Memorial Day represents much more than a long weekend to Aiken resident Jeanne Quattlebaum, a veteran whose roles in this year's observance included being a First Lady – with Gail Diggs – on Saturday in Aiken's Memorial Day parade.
Diggs and Quattlebaum, as noted in a recent Aiken Standard article, "were instrumental in resurrecting the annual Memorial Day Parade in 2015 when a local chapter of the Marine Corps League announced it would no longer present what had become an annual tradition."
Quattlebaum, a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has military associations going back to the early 1960s, when she joined the Women's Army Corps, which was established during World War II and discontinued in 1978, with all members being integrated into male units.
The former WAC member and current Woodside resident spent most of her childhood in Canyon, Texas, in the panhandle, near Amarillo, and is now known to some as one of the staunchest local advocates for veterans, largely through her service on the Aiken County Veterans Council.
"She's been a community leader for a long time, and instrumental in helping so many people," said Ted Walker, a member of Aiken's chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.
"She is a patriot. She is a veteran. She works to help other veterans. She's the go-to person," he said. "She knows everybody. She's always on the lookout for everybody else – very selfless – and does so much for veterans and also folks in need."
Quattlebaum's WAC days were largely focused on keeping paychecks moving to their intended recipients. "I was in the Finance Corps," she recalled, noting that she was a specialist fourth class, serving from 1961 to 1963 after she had a change of plans regarding her future.
"I was going to West Texas State Teachers College, and decided that I did not want to be a teacher ... My mother and dad both were teachers, and I just didn't want to finish doing that. I had two years of college, and I wanted to explore the world, so to speak, so I joined with them," she said, referring to the Army.
Her parents blessed the decision, and she headed to northeastern Alabama (Fort McClellan, near Anniston) for basic training, and then headed south (Fort Rucker, near Dothan), for the rest of her military time, also in Alabama.
The WACs were established years before Quattlebaum got on board, dating back to World War II and eventually leading Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to note, "The simple headquarters of a Grant or Lee were gone forever. An Army of filing clerks, stenographers, office managers, telephone operators, and chauffeurs had become essential, and it was scarcely less than criminal to recruit these from needed manpower when great numbers of highly qualified women were available," as quoted in a report from the Army Historical Foundation.
Among Quattlebaum's contemporary cohorts is Aiken resident Linda Caldwell, who described her as "passionate about anything military," whether through service on the Aiken County Veterans Council, in the Trenton chapter (named for the Revolutionary War battle) of the Daughters of the American Revolution or other avenues.
"She keeps abreast of all the things that are important to veterans ... She will bend over backwards to do anything for anybody," said Caldwell, a former Army captain who also knows Quattlebaum through the DAR and the vets council.
Robin Verenes, also a DAR member, said "giving" is inadequate as a word to describe the former WAC member's willingness to help others.
She cited Quattlebaum's involvement in a variety of charity drives, whether to collect items as substantial as furniture or as simple as basic toiletries. Veterans Day and remembrances of D-Day are high on Quattlebaum's list of priorities, she added.
"She's a dear, sweet lady, and ... a true attribute to the town. The town's lucky to have her," Verenes said.
"The thing that makes her tick is her love of country, and working with the veterans, to make sure they're taken care of," said Dora Bush, who has Quattlebaum among her fellow members of St. John's United Methodist Church.
Sally Bradley, also a church neighbor, made similar comments. "She's full of energy. She has a great sense of humor. She's very friendly. She certainly looks out for the veterans, and I think that's where her heart is," she said.
Quattlebaum's Aiken connection dates back to 1965, a couple of years after she completed her time in the Women's Army Corps.
"I didn't go back to Texas. I had some friends here in Aiken, and I loved it, so I settled here, and from there, I went to work for Southern Bell, at the time. It's BellSouth now," she said.
