By Linda Dillman
Imagine living life as an eyewitness to the past 100 years of historical and technical achievement and be able to shop for your own groceries and fix a family dinner once a month.
This is the life of Reynoldsburg resident and Ashtabula native Bernice (Bernie) Mello Whitney, who was born on Dec. 23, 1913 at home on a cold winter night in the midst of an ice storm.
The weather was so bad, the doctor could not make it to the house, so an aunt helped Bernie’s mother deliver her five-pound daughter to a world less than a year away from the start of World War I.
Bernie’s mother was from England and her father was born in the Azores and they both worked in an Ashtabula woolen mill.
“My mom taught my dad how to read,” said Whitney. “I remember daddy sitting on the couch reading the paper and mom would tell him to read it out loud in order to help him. She was his teacher.”
Streetcars were common during her youth.
“When I was a little girl, I would get on the streetcar with my mother and pay a dime to ride it,” Whitney said. “Then I would look for the oldest man on the streetcar and sit right next to him and he would usually give me my dime back.”
Times were lean for the Mello family back then, but they maintained a big garden, so there was always food on the table and a tree at Christmas.
“I got one gift at Christmas and never thought anything about it,” she said. “I knew we didn’t have much money, so I didn’t really ask for anything. We’d get fruit and candy, but it was hard on my mom and daddy. One Christmas, my mom said they would spend a dollar on each of us kids and we could pick out what we wanted. I was 12 at the time. I went into the Penney’s store and saw these beautiful leather gloves for a dollar and that’s what I asked for.”
She married her high school sweetheart, Harry Whitney, in 1933. He took a job at the docks in Ashtabula, getting paid $129 every two weeks as an electrician. While she was at Catholic mass, her husband would slip off to the airport and take $8 flying lessons.
“Harry loved to fly,” said Whitney. “He became a pilot and later an instructor and then went to Cleveland to enlist in the Army Air Corps in the early 1940s. He was stationed in California before graduating from flight school and I later went to work in a department store near home.”
A friend told Whitney she should quit her job at the store and work with her friends for the war effort at another company that was producing bayonets for guns.
“I made a lot of money and at the time was living with my mom and dad with our son,” she said. “My mom and dad didn’t make me pay for rent or things like that. They said it was their donation to the war effort. When we moved to California, we were on a 20-car train with soldiers, sailors and other women and children. Harry was assigned to four-engine bombers and the same aunt who delivered me lived only 40 miles away from us.”
Actor Jimmy Stewart was in the flight school class ahead of her husband.
“Harry said he (Stewart) was a heck of a guy,” said Whitney, “and flew the same kind of plane as my husband. We followed Harry around and then rented a room in Roy Rodgers’ father-in-law’s home. We couldn’t buy anything unless we had a ration stamp for it, because of the war. Harry eventually got out in 1945 and continued teaching flying and I went back to work. Fifteen years later our second son, Ed, was born and I had Harry seven years later.”
The couple and their three sons ended up in Columbus when Harry took a job with the Federal Aviation Administration. When her husband passed away, Whitney said she was lost in the big house they built and three years later started living in an apartment.
Although she continues to live alone, she is surrounded by friends like Evelyn Darr, bakes fruitcakes for the holidays and fixes family meals such as spaghetti, cabbage rolls or English roast like her mother would make.
“I was doing my own laundry, too, until a couple of years ago,” said Whitney. “I do my own shopping and I still love to cook.”
When asked her secret to a long life, she said with a smile there really is no secret other than to love everybody and to walk in other people’s shoes.
“Just live,” advised Whitney as she opened up cards wishing her well on her upcoming 101st birthday.