How the real 'Rosie the Riveter' helped hold America, her family together

January 8, 2011 

America stopped to think about "Rosie the Riveter" last week when the model for the famous World War II "We Can Do It" poster died.

But a Hilton Head Island doctor has been thinking about Rosie all his life.

Joseph T. Hickey's mother -- as far as he and everyone back home in Peekskill, N.Y., knew -- was THE Rosie the Riveter.

Rosina Bonavita was 21 when she first landed in the national spotlight. America was at war. Her fiancè was serving in the Pacific, and she was a riveter in a former GM automobile plant in Tarrytown, N.Y.

In June 1943, she and her partner set a speed record in building a Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber.

A New York Sun headline read: "Rosie and Jennie set Rivet Record." Her life was never the same.

This came as the song "Rosie the Riveter" played on the airwaves. The "You Can Do It" poster was out, and it was a week after Norman Rockwell's cover illustration for the Saturday Evening Post showed a woman in overalls doing a man's job in a factory, holding a hulking riveting gun, with "Rosie" written on her lunch box.

Rosie the Riveter was a symbol of the millions of women defense workers during World War II. She also was a symbol for women's rights and a changing America.

But Rosie Bonavita was not a symbol. She saw her factory work as a patriotic duty, like selling war bonds, giving blood and learning home safety in case Peekskill got bombed. She never made a nickel off being called "Rosie the Riveter" and never drew attention to herself.

'MORE PLANES'

The real Rosie lived most of her 73 years in the same house in a tight-knit, Italian-Irish Catholic neighborhood.

After attending parochial grade school and public high school, she worked at a laundry. Jim Hickey, her high school sweetheart, joined the Navy. Rosie rode with his parents to his basic-training graduation, and on the way home they heard the news about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She would not see him again for 44 months.

Rosie and Jennie Fiorito, a 28-year-old woman from Ossining, N.Y., made the news when they riveted an entire trailing edge wing assembly for the Avenger bomber between midnight and 6 a.m. They drilled more than 900 lap joint holes, fitted the skins together and drove 3,345 rivets. Not one had to be redone.

Rosie told reporters she was inspired by Jimmy, who wrote from the battleship USS Mississippi that the boys needed "planes and more planes."

She always told the family she did it to boost the morale of women grinding through 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

When another team of riveters beat that mark, Rosie mounted a comeback. With a different partner, she grabbed the speed record again, this time building the wing in 4 hours, 10 minutes.

When Jimmy got a short leave, they got married and she got pregnant. It was the only time they were together in 54 months. He got home safely after serving six years, though Rosie said he fought the war a lot longer in his sleep. The Navy trained him to be an electrician. He worked more than 30 years in the trade, helping keep things going at the Reader's Digest campus in Chappaqua, N.Y.

Rosie never worked again. She wanted women to have equal pay and equal opportunity, but she chose to center her life on family and church.

'AN AMERICAN PORTRAIT'

They raised three children, while Rosie's parents lived upstairs and her in-laws lived next door. She walked to 7 a.m. Mass every day and then fixed the monsignor's breakfast. A fresh from-scratch apple pie awaited her children every day when they got home from school. She baked 18 pies at Thanksgiving, giving them to the priests, nuns and family.

Neighbors looked up to her. They respected her advice. She fed half the football team and washed all the uniforms when her boys played. Rosie and Jimmy were always surrounded by family and friends.

Hickey figures he was 7 years old the first time he got the lecture about going to college so he could have it better than his parents and their parents, who were immigrants from Naples, Italy.

"My father always told me, 'You don't be a dummy like me,' and he was the smartest man I knew," Hickey said.

Hickey went to Notre Dame, then medical school, and practiced 15 years in his hometown. Then his father would say, "I was Jimmy Hickey. Now I'm Dr. Hickey's father."

Newspapers like the Chicago Tribune came around over the years to give the world updates on Rosie. She was featured on "An American Portrait" when CBS marked the centennial of the Statue of Liberty.

When Joe and Lisa Hickey moved to Hilton Head in 1994, Rosie came with them. Jimmy had passed away, and Rosie was living with them. She was debilitated by osteoporosis, but remained a fighter and never complained. Her son became convinced her bones were weakened from lead in the riveting. His internal medicine practice includes removing toxins from the body.

On New Year's morning 1996, Lisa Hickey walked into Rosie's room in their Hilton Head Plantation home and said, "Morning, Rosie." She didn't respond. In the night, Rosie had clasped the hands that helped keep the world free, and passed the torch to us.

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