How One Woman’s Drive To Survive Made Local History

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Yodeling earned her a blue ribbon; electroplating made this Indy woman a trail blazer

Mildred Juanita Rebennack says her claim to fame is winning a talent competition for singing, yodeling and playing harmonica. She proudly displays the first and only blue ribbon she’s ever won along with a photo of her decked out head-to-toe in her signature red, white and blue. She was 91 at the time. She learned to play the harmonica in her 60s. (Keep reading to see video of her playing the harmonica.) As for yodeling, well, she’s been doing that most of her life.

Sure, winning the Crestwood Village Talent Show was a big deal, but it’s not the most notable thing she’s ever done. Mildred – or Juanita, as her family calls her – made local history in 1981.

Her plan wasn’t to make headlines. She wanted – needed – to make extra cash. In 1968, Mildred had taken a job in the office at Naval Avionics. It was a dead-end government job at a time when women weren’t promoted. More than a decade later, Theodore, Mildred’s husband of 35 years and a tail gunner in the Navy during World War II, was a milkman working long days for little pay. He had no benefits, and he was sick.

Mildred saw a sign she couldn’t ignore. Naval Avionics was looking for workers to plate steel and aluminum. Mildred knew that because of the Upward Mobility Act of 1978, she couldn’t be denied the job because of her sex, so she signed up for the 15-month course to become an electroplater. It wasn’t like she was a novice in factory work. She dropped out of Tech High School at age 16 and spent more than two years welding and plating at the Defense Department at the height of World War II. Yet, she wasn’t a welcomed applicant.

“My boss told me, ‘You can’t work this job,’ but I was determined,” Mildred said. “’OK, we’ll see if you’re as good as you think you are,’ he said. ‘Don’t come to me with your complaints on the men or their language.’”

At the age of 50, Mildred finished second in her class and became the first and only female electroplater at Naval Avionics. Her reward, a higher paycheck. She also was assigned the task of emptying a 2,000-gallon tank of chrome that had sat untouched for a decade.

“It was nearly as long as this room,” Mildred said, gesturing the length of her living room filled with mementoes and photos from her colorful life.

She spent a week dumping chrome into 55-gallon barrels, then wheeling them out of the factory. After the liquid was drained, she had to climb inside the tank and shovel out the sledge. Unknown to her at the time, male co-workers were placing $5 bets on whether she’d last three weeks.

“They made it rough on me,” she said.

Her boss called doctors in to take her temperature and check her heart, certain that a woman couldn’t withstand the heat in the unairconditioned factory. While the men took smoke breaks every 20 or 30 minutes, she worked on, knowing they were watching her every move. She was assigned jobs that she had to complete alone, even though men worked in pairs.

Raised by a single mom

Mildred never thought about quitting; that’s not in her blood. She’s a fighter like her mom and her siblings. “The Magnificent Seven,” she called the family in a letter-to-the editor she wrote to the Indianapolis Star in 1992. The occasion was the criticism of single motherhood by then-Vice President Dan Quayle and others after the unmarried sitcom character Murphy Brown had a baby.

Mildred’s dad died when she was just 9, leaving her mom—who had a fourth-grade education—with seven children ranging in ages from 5 months to 16 years. They learned survival at an early age. They made it through hard work, babysitting, cleaning houses, washing dishes and waitressing. Their mom cleaned offices at night. They had to hunt for coal along the railroad tracks for heat, and sometimes they even burned furniture to stay warm. Each of them went on to achieve something big, thanks to all they learned from their mother.

Loving life after retirement

Mildred proudly displays the Red, White and Blue

When Mildred retired in 1990, she got a seven-gun salute from the American Legion Post 348. She sang the GI Prayer a cappella at her own party. It was a song she and a sister wrote for their brother, who enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17. They often sang it on the radio and around Indianapolis during World War II.

Mildred loves her country. She once had an eight-foot Statue of Liberty on her front lawn on East 17th Street. She traveled to New York for the Statue of Liberty’s 100th anniversary in 1986 and spent $172 to buy American flags for her co-workers. She registered voters while campaigning for Ross Perot and attended President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in Washington, D.C.

After Mildred was diagnosed with macular degeneration and could no longer drive, she didn’t want to be a burden on her five children, so she moved into a senior living community. She’s thankful to have meals from CICOA and assistance from others who help her live as independently as possible.

She’s hoping that things will return to a pre-pandemic “normal” soon, and she’ll be able to sing in a senior choir or lead sing-alongs again. Maybe she’ll even compete in another talent show. She’s been saving up for a new harmonica and has never stopped practicing or learning something new. She’s still trying to figure out Facebook, and she’s writing a poem about living to be 94, a milestone she reached on March 18.

“It’s probably not that big of a deal,” she said.

Those who know Mildred know otherwise.

Be there for the seniors in your Central Indiana community who paved the way for our generations. Donate now to help them age with independence and dignity.

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