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From the World War I Centennial News Podcast

Remembering Veterans: Carolyn Timbie on Grace Banker and the Hello Girls

ww1 Centennial News Podcast LogoIn October 26th's WW1 Centennial News Podcast, Episode 95, host Theo Mayer spoke with Carolyn Timbie, granddaughter of prominent Hello Girl Grace Banker. In the interview, Ms. Timbie answers questions about her grandmother's remarkable story, and her own personal journey discovering it. The following is a transcript:  


Theo Mayer: For those of you who don't know the story, the Hello Girls were America's telephone operators in WW1. Recruited and signed up by the U.S. Army and sent to France to serve in harm's way, upon on returning to the U.S. they were told that they weren't actually in the Army- but only civilian contractors, because the Army didn't have women in it. And oh, by the way, that meant they didn't get any benefits. They fought for 60 years to get their benefits, and finally did.

During the centennial period, a book about them, from author Doctor Elizabeth Cobbs started to attract attention. Which then inspired a recent multi award-winning documentary, and also a bipartisan congressional bill to officially recognize the Hello Girls. It's one of those wonderful stories that's now firmly set as an important part of the cultural lore about World War I and women's rights. Now with that as a background, I want to introduce you to a very special guest. Carolyn Timbie is the granddaughter of the de facto leader and chief operator of the Hello Girls, Grace Banker. Caroline started to send us photos about her journey through France following her grandmother's footsteps. When she came back we asked her to join us on the show. Carolyn, welcome to the podcast.

Carolyn Timbie: Thank you, Theo! Good to be here here. hello girls bookElizabeth Cobbs' book brought national attention to the story of the Hello Girls, including Carolyn Timbie's grandmother Grace Banker

Theo Mayer: So Caroline, how much of your grandmother's story and service did you know about as you were growing up?

Carolyn Timbie: That's a great question. I always knew about my grandmother as a child. Probably in the mid 70s an article came out about the Hello Girls and my grandmother, Grace Banker. And it was an article that she had actually written years before. She had passed away in 1960, so she couldn't possibly have submitted it 16 years later. She actually sent this piece of writing to Merle Egen, one of the Hello Girls, who actually saw the end of the 60 year fight to get their veterans' status. So I always knew about her. I knew she was important. Under our basement stairs we had a turnkey in a closet with mothballs. We had her uniform. And it was one of those things... It wasn't until two years ago, when Elizabeth Cobbs wrote her book on the Hello Girls, that I suddenly became aware of what a treasure trove of items we had. And I did not know the importance and significance of my grandmother. And I'm speaking for myself. My mother, of course, knew all about her mother growing up. But when I saw the book and read it, I was just blown away to hear all the very important things my grandmother did. And I did want to add that she went to Barnard College, majored in history and French, and then after she graduated, went to AT&T and worked in their long lines division as a long distance operator. And she was an instructor. After a couple of years there, she saw the notice in the paper that they were looking for women, bilingual telephone operators. So that was something I knew of, but as I said, I didn't realize what a huge, important role she played. And she actually was the chief operator of the first telephone unit in the Signal Corps that sailed over to France. So she played a very important role as a pioneer, along with overseeing a group of women.grace banker dsmGrace Banker, pictured here with her Distinguished Service Medal

Theo Mayer: Well Caroline, you recently traveled to France to visit some of the places where your grandmother was stationed during the war. Tell us about that.

Carolyn Timbie: That was an amazing experience. I went through the World War I Museum, which sponsored the trip. So I took my grandmother's diary and I looked at all the places where she served. We made a point of going and looking at these places. For instance, the first place she was stationed was at the general Army headquarters, so she was near General Pershing. She lived in a stone house there, and the women were taken care of by the wives at UCA. They were set up in their village. And they would walk two miles each way to get to their work. So she did see general Pershing from time to time, and he did inspections.

After that, we went on and traveled to Linge and the front lines, where they worked very intensely. And it was quite an honor for these women, working near the front lines. They actually handled the telephones that were known as the "battle line". My grandmother would say, "I only had two hours of sleep in the last 48 hours." They worked very hard. So we went to that town, and I have to say, there was not much in the town. Not many stores. Old, old stone houses. The last place that was that most interesting is we went to the town where they were stationed for the Meuse-Argonne battle. And a total of six women went there. They lived in these very old, leaky barracks. And the conditions were just not so great, but she talked about the thrill of being there and working with the officers, working closely with other the women. And they had such intense, hard work. When we were in the town, we didn't get to see the barracks, but we could tell where they would have been located. We had a lovely reception there.

So when we arrived, the mayor of the town was notified that we were going to be there. So they have a nice museum in the First Army headquarters, and they had a whole display with my grandmother Grace Banker, set up, along with the other women. And it was a thrill to be there. And just be in the same location as my grandmother was an amazing honor.

Theo Mayer: Now of all the things that you learned as you pursued the story, what would you say stuck with you the most? Or affected you the most, as a person and as a woman?

Carolyn Timbie: I'm just so immensely proud of her. She was this amazing woman who had the unique ability to be funny. She was kind, she was well respected by everybody. She did get awarded the Distinguished Service medal. And that was in May of 1919.

Theo Mayer: Okay, I want to ask. Is there a comment that you think Grace would leave us with as we close the interview?

Carolyn Timbie: The first thing she would say is, "Oh really? Not all this fuss on me!" She was an amazing woman, but did not want to be in the limelight. And that's really what it came down to. She was intensely thrilled to be a part of working with all these officers with the women. And to be part of the greater whole.

Theo Mayer: Carolyn Timbie is the granddaughter of Hello Girl Grace Banker. Learn more about her grandmother and the other Hello Girls from the links in the podcast notes.