BY KRISTINE SANDRICK
Living in Las Cruces gave me the opportunity to meet many interesting people. One in particular was Naomi Baughman. She kept her long, silver hair swept up in a soft twist, and dressed in classic, tailored attire and gorgeous jewelry. Used a cane to support her slight frame. She seemed glamorous, yet shy and enigmatic. At 90-something she witnessed so much in her lifetime. Yet, when I asked her, she seemed to keep “the good stuff” to herself.
I learned she worked in London during World War II, had lived all over the country and traveled extensively. When we sat down for an interview in May 2011, she had just turned 97.
“My name is Virginia Naomi Curtis Hill Lincoln Brown Baughman,” she said as she began to talk about a life that spanned nearly a century.
She spoke haltingly, even wincing at times as though sorting through a dusty vault of filed memories. The way she did or didn’t or couldn’t answer questions made me wish she’d kept a diary. Throughout her career, she prided herself on finding “the facts” through numbers, but now the facts elude her. She’s sharp for 97, but she … just … can’t … recall …
During her life, she suffered many disappointments including being separated from her siblings at a young age, her parents’ divorce and then two of her own. But “disappointments” is my word. She might have chuckled once or twice during the interview but otherwise showed very little emotion.
Risque? “No way.”
She was born to Florence May Curtis and Clifton Roy Hill, May 10, 1914 in Philadelphia. Her sister Marian was 5 years older; Clifton was their younger brother.
When she was 4, the family boarded a train from Philadelphia to Reno, Nevada – 2,600-some-miles – where Mr. Hill, as she called him, took a job as a civil engineer and also taught at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Mackay School of Mines.
“My earliest memory … hmmm. Well, Marian was going to do a balloon dance,” she said. (I mentioned it sounded risqué. She ignored the comment.)
“This was after mother and dad divorced,” she said. “Mother was going to drive Marian to the dance. Of course, I wanted to go. She said, ‘Your father’s coming by and he’ll take you.’ Papa came and said I couldn’t go because he had a date. The truth is Papa ran around.” Her frankness was surprising and refreshing but that was the extent of it. Naomi was too proper to slip into my gutter.
Her parents divorced and her mother took the girls back to Philadelphia, only to turn around again a year later. This time they took the train to Hollywood, California, “to see Papa. Mama rented a house down the street from grandmother and grandfather,” she said.
“What was it was like growing up in Hollywood in the ‘20s?” I asked – somehow expecting her to talk about furs and limos and movie stars. But she was just a girl then, almost 90 years ago. What she remembered about “Hollywood” was making fudge that never hardened.
They lived there six months before her mother took her to Rapid City, South Dakota. “She married Doc Lincoln. She took me and he took Marian and Cliff down to San Diego,” she said.
“Your father split up the family?” I asked. She just nodded.
Maybe he did his wife a favor, supporting two of the three children. Or maybe the siblings were caught in a custody battle. Regardless, she wouldn’t talk about that nor how it felt to lose Marian and Cliff.
“Doc Lincoln had two boys and we all lived in Rapid City, South Dakota. It was an ordinary city … before Mount Rushmore,” she said.
After high school Naomi studied stenography and bookkeeping. She landed a job clerking at JCPenney’s in Rapid City and worked her way up to the accounting office. “Mr. Penney came through one day,” she said. “It was a boring hot July day and we had all these fans. There he was in a blue serge suit – a little, slender fellow.”
Naomi was carving her work niche in numbers. Head down sort of work. So one can only imagine she felt being pressed into service as a contestant in the Klamath Falls Rodeo Queen Contest. She wasn’t a horsewoman but was “caught” one weekend on horseback, prompting rodeo organizers to call the store manager and ask him to sponsor her as JCPenney’s entry.
“They sent me to Klamath Falls, Oregon. I didn’t want to go. He didn’t ask me. He sent me,” she said. “I didn’t have one single solitary western thing. I only had Jodhpur pants and Jodhpur boots, and a cowgirl hat with JCPenney logo painted on it.”
She did well enough in the evening gown competition to be named to the queen’s court. When she returned to Rapid City with a ribbon she didn’t want, the store manager fired her. I wanted her say he had designs on her but maybe he fired her simply because she said no. Even to this day, managers don’t like being told no.
The head auditor knew her work and found her a job with Penneys in Bemidji, Minnesota. She decided retail was not for her. In 1941 Naomi took the civil service exam and moved to Washington, D.C.
Working abroad during wartime
“Before our country got involved with the war, the government was doing all it could to support the British,” she said. “Jamaica was under British Rule and our government was helping them.” Naomi and several other office workers were “shipped to Jamaica” to work as secretaries and auditors.
“It was horrible. I married Bill Brown, a real estate investor. What a mistake,” she said. “I don’t even want to talk about that. That financial mess lasted about a year. I moved back to Virginia and worked in D.C. Then I was assigned to London.” Darn. Another tidbit swept under the kilim.
“Shoes were rationed and we got a shoe coupon every time we got an assignment,” she said. “We were trained for London but they held us in abeyance. Then we were going to Cairo and they canceled that. Then London, then Australia and those were cancelled. But we ended up with all these shoes.”
Finally in 1944, the career girls left the States in a convoy for London.
“There were maybe 70 ships,” she said, “and we were on this little Norwegian freighter that carried 8 passengers – 4 male and 4 female. I’ll never forget the bathtubs. Everyday I was going to take a bath and I’d start taking off my clothes and thought ‘if a U-boat hits us …”
(Please read WordScarab next week for part 2 of 2 to read about Naomi’s “charming” husband’s real personality. We’ll also post more photos of this glamorous woman.)