — and too much information.

        On the way to apply, she passed a Red Cross office and hopped off the streetcar. A little impetuous. She remembers breaking news of her new job to her father at dinner. His spoon was suspended in the air for a very long time. “Well,” he finally said, “tell me more.”

        Some things she didn't know yet. Such as where she was going. She boarded a ship and found out the destination was England after she'd been at sea for 12 hours. “You just took whatever came,” she says.

        And I understand that she means just in those circumstances. I can't believe that she just “took whatever came” any other time. She grabbed whatever came and made it her own personal adventure, whether it was playing pitch and catch with miserably homesick GIs or telling school- kids that Elsie was signing off because “I have to go to the moon now and look for some more green cheese.”

        A widower with six children, Donald O'Driscoll brought Mary to Cincinnati after they were married in 1964. Here, she taught school and helped found Montgomery's historical society, where she was its president for 21 years. Mr. O'Driscoll, a stockbroker, died in 1987 but Mary still wears her wedding band.

        She takes me to the little Universalist Church on Montgomery's main drag. “I don't have an official title. I just show people this lovely place. It only holds 125 and doesn't have a center aisle. But it's a wonderful place for a wedding.”

        She puts her hands on the keys of the ancient organ and fills the little room with Minuet in G. But she has to go. She has a meeting. Very busy, this woman. And she has been very busy for — well, you can do the arithmetic. But it was long before my generation began to think that we invented women's liberation.

        Mary thinks that's a peculiar term, certainly not one applying to her. That would imply that Mary P. Sullivan O'Driscoll had ever been shackled or restrained in some way.

        Which she never has.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears Mondays on WVXU radio.