McCrabb: Butler County woman has made her 101 years count

Billie Engel worked on B-25 hydraulics during World War II; earned same pay as men.

When you live to be 101 years old, you’re expected to have a lot of life experiences.

Then you meet Billie Engel, and you wonder how anyone could pack so many memories into just 37,000 days.

Consider that Engel grew up on a farm in Texas, attended classes in a three-room schoolhouse, earned her associate teaching certificate, worked on B-25 bombers during World War II, became the first woman in the department to earn equal pay as men, married a man she dated for two weeks....

(Take a deep breath here.)

...Later moved to Cincinnati, buried her first husband, married another man, buried him, visited 56 countries and islands and doesn’t appear ready to rest yet.

“She’s a free spirited woman for sure,” said her only son, Don Kemen, 77, of Fairfield.

Engel, a Hamilton resident who is sharply dressed in black slacks and a black and white blazer over her black blouse, was the guest speaker at a recent monthly Friends & Neighbors Club luncheon at the Hamilton Courtyard Marriott.

For more than 35 minutes, Engel sat on a chair in the front of the room, held a microphone and, without notes, weaved some of her tales that left the 75 people in the audience laughing and applauding at times.

When World War II started, there were rumors that women and men would be drafted, Engel said. Not wanting to be shipped overseas, she took a test and after she passed, was assigned to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, where she worked on B-25 hydraulics.

After three days, the impressed instructor told Engel: “You don’t need me in here.”

Then she became a teacher to the servicemen. They listened, too, Engel said. If they “flunked out” they were shipped to gunnery school.

“Not a lot of those men came back,” the enthusiasm suddenly gone in Engel’s voice.

Then she met a serviceman, Larry Kemen, who was working at Sheppard. They had dinner together every night for two weeks, then walked up the street to a local church and got married.

They lived in a garage that was converted into a living quarters behind a large house. There was a row of bushes and shrubs between the house and garage and the owners sometimes slept outside due to the heat.

The newlyweds were asked if they wanted a bed. They took a bed, but on the mornings her husband reported to work early, Billie went inside.

“You didn’t know who was out there,” she said.

After the war, the couple lived near Cincinnati where Billie taught elementary school for years.

Last year, after hearing about B-25 rides being offered at Lunken Field, Kemen called his mother to see if she was interested.

“It took me about 30 seconds to say yes,” said Engel, who lives in a Fairfield nursing facility.

But the flights were overbooked, and once inclement weather arrived, all flights were cancelled. While Engel didn’t get to fly that day, she got an even better offer.

She met a gentleman who asked if she was interested in taking an Honor Flight with other veterans to Washington, D.C.

But since Engel never served in the military, she wasn’t eligible for an Honor Flight, the man was told.

“I made the rules,” he said. “I will break the rules.”

While in Washington, the veterans visited numerous memorials, including the WWII Memorials. As the group walked, Engel was handed a bouquet of flowers to place on a marker.

“One of the highlights of my life,” she said. “I was so touched.”

She said her body was filled with tears up to her chin. But, she said: “I didn’t shed one. I could have. I don’t cry easy.”

She paused then added: “A day in my life I’ll never forget.”

There are other memorable days, of course. But some she’d rather forget or at least keep a secret.

After Engel was done with her presentation, her daughter-in-law, Cheryl Kemen took the microphone and told a story about Engel and a female friend visiting Chile. The ladies missed the curfew, were arrested and placed in jail.

They shared a cell with several prostitutes

“You didn’t have to tell that,” Engel said with a smile.

About the Author