Pews of the United Methodist Church filled Feb. 8 as the community gathered to honor and remember Opal Marie Nelson, who passed away Jan. 15.
Nelson, a decades-long resident of the area, was recognized as an energetic community organizer and one of few remaining “Rosie the Riveter” members in Cottage Grove.
“She could captivate an audience of any age with her energy and sense of humor,” said Yvonne Fasold, past national president of the American Rosie the Riveter Association (ARRA).
Saturday’s service, officiated by Pastor James Markus of the Trinity Lutheran Church, incorporated prayer, scriptural readings and music separately performed by Cascade Chorus and bagpiper Steve Allely.
“Opal was a neighbor of mine as well as a friend,” said Markus. “She was a blessing to me every time I saw her. She always brought me joy.”
Born July 1, 1922, in Roanoke, Ind., Nelson grew up in the Great Depression and, at 16, was job-seeking straight out of high school. Jobs were scarce at the time and, with the outbreak of World War II, Nelson and a friend journeyed across the United States looking for work before settling in Santa Monica, Calif.
As U.S. aircraft production increased in the lead up to the war, Nelson found work on an assembly line. Despite her lack of training, Nelson was hired as a riveter on the graveyard shift to help assemble fuselages for Douglas A-20 Havocs, a medium bomber/attack aircraft.
There, Nelson would end up marrying her boss, James Nelson, in 1944.
Besides the need to make a living, Nelson said she was heavily motivated to do her work as she knew that men overseas were counting on a steady stream of supplies.
“That was a primary thought in my mind — that I was helping this come to pass,” she said in an interview with The Sentinel last November.
After the war, Nelson moved to Curtin and then Cottage Grove with her husband and daughter, going on to have five more children. Nelson raised her family and lived out the rest of her life in the Cottage Grove area.
While here, Nelson earned her legacy as a community advocate and organizer. In 1968, Nelson traveled to New Orleans to successfully lobby to establish Cottage Grove as an All-America City.
Her resourcefulness and spirited approach to life proved unwaning when, at 91 years old, Nelson made a solo road trip to Indiana to visit family.
“On her journey, she was involved in a minor fender bender,” said Markus at the service, reading from a small biography submitted by the surviving family. “And while waiting for the police, she bought the other two people involved a drink at a bar next to the accident. When the police arrived, Opal was the only sober one there and had made new friends.”
Nelson’s family described her as “tough, resilient, determined” and “a cheerleader for the downtrodden” who rejoiced in bringing people together.
Among her numerous hobbies, Nelson would keep busy with such projects as her six-book collection of the family’s genealogy, refurbishing dolls to give away and compiling stories of the men in her father’s U.S. Army platoon.
“One of the many words that could capture Opal’s life is ‘adventuresome,’” said Markus. “That’s also how she looked at death. A note was found by her bedside. It reads: ‘I’m curious. What’s it like to die? No one has come back to tell — not even Houdini, who said he would. I’m ready. I’m done here. Tell all not to grieve. I’m content. And I’m ready for my next adventure.’”
A ‘Rosie’ Legacy
Nelson’s role as a wartime riveter in California earned her a “Rosie” membership, which she enthusiastically carried out.
Rosie the Riveter became an American cultural icon of World War II, representing women in the workforce who contributed to production for the war effort. With more than 16 million Americans serving, many women took on trades that had previously been dominated by men.
It’s estimated around five to six million women entered the workforce between 1940 and 1945.
“Opal and every one of these women were proud to serve their country and help bring the troops home,” said Fasold. “They knew the value of hard work and of working together for the good of all. These values continued throughout their lives, as these women continued to serve their communities and their families.”
Nelson is credited with starting three Rosie chapters in Oregon and eventually going on to become ARRA Vice-President.
Rosies regularly visit classrooms and community groups, participate in parades and give lectures to preserve history and their legacy, though numbers are dwindling.
“February 2016, we had 21; now in February 2020 we have 12,” said Fasold of the McKenzie chapter. “We have lost six inspiring women since last February, ages 96-101.”
Fellow Rosies described Nelson as instrumental in founding the McKenzie chapter.
“We wouldn’t even exist without her,” said Rosebud Corolene Corriea, whose mother was a welder during the war. “She was the heart and soul of the Rosies.”
Through the service, friends and family remembered fondly that Nelson left behind a legacy of active community involvement and the iconic “can-do” spirit of the Rosies.
“Her entire bucket list was crossed off,” wrote her family in a statement. “We are thankful for the example she set for us on how to live our life. She taught us how to face anything that life throws at you — with confidence, faith in God and a smile always.”