Sunday, July 10, 2011

Marilyn Stephenson's Path to Paris, Texas

Marilyn in front of her apartment with the Army Flag



This is the second in an occasional series of stories about people traveling TO Paris, Texas to live.

Marilyn Stephenson is easy to spot in the winter.  She wears a Tyrolean hat from Bavaria tightly pulled over her military haircut.  Summer finds her in t-shirts and comfortable shoes.  Her gate is forward and deliberate, and she speaks with Army punctuated precision just as a retired sergeant should.  It’s clear from her accent she’s not from these parts.  But her path to Paris is a story of American mobility.

Originally from Crown Point, Indiana, of bank robber Dillinger escape fame, Marilyn comes from a family of three daughters.  After attending college for two years, she headed to California where she worked in a small IBM department.  As she points out, there were no women supervisors then and she was released after five years.  The military beckoned but her age was a problem.  At 32, she was too old to be in the Navy but not the Army which she joined on July 6, 1967.   Training was separate through the Women’s Army Corps in Ft. McPherson, Alabama.

During her 20 years of service, Marilyn was posted from California to the Pentagon and three times in Europe. Her first ten years were spent as a communications specialist where she “pushed messages”, learning to read the holes in  teletype messages that arrived from all over the world.  This was a typical placement for women at the time.  After emerging from  NCO training as Staff Sergeant, she had eight men under her who didn’t know what to expect from a woman leader.  She told them,  “See these stripes.  They’re brand new.  I worked for this promotion.  I didn’t brown nose anyone and I’m not losing these stripes for any of you.  If you’re concerned about a woman supervisor, let me know.  I don’t want you working for me”.  All the men stayed.  When the work at the Pentagon got tedious, she asked to change to a chaplain’s assistant.

Marilyn's medals
In her new position, she was again among mostly men.  Marilyn got to go into the field and even participated in war games in Germany.  The primary duty of the troops there was to be prepared to “fold the gap when the Russians came.” At that time, it wasn’t a question of “if” but “when” the Russians tried to penetrate the Alps.  She served abroad three times in Germany and Belgium  between 1972 and 1981 and served at Grafenver with the 3rd Armor Tank Division (Patton’s old unit) on her last tour.

A chaplain’s assistant’s job is more varied than you would first imagine.  Marilyn tells stories of weddings that tried to derail, including one in which she had to sew the groom’s pants shut because of an unfortunate tear.  Because she was in charge of all chaplains’ assistants in Europe,  Marilyn made herself useful.  Before computers, she used cards to keep track of when each chaplain was leaving so she could be sure of an easy and smooth replacement.  Marilyn served as the highest ranking enlisted officer in the division.

After leaving the military in 1987, she lived in Ft. Monroe, Virginia until 1998 when she returned to California. She bought a truck and 5th wheeler and traveled all over the country.  Marilyn’s next door neighbors in California were Sam and Marc Williams.  Marc drove a long distance truck for Schneider trucking and had seen the United States from the highways.  He always said he wanted to retire to Paris, Texas because it was a nice little town that would be perfect for his later years. When he and his wife finally moved, Marilyn decided to come, too - sight unseen.

They all arrived in Paris in 2003 and Marilyn jumped in. Her activities have included Prime Time, art lessons, music lessons, Red Hat Society, lay reader for Holy Cross Episcopal church, domino player, and exercise classes and trips through Prime Time.  She believes there’s something to Texas hospitality although she had a hard time understanding our accent upon arrival. She notes people are very friendly here.   “Nobody says hello in California.”

When the Chamber of Commerce promotes Paris as a great place to retire, Marilyn could be the poster child.  She came without knowing anything about us, was greeted with open arms, and decided to stay and to participate. She’s proof that America’s mobility can benefit Lamar County.

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