She was born in 1926 in Clinton, Wisconsin, and hasn’t slowed down much, since.
At 85, when most of her contemporaries have died, she is feisty and spry.
“If you stop doing things, then you stop doing them,” she says. “You get old.”
She may live in a quiet, gated community called The Reserve, but she is anything but reserved.
“My daughter took away my car when I was 80, saying ‘No one who is 80 should be driving.’”
Then her eyes take on a mischievous glint. “But my driver’s license isn’t up until 2013, and I fully plan to renew it.”
For years and years, she owned a telephone answering service in Beeville, and was the agent for both Western Union (back in the days when people still sent telegrams) and the Greyhound Bus Co. She ran it, or them, with determination and energy stemming from her childhood — she was the middle of three sisters growing up in the Great Depression.
“The only job my parents could find was farm work; my father worked the fields, and my mother chased the chickens.”
The depression took its toll. Her parents divorced, because her father could not feed the family.
She knew then and she knows now: she didn’t want to live on a farm. When her father moved to Milwaukee — to deliver coal in the winter and ice in the summer — she went with him.
Instead of high school, she went to a business school.
“They were tough times. Each year, I would get one skirt, one blouse and one sweater. I’d wash them every night before wearing them the next day.”
But the Depression also was honing her business skills.
“I would curl the landlady’s hair in rollers. In return, she would give me hand-me-downs. We were the same size.”
Remembering events from 60 or more years ago is not linear. Sometimes, it resembles a crazy-quilt of disparate patches that resist melding into a comprehensive whole.
During World War II, Elaine (she was Elaine Drew then) joined the home-front ladies, building warplanes in California. “I was a riveter for Lockheed Aircraft.
“Every place I worked back then,” (that familiar glint in those eyes) “I lied about my age.
“All my friends married sailors,” she laughs, “but I didn’t want that kind of life.
By V-J Day, she was back in Milwaukee, enjoying the sun and the sand and the beach.
Along came Joseph, an Italian, who shared that love for the beach — and who also owned a 42-foot yacht.
“Our three children learned how to walk on the deck.”
In the 1950s, Dettman owned an answering service. She started with 30 customers; when she sold it, they numbered 300. A pattern gelled and would be repeated far away in Beeville, Texas.
“My sister, Pat, met a sailor on V-J Day. Seven days later, they married and moved to Texas.”
In the 1960s, Dettman moved west, too. But to Arizona, to a suburb of Phoenix. She worked for Southwestern Bell. “I’ve lost track of how many ‘bells’ I’ve worked for,” she grins.
Her husband died in 1964.
Wanting to be closer to her sister, she sold the home and moved to Beeville.
Along came Calvin Dettman, who owned Beeville Packing Co.
They were married in 1971. It was a short marriage; her husband died two years later. Indicative of a convention long gone, she still refers to him as “Mr. Dettman,” or “Mr. D.”
Three months later, she rented space on Washington street to start — you guessed it — that answering service.
In between taking messages, handling wire transfers and selling bus tickets, she bought a couple of Checker cabs.
In the mid-1980s, she sold the whole kit and caboodle to her children for $1.
A jigsaw piece: “I owned a casting foundry in Milwaukee. That almost got me a spot on ‘What’s My Line?’”
Another: “I was named Woman of the Year in Milwaukee in 1967.”
And then another: “My mother and my oldest son died within 30 days of each other.”
The glint disappears briefly. She doesn’t like to dwell on those days.
At 65, the social benchmark for retiring, Coastal Bend College hired her — yep — to answer the phones.
The PBX was in a converted hallway in the campus library — where Sarah Milnarich was, and is, the librarian.
It was the beginning of a lasting friendship. “Sometimes, it’s as if I were her adopted daughter,” Milnarich says.
Leaving work one evening in 1999, Dettman stepped on some loose gravel, slipped, fell and broke her elbow in several places.
“Elaine wanted to drive herself to the hospital,” Milnarich remembers.
Such an injury would require a long recuperation. Dettman reluctantly decided it was time to hang up the phones.
She moved to Corpus Christi with one of her daughters. She would live at four different addresses — all the while doing volunteer work at Christus Spohn South Hospital.
She then followed a younger daughter to Georgetown.
Her daughter moved away, leaving her mother alone, where, Dettman says, nothing was happening. She just sat at home doing what she hated most: nothing.
She was there for two, frustrating years.
One day, on a Sunday, Milnarich noticed an apartment for rent at The Reserve, and called Dettman about it.
“No,” Dettman said, “I’m staying here.”
“The next day,” Milnarich remembers, “Elaine called me at 7 in the morning. “‘Sarah,’ she said, ‘I’ve thought about it all night. I’m coming home.’”
“Sarah saved my life,” Dettman says.
Today, she is getting ready to volunteer at the local Christus Spohn Hospital — answering phones, of course.
She excuses herself and goes to her bedroom closet to bring out something on a hanger: her Christus Spohn uniform for volunteers, waiting and ready.
“I told my children when they were little not to worry about me, that I’m going to live until I’m 100 — and I will.”
Milnarich, who is half that age, agrees.
“Elaine’s a spitfire. And she’s the kind of old dame I want to be.”
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.