Patriotism, service define centenarian’s life
By Linda Schmitmeyer
Special to the Eagle
ZELIENOPLE — Imagine being so busy at age 100 that you have to choose between two special events on how to spend your birthday. That’s the dilemma facing Joan Gill of Zelienople, who will become a centenarian on June 14, Flag Day.
Patriotic holidays are important to Joan, not only because Flag Day is her birthday but also because she became a naturalized American citizen in 1954 on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, which marked the end of fighting between Germany and the Allies in World War I.
Patriotism—and service—have been an integral part of her long life. She now lives at the Passavant Community in Zelienople. Before moving there 13 years ago, she lived in Butler.
The retirement center is hosting a special Flag Day Dinner at the same time she usually attends Butler County’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Family Support Group meeting at the center. Joan was instrumental in bringing the monthly meetings to Passavant and has been deeply involved in NAMI Butler for decades, ever since her two sons were diagnosed with schizophrenia after returning from military service in Vietnam.
“I’d hate to miss support group,” Joan said. “Maybe they can box my dinner and I can eat it later.”
WAAF Volunteer in WWII
Gill’s initial call to service coincided with World War II’s Battle of Britain in 1940, in which the United Kingdom’s royal and naval air forces withstood Nazi Germany’s six-month aerial bombardment.
She was born and grew up in Chatham near the Royal Naval Dockyards, a strategic port 30 miles southeast of London. So, when England entered the war, Joan volunteered to serve in the military, just as her father did during World War I.
When Gill turned 18, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and worked in the Signal Corps, primarily as a teletypist but also doing whatever was needed for the war effort. On one assignment, she and other WAAF volunteers were helping farmers gather wheat from their fields when an officer motioned Gill towards him.
“I thought I had done something wrong,” Joan recalls. Instead, he wanted her to pose for a recruitment photo that would be used to show the variety of work being done by WAAF volunteers. Another public relations photo shows Joan saluting the British flag under the headline, “The WAAF Calls You to Service…”
Her work as a teletypist involved logging Information she received via wire about war tactics. Because it was written in code, she knew little about the battles being fought around her.
“One particular night there seemed to be less activity,” Gill said. “We learned later that that was the first night of the D-Day offensive.”
What Gill didn’t know at the time was that her soon-to-be husband, Fred Gill of Pittsburgh, was part of the invasion.
While stationed at a base northwest of London, Joan met Fred, a U.S. Army Air Corps fighter pilot assigned to the European Theater. Fred flew his Thunderbolt P-47 over Normandy on D-Day plus 1. The couple married in October 1944.
By February 1945, Joan was pregnant with the first of their four children, and she and Fred were traveling in a convoy of ships bringing wounded soldiers and POWs to the United States. “We dodged U-boats all the way,” said Joan smiling wryly and adding, “The Germans were afraid of me.”
More solemnly, though, she remembers World War II as a pivotal point in history.
It was so critical for the whole world that the ‘right’ group win that war,” she says, adding air quotes around “right” and emphasizing “so” in her soft, gentle voice.
Sitting in her apartment at Passavant Community amid an array of World War II memorabilia and photographs, Joan is clearly proud of the role she played in helping the “right” side win.
Mental health activist, advocate
She spent the next several decades doing what many British war brides did, caring for her children — Jenny, Joe, John and Janet — and supporting her husband’s career. Fred worked in various jobs associated with the emerging 1950s aerospace industry, including helping to establish the Pennsylvania Air National Guard in 1947. The family moved about with Fred’s work, from Pittsburgh to California to Ontario, Canada, among other places.
In the 1970s, with their children grown, Fred and Joan bought an 1827 farmhouse on 100 acres near Cabot. Eventually the couple moved to an apartment in Butler, where Fred died at age 83 after an extended illness.
Joan’s call to service surfaced again, this time as a volunteer with the various mental health organizations in Butler County.
Shortly after Joan moved to the area, her adult sons began exhibiting signs of serious mental illness. There was little known about these conditions then, she said. Searching for information to help them, she called Butler’s Mental Health Association (MHA), which NAMI Butler County was part of then. She has remained a mental health activist and advocate ever since.
“My interest is still there,” said Joan, even as she enters her 11th decade of life. “When I came (to Passavant), I got involved and ran a program for six years called ‘Understanding the Brain.’”
Since that call to MHA four decades ago, Joan has served on several Butler County mental health boards, including Irene Stacey, MHA and NAMI Butler, where she was president for many years. When asked how long she was part of the NAMI Board, she said, “I was on it for donkey’s years.”
In addition to serving as board president, Joan taught NAMI Butler’s Family-to-Family educational program for family and friends dealing with a loved one’s mental illness. She’s also certified as a NAMI Family Support Group facilitator. Although she no longer leads the meetings at Passavant, she regularly posts informational flyers around the community, reminding residents about the meetings.
In 2016, NAMI Butler County PA’s board of directors recognized Joan for her many years of service “in promoting awareness and improving the lives of persons dealing with mental illness.”
“Joan has always been a great friend and an awesome volunteer for NAMI Butler,” said Joyce Saunders, NAMI Butler’s board president. “She’s amazing in what she can do. I taught several Family-to-Family classes with her, and she was always so knowledgeable and up to date on the information.”
A never-ending search for answers
Joan’s sons are in their 70s now, living independently in Pittsburgh but still challenged by symptoms associated with schizophrenia: paranoia, delusions and disorganized thinking.
Joan said she is still searching for answers to help them. “I’m donating my brain to science,” Joan said proudly.
She and her extended families also participated in a University of Pittsburgh research study looking for a potential genetic connection to schizophrenia.
Researchers from the Western Psychiatric Hospital in Pittsburgh traveled to England and interviewed Joan’s family, the Arnolds. Over the years, more than 200 members of the Gill and Arnold families underwent brain scans and participated in lengthy interviews to determine if genetics plays a role in getting schizophrenia.
“There’s got to be a reason,” said Joan. “I had a goal to find out if there was something in (my sons’) brains that could be tweaked to end this horror for them. I am thinking about my sons when I volunteer. That is why I keep at it.”
And Joan does “keep at it,” whether it’s fussing over the Lavender Patch flower garden she started outside her apartment complex that’s become more challenging to maintain or the floor-length English Garden dress she wore to a party 40 years ago that’s being altered for her big birthday celebration next weekend.
Driven by a strong sense of patriotism and service, at 100 Joan continues to look for ways to do it all.
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