The Riveting Story of Shirley Ryan
Shirley Ryan, our very own Rosie the Riveter
Every resident at Country Bay Village has a story to tell and for Shirley Ryan, hers is quite a ‘riveting’ one…pun intended.
Born and raised in St. Clair Shores, Shirley has had a rather engaging life journey to now live here at Country Bay Village in Pigeon, MI. Her story begins when she graduated from Lake Shore High School in the early 1940s when the United States was engulfed in World War II.
For many women during that time, it was the norm to step up and work while many of the men were drafted to fight overseas. During the time of 1940 to 1945, the female percentage of the U.S. labor force increased to nearly 37 percent, an unprecedented number 80 years ago. For the first time in history, 1945 saw nearly one out of every four married women join the workforce.
As for Shirley, she ended up choosing to join the workforce rather than pursue college after graduating high school. She landed her first job of being a riveter at the DeSoto Chrysler Plant where she worked on a variety of different aircraft. When asked about her time at the plant, she described, “We had wings, that was what we were working on. There would be someone riveting and someone bucking the rivet and we would take turns doing each job.”
At the time of doing this position, Shirley’s humble attitude thought her efforts of joining the workforce were nothing more than just doing her job and did not find it to be a great deal.
On the other hand, the United States Congress made sure these women who chose to be valiant during such a challenging time would be awarded for
their contributions. In December of 2020, the “Rosie the Riveter Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2019” was enacted after being signed by the President of the United States. An overview of the bill states, “To award a Congressional Gold Medal, collectively to the women in the United States who joined the workforce during World War II, in recognition of their contributions to the U.S. and the inspiration they have provided to ensuing generations” with one of those inspirational women being our own Shirley Ryan.
On June 01, 2021, Shirley was awarded the “Rosie the Riveter Congressional Gold Medal” with a certificate stating her honor. When Shirley was asked about receiving her prestigious medal, she expressed, “I really didn’t expect anything like that, and it was really something to get this award. It was a nice day,” with a grin on her face.
After the war, Shirley’s working career didn’t end with being just a riveter. After roughly a year and a half of working at the plant, she was looking for a new position and stopped at the unemployment office for assistance in finding a new career. They asked Shirley if she would be willing to leave town and her tenacious spirit replied “yes!” and she made the courageous trek alone from Michigan to Washington D.C.
Her new role was in the military intelligence field working with International Business Machines (IBM) which were used to help sort and stack different cards, all relating to critical military information. When asked if she knew what she was working on or what the IBM punch cards represented, she replied in her nonchalant demeanor, “no” as a true patriot.
She held this position in military intelligence for two years before something more special than a job brought her back home to Michigan, her now-late husband Jim. He had just gotten back from working on the ice breakers overseas and Shirley joked, “I had to get home before somebody else got him.”
After moving back to Michigan, Shirley joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and worked near the Selfridge Air National Guard Base. Although she did not fly the planes, she stated that she did get to ride in them quite frequently and mainly attended meetings there. Once Jim returned home after being enlisted for the third time, they finally settled down in Harrison Township where they lived most of their lives and raised two children. Years later when Jim had passed, Shirley chose to live in their house for five more years before ultimately ending up at Country Bay Village, where she has been currently residing for the last eight years.
When asked if Country Bay Village feels like home, Shirley said, “It really does feel like home here. I really like everybody here, which is unusual for me. I really enjoy being here and am very comfortable here. Everyone feels like family.”
Shirley’s go-getter approach to life hasn’t slowed since she has been at Country Bay Village. She still has plenty of hobbies to keep her busy, one being photography. She has always been into photography and still loves to take pictures of just about everything especially churches, old barns and the sky.
Although the transition from city life to a small town may drive others mad, Shirley doesn’t seem to mind living in the thumb. She noticed that when she would drive around, there was much less traffic which was “A-Okay” with her. Shirley enjoys her apartment with her patio to view the day and night sky here, something she missed when she lived in the city.
From stepping up and joining the workforce in the war-torn U.S. to now laying back and enjoying life, Shirley’s sense of humor and captivating smile has only gotten better. She had recently celebrated her 94th birthday at Country Bay Village surrounded by her family and friends with a homemade Perch dinner for all residents to enjoy.
Shirley’s awe-inspiring story of becoming a riveter, working in military intelligence, and joining the Civil Air Patrol still provides encouragement to women showing that “We Can Do It!”
If you would like to read this article in our magazine format, click here.