THE UNSINKABLE DOLLY BOYNE
With more than nine decades stretching behind her, Mercedes "Dolly" Boyne is a precious resource of history and wisdom. This 94-year-old woman's perspective on surviving tough times is a simple one.
"You do what you have to," she shrugs. "Maybe you don't like it, but you just do it."
This philosophy was formed out of necessity early in life.
by Mardi Ford
Observer Staff Writer
As World War I wound down, 9-year-old Dolly lived in Lehigh, Iowa, with her father, William Suer, a coal miner; her mother, Estella; older sister Isabella, 13; and little sister, 6-year-old Demerius.
Nicknamed "Dolly" for being such a tiny baby, she says she used to be carried about on a pillow. She remembers a simple, but happy home with parents who were very much in love.
"They had quite a love story," Dolly says. Her mother loved to dance and once dated her father's brother just because he was a good dancer. Her father, Dolly says, had two left feet.
"But she fell in love with Dad," she smiles, "and they got married."
But in 1919, Dolly's happy family was irrevocably changed as the Spanish Flu, riding in on the coattails of the Great War, reached the small town of Lehigh.
Cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded history, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, commonly known as the Spanish Flu, killed10 times more people than those who had died during the war.
In a single year, the Spanish Flu took the lives of an estimated 20 million to 40 million people Â— more than those who died from the infamous Bubonic Plague, known as the Black Death, which ravaged Europe for four years during the 14th century.
When the Spanish Flu hit Lehigh, it took a terrible toll on the small town.
"It was a nightmare." Dolly reluctantly remembers, "I think every house had someone who died. I don't like to look back."
Her generally lighthearted mood sombers as she tells of her own family's loss.
"Dad and Isabella were the first to get sick," she says.
Although her mother took care of the two of them, Dolly thinks she was already sick herself. By the time William and Isabella recovered, Estella and Demerius were down with the flu.
Her father and sister had to leave the house and go through the disinfection process, Dolly recalls. Neighbors and family left food and supplies outside on the front step of their quarantined house.
"Everybody did what they could to help each other," Dolly says, "but there wasn't much we could do Â— it came on so fast. We sent for a nurse, but it was already too late."
Dolly remembers how exhausted the doctors and nurses were going from house to house and town to town.
With her father and sister gone, 9-year-old Dolly, who never did get sick, was left to care for her mother and Demerius alone. And while 6-year-old Demerius eventually got better, 36-year-old Estella did not.
Dolly remembers her father at his wife's bedside after she died.
"I felt so sorry for him," she gently shakes her head. "I can still see him Â— crying there by her bed Â— it was pitiful."
William would never remarry. And, for a year, he did his best to keep the family together.
"He finally had to leave town to find enough work to support us," Dolly says.
The girls all went to separate houses of family members who were willing to care for them. They only saw each other once in a while. Some Sundays, the girls would all walk in from different directions and meet at the Catholic Church for Mass.
"I didn't like having to live with other people all the time," Dolly admits. "But, I suppose it wasn't easy taking in someone else's children, either."
William made his rounds between the girls and Dolly remembers she saw him at least every couple of weeks. On holidays and birthdays, their father would come home for family gatherings. One of Dolly's fondest memories is of her father as Santa Claus.
"We always worried that he would be late for Christmas," she says. "He would wait until the last minute to catch the train. Every year, he would show up just after Santa Claus had gone and we'd say, "Oh, you just missed him again!' It was years before I caught on."
Dolly says her aunt had a beautiful Santa Claus suit and each year, her father would jingle bells up on the roof and sneak in through the back to surprise them all as jolly old St. Nick.
"Oh, he was good!." Dolly laughs.
Her voice grows warm and soft from good memories.
"Oh, he was the best old guy," she says tenderly.
It was her deep love and concern for her father that eventually prompted Dolly to propose a new deal regarding her living arrangements.
"I told him I wanted to earn my room and board," she recalls, "so he wouldn't have to work so hard to keep paying for us all."
Although William questioned her plan, Dolly was determined. So, at 12, she moved in with the nuns at the convent in Fort Dodge, Iowa, where she lived and worked for her room and board.
Four years later, she moved into the home of Dr. and Mrs. Bhee and continued to earn her way by caring for their home and fixing meals, while finishing two years of high school.
Then, her father offered to pay for her to go through nursing school.
"Dad offered to send all of us to nursing school, if we wanted," Dolly says. "I always wanted to do medicine."
At 18, she entered the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Council Bluffs, Iowa. There she worked at the hospital at night and took nursing classes during the day. Three years later, Dolly went to work for Mercy Hospital as a registered nurse.
In 1930, she met Thomas Boyne who had come into the hospital for a tonsillectomy. Was it love at first sight?
"No. I didn't like him," she says. "He was a terrible patient. He did everything he wasn't supposed to do."
Even though Thomas did everything wrong while in the hospital, her friends convinced her to give him a chance. He finally convinced Dolly to go out with him and, later, marry him.
Together, they raised two girls, Katherine Ann and Mary Louise. Although Dolly stayed home for several years to be a full-time mother, World War II saw a shortage of nurses and Mercy Hospital convinced her to come back to work.
"I loved my nursing," she says. "I don't like to build myself up Â— but I was a good nurse."
So good, in fact, Dolly often found herself promoted.
"If you're any good," she laughs, "they'll put you in charge."
By the 1960s, Dolly was directing other nurses in a hospital in California. It had always bothered her that she had nurses working under her with more education than she had.
"In the 1930s you only needed two years of high school to enter the nursing program,"she explains.
Without telling anyone at the hospital, she continued to work full time and went to night school until she had her GED. When she had her high school diploma, she marched into the personnel office at the hospital.
Â‘There,' she said to them, Â‘put that in my file, too.' She looks triumphant and proud when she remembers that day.
"I'm a fighter," she laughs. And so she is.
With childhood experiences that would make it easy to develop a "poor me" attitude, Dolly Boyne has an outward looking attitude. She keeps busy and her social calendar is full.
Her life has been underlined by service and giving, and now at an age when she could sit back and let others do for her, Dolly still does for others.
Today, she sits in her room at the Grande Ronde Retirement Residence knitting a blue and white stocking cap. It is slated for next year's community service tree at Globe Furniture which will once again be filled with stocking caps, mittens, booties and slippers.
Dolly's contribution of 55 caps for this year's tree already hang on the showroom tree. Sue Memmott of Globe Furniture estimates that over the past 10 years or so, Dolly has made thousands of caps for the project.
"She even had her daughter in California send them up to us while she was there a few years ago," Memmott says. "That's dedication!"
In 1993, Dolly broke her wrist. When her doctor told her she couldn't knit with a cast on, she didn't listen to him. She continued to knit.
"It didn't even hurt," she says.
The same doctor told her she would probably never knit again, once her hand healed. Never missing a stitch, she knits away without even looking at what she's doing and says triumphantly, "I showed him!"