Hometown Hero: Trailblazer in East Liverpool is role model for women

At 20 years old, Conklin enlisted into the Coast Guard’s Women’s Reserve

Virginia Conklin
Karen Conklin in her uniform


EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio (WYTV) – Virginia Conklin was a senior in high school in East Liverpool when World War II began. She wanted to attend college but didn’t have the money, so she made other plans and embarked on a path of service to our country and then to our youth. Her bravery and mettle are just some of the reasons she is this week’s WYTV Hometown Hero.

At 20 years old, Conklin enlisted into the Coast Guard’s Women’s Reserve. The group Conklin was part of was called SPARS. It was founded in 1942. In the beginning, the women who joined were expected to office work, but that soon changed.

“The women in any branch were supposed to be like secretaries or bookkeepers, however, as the war progressed women did every job that the men did except fly a plane or command a ship,” Conklin said.

Conklin says she’s one of 11,000 SPARS who replaced men who were deployed overseas.

“The SPARS, unfortunately, have never been mentioned in history books or when Tom Brokaw wrote his best novel, he didn’t even mention us,” Conklin said.

During her time with the SPARS, Conklin worked many different positions in several cities in the southeast United States. When she was discharged, she married her husband and began classes at West Virginia University. She put college on hold again when her two children were born. Then, at age 48, she went back to college and obtained a degree from Youngstown State University.

“Two years later, my husband died of a massive heart attack at age 51. But as traumatic as his death may be, I had that little piece of paper that guaranteed me freedom and independence,” Conklin said.

Conklin became an English teacher. Since her retirement, she speaks about her time in the Women’s Coast Guard.

“I’m happy to still be able at my age of 93 to be able to get out, do good work for people, and I’ll continue to do that,” Conklin said.

Conklin’s biggest lesson for others: work hard and get an education.

When asked at the end of her interview if she’d like to give a message to the viewers, Conklin recited her favorite poem: Freedom isn’t Free.

FREEDOM IS NOT FREE

By Kelly Strong

I watched the flag pass by one day.
It fluttered in the breeze
A young Marine saluted it, and then
He stood at ease.

I looked at him in uniform
So young, so tall, so proud
With hair cut square and eyes alert
He’d stand out in any crowd.

I thought, how many men like him
Had fallen through the years?
How many died on foreign soil?
How many mothers’ tears?

How many Pilots’ planes shot down?
How many foxholes were soldiers’ graves?
No, Freedom is not free.

I heard the sound of taps one night,
When everything was still.
I listened to the bugler play
And felt a sudden chill.

I wondered just how many times
That taps had meant “Amen”
When a flag had draped a coffin
of a brother or a friend.

I thought of all the children,
Of the mothers and the wives,
Of fathers, sons and husbands
With interrupted lives.

I thought about a graveyard
at the bottom of the sea
Of unmarked graves in Arlington.
No, Freedom isn’t free!!