Elizabeth K. Gessner, 81, clothing union official, riveter during the war

February 18, 1997|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Elizabeth K. "Lee" Gessner, who was a Rosie the Riveter during World War II and an official for a clothing workers union, died of heart failure Friday at home in Perry Hall. She was 81.

The Baltimore native, who attended St. Bernard's parochial school in Waverly, left Clifton Junior High School during the Depression to help her parents support her five brothers and sisters.

While working as a presser of men's robes at a BVD Co. factory in Baltimore, Ms. Gessner participated in strikes and a successful organizing drive by the Ladies Cotton Workers Union.

"But she said it was hard, hot work at BVD," according to her niece, Mary Maguire of Perry Hall, and Ms. Gessner took a job as a file clerk for the city Board of Education on 25th Street.

With the advent of World War II, she and her sister Margaret went to work at Glenn L. Martin Co. in Middle River, putting rivets into planes. The petite sisters -- who looked alike -- were featured in a company handbook in an article that said "You're not seeing double" and praised their high production.

"They were such good workers," Ms. Maguire said, recalling that while others were completing work on one plane a day, "they were doing six or seven a day. After the war, they wanted to stay on and they were such good riveters that [Martin] wanted to keep them.

"But they offered them night work -- the night shift -- both my mother and my aunt, and they said, 'No thanks.' "

Ms. Gessner then became a secretary at Goetz Meat Packing Co.

In 1946, she joined L. Greif & Brothers, men's clothiers, remaining there until the company moved out of state in 1980.

At Greif, she began as a ripper in the alterations department and became a register clerk, keeping track of the inventory of men's garments from the home office in Govans.

Ms. Gessner also was a member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Local 426, which in 1957 was quietly voted in by the workers -- in sharp contrast to her earlier experiences in union organizing.

She served as the local's secretary-treasurer during the 1960s and 1970s, and as its president during the late 1970s.

Ms. Gessner spent most of her life in Govans -- a relatively rural part of the city in her girlhood. She was athletic and enjoyed horseback riding.

"She spent her free time riding at the stables on Loch Raven Boulevard in Hillendale. She had a favorite horse she called Singlepit that she never forgot," Ms. Maguire said.

Ms. Gessner, who always hoped to but never did buy a horse, talked of Singlepit in the last moments of her life, the niece said.

"She was full of stories but she said the happiest time of her life was riding Singlepit. She was the backbone of our family -- devoted to me, my brothers, my children and grandchildren.

L "And she and her sister were inseparable," Ms. Maguire said.

A Mass of Christian burial was offered yesterday.

Ms. Gessner lived for the past 10 years in Perry Hall with her sister, Margaret M. Becker, and Ms. Maguire. Other survivors include many nieces and nephews of several generations.

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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