(Nov. 1, 2013) More than 50 years ago, a small-town teen moved to Baltimore to become one of millions of “Rosie the Riveters” — women who abandoned traditional roles to fill factory jobs during World War II.
Decades later, Helen Zabetakis DiLeonardi lives a calm life with her daughter in Ocean City, but recognizes the profound impact the move had on the rest of her life.
“You have to live through it to know it,” she said. “I’m proud of it. I’m very proud of it. But I’d never want my children to do it.”
DiLeonardi was fresh out of high school when she moved from the small mining town of Burgettstown, Pa. to Baltimore. She needed money to send home to her family, which was hard hit, like most, by the Great Depression.
Moving to Baltimore, “you don’t know anybody. You don’t know where you’re going to sleep,” she said. But her sister Adeline had just arrived, too, and she was able to stay with her briefly while scoping out her own place.
The days were long and the work was hard at Glenn L. Martin, where DiLeonardi’s job was to crawl into the narrow front of B-26 planes with her tools in hand and rivets in tow, she said. She would shoot the rivets into the plane, where a coworker called a bucketer would catch them from the outside.
After work, DiLeonardi’s escape from her heavy belt and the catcalls of her male colleagues was captaining a basketball team.
“I was finished when the war was done,” she said.
After the war, DiLeonardi met her husband Albert, a chemist, who had stayed home through WWII to help develop ammunition. They raised six children in the same town they’d spent their wartime years.
“We had a good life after that,” she said. “I married a wonderful guy.”
DiLeonardi’s primary post-war career was as a mom, although she was a substitute teacher for several years and took up salesmanship when her husband lost his job for 18 months. She went on to become the top sales person in the East Coast region for Stanley Home Products.
“When I worked, I worked,” she said.
In 2005, after her husband’s death, DiLeonardi moved to Ocean City with her daughter Kathy Panco. Though she’s lost track of her “Rosie” compatriots over the years, she still celebrates the role she played.
“I was proud. I didn’t have any regrets — I did my share,” she said.
During one Ocean City Air Show, the Thunderbird Pilots gave her a VIP pass and listened to her stories about working during the war. In 2010, she attended a show by the Ocean City Aviation Association in which a woman gave a monologue and told the story of Rosie.
That same year, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan named May 28, DiLeonardi’s birthday, Helen DiLeonardi Day in honor of her life and service as “Helen the Riveter.”
At age 90, revisiting her life from her daughter’s office on 120th Street, DiLeonardi still recognized the impact her move to Baltimore and role as Rosie had.
“I lived a life that I don’t think anybody else has, but I don’t have any regrets,” she said. “It ended up beautiful.”