A Rosie the Riveter original, still on the job at 93


By Mike Taibbi, Correspondent, NBC News

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Remember that cliche 'Age is just a number?' Meet Elinor Otto, 93, who gets up at 4 a.m. each morning and drives to the Boeing plant in Long Beach, Calif., where she inserts rivets into the wing sections of C-17 cargo planes. It's a job she's been doing at various aircraft assembly plants since 1942.

That's right -- Otto was one of the original "Rosie the Riveter" girls, celebrated in the popular song of the same name, who supported the war effort by filling tens of thousands of jobs because able-bodied men had joined the fighting overseas.

"We were part of this big thing," Otto said. "We hoped we'd win the war. We worked hard as women, and were proud to have that job."

Money was part of it, of course; jobs were hard to find in wartime. But it wasn't much money -- Otto's first job paid 65 cents an hour, about $38 less than she makes now, and she had to pay $20 a month for her young son’s childcare. But she earned enough to pay the bills, and soon discovered that she enjoyed the work-- the routine, the camaraderie, the chance to go to a dance hall at week's end and kick back with her pals from the plant. 

She was a great beauty then, the photos she shows are of a stunning brunette on the dance floor. 

"It was ballroom dancing," she remembered, her blue eyes flashing at the memory. "I liked that."

At war's end, the "Rosies" disappeared.

"Within days we were gone," she said.

And with bills still to pay, Otto tried other lines of work. But office jobs didn't appeal to her, and a short stretch as a carhop fell by the wayside when they told her she had to do the job on roller-skates. A stroke of luck though: Southern California had come out of the war with a booming aircraft industry and Otto's skill set -- she was an ace with a rivet gun -- brought her back into the game.

She's been there ever since. She went through a couple of marriages, buried her mother, had a son and a grandson, but took her place on the assembly line year after year, decade after decade.

"I'm a working person, I guess. I like to work. I like to be around people that work. I like to get up, get out of the house, get something accomplished during the day," she said.


One of the things she's accomplished is to serve as an inspiration -- to her co-workers, her boss, and to those who honored Otto when they founded the Rosie the Riveter Park in Long Beach this month. It celebrates not only the Rosie the Riveter era, but the later women's empowerment movement propelled by the slogan attached to the iconic Rosie wartime poster, "We Can Do It!"

And Otto is still on the job, says her boss Don Pitcher, because she can still do it.

"When I think to myself, 'Why am I slowing up? Why am I home?' I think that 'Elinor is at work. And Elinor is 93!'"

How long will she work? As long as she can, is her simple answer, but likely only until sometime next year when Boeing finishes off its last contract for those C-17 cargo planes.

"I'll be the one that closes the door," Otto said. "I'll be the last one there."