"I started out in traffic ... and was a group chief operator, and then a chief operator, in Aiken," she said, laughingly comparing herself to comedian Lily Tomlin's character, Ernestine, known for her routines based on work at a switchboard.
Aiken native Ronnie Quattlebaum, the man who would become her husband, also worked for the phone company, and the couple wound up moving to Columbia and eventually to Charlotte, where they retired prior to heading back to Aiken.
The local associations include membership at St. John's ("a wonderful church," as noted by the lady of the house) and in Women of Woodside.
"I have done so many things – volunteer things – of late that I've kind of settled down with my husband," she added.
The man of the house, she noted, is an Aiken High School graduate who was known in his teen years as "Rapid Ronnie," in connection with his talents on the football field. "I met him through Southern Bell when I moved here," she said.
The family now includes two adult children, two grandchildren (including one in Aiken) and a great-granddaughter (also in Aiken). One of her three brothers served in the Navy and another joined the Air Force.
Quattlebaum ("Nana" to her grandchildren) moved to Texas when her dad, a football and track coach, was hired to run the physical education department at West Texas State Teachers College ("home of the Buffaloes," she noted).
"I got to see a lot," she said, looking back several decades and recalling some speedy times in the 100-yard dash. "I was into track. I loved track, and I did run in some meets; I also did high-jumping."
Recent health issues have cost Quattlebaum some of the speed in her step, but she has no shortage of admirers.
"She's great," said the Rev. Tim McClendon, St. John's senior pastor, confirming that Quattlebaum is hip-deep in a variety of community activities. "She's always in church and always has a smile. Jeanne's always a person to pitch in, and somebody you can count on."
Walker referred repeatedly to Quattlebaum as a "go-to" person, and cited the example of a parade for Memorial Day. "If we needed a car for the parade, she seemed to be able to go to anybody and say, 'Hey, we need this,' and it would work, and she would get it."
Some of Quattlebaum's neighbors mentioned her consistent efforts on behalf of her fellow Vietnam-era veterans, largely in connection with the small memorial on Laurens Street, in a downtown parkway.
A March 2018 report in the Aiken Standard noted her involvement in drawing attention to vets who have first-hand experience with such locales as Khe Sanh, "Hamburger Hill" and the Ia Drang Valley.
"On this day of March 29, 1973, the last combat troops withdrew from South Vietnam, ending direct American military involvement in the Vietnam War," she noted at the time. "As a nation, we will continue to honor our Vietnam veterans on this special day of remembrance due to the president signing into law the Vietnam War Recognition Act of 2017, which has now been designated as the first anniversary of our national Vietnam War Veterans Day."
Aiken resident Dick Chelchowski, a Vietnam veteran with a background in Veterans of Foreign Wars leadership, confirmed that Quattlebaum is "extremely dedicated to veterans' causes."
Referring to the downtown memorial, he said, "She has religiously been out there taking care of that thing, and having a ceremony."
Her involvement also includes support of the local Fisher Houses ("comfort homes" open free for military families' lodging while a loved one is hospitalized) and golf tournaments to benefit vets. "If there's any kind of cause to champion, Jeanne would be there," Walker said.
"She is an encouraging person," Bradley noted. "She's a strong person, and ... all good qualities. I can't think of any bad qualities at all. I know she loves veterans, and I'm sure they appreciate her; and I appreciate what she does for them as well. I feel that I could call on her at any time and she would be helpful in an encouraging ... way, which is the way I know she is."
"She's a kind, giving and just an all-around wonderful person," Caldwell said. "She's amazing and ... she's all of about 5-foot-2 and weighs 100 pounds, soaking wet. She's just a human dynamo, and anybody who meets her just adores her."
Quattlebaum expressed appreciation for a variety of neighbors, including McClendon as well as the Rev. Nancy Reed, an associate pastor who has recently been reassigned and is on track for pastoral work with a congregation in Sumter. Quattlebaum herself is a member of Circle 11, a ladies' group at St. John's.