This World War II SPARS veteran is still goin’ strong...
The year 1922 was marked by some unusual happenings. Egypt gained its independence from the British, and British archeologist Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb. The Free Irish State was established. Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy. The world’s first Communist state, the USSR, was formed. The President of Poland was assassinated. James Joyce published his erotic novel “Ulysses.” And Brenda Lumsden nee Robinson was born.
Wait. Who’s Brenda Lumsden? She’s a well-spoken, intelligent and charming Englewood lady with a sharp memory, and she happens to be 96 years old, so she remembers a lot. She was born in Framingham, Massachusetts to George and Ruth Robinson, he a supervisor for Westinghouse and she an artist and photographer. Dad was an outdoorsman and loved boats. Mom had a talent for watercolors. “I got my artistic ability from Mom and my athletic ability from Dad,” Brenda swears, and during her lifetime she has demonstrated a high level of talent in both fields.
Brenda went to elementary and high school in Framingham. “I played in the high school band. Snare drum,” she says. Maybe that’s where she developed her first interest in the military. “And any sport there was, I played it:” skiing, basketball, softball (2nd base was her domain), bowling, bocci, tennis. “Tennis was my best sport in high school,” she says. But badminton is where she really starred. “Our family had quite a record in badminton,” she avers. That’s for sure. When Brenda was 51, she won the U.S. Masters Ladies’ Doubles Championship. That’s a national championship, folks.
Brenda has a houseful of art, and it’s mostly hers. Beautiful watercolors and some acrylics. Pastel landscapes brighten many of her walls. She still paints today, but she sticks with acrylics these days. “Watercolors are a little too difficult for me now,” she confess es.
After high school Brenda earned a scholarship at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania. But in her freshman year war broke out, and she decided to do something about it. “Who wants to stay in a liberal arts college when there’s a war going on and you can serve your country?” she asks.
She left Swarthmore, took three months of secretarial, clerical and accounting schooling at Katharine Gibbs College in Boston, and joined the U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve in 1943. This outfit was known as the SPARS and was formed by order of President Franklin Roosevelt so that regular Coast Guard personnel could be released to fight the growing menace of Nazi U-boats to our shipping and shores. Indeed, Nazi wolfpacks had already sunk a number of American tankers enroute to Great Britain with war supplies under Roosevelt’s Lend Lease program, and they also sank the American destroyer Reuben James in Icelandic waters, creating a real war fever in the U.S.
Under the SPARS program, Brenda enlisted as an Apprentice Seaman in February of 1943 and was called up in March. After five weeks of basic training she was assigned to the Coast Guard training station in St. Augustine, Florida. Within five months she got promoted successively to Seaman 2nd Class, Seaman 1st Class and Yeoman 3rd Class. In October of that year she was one of 25 enlisted women selected to attend the newly formed Pay & Supply School at Palm Beach, Florida and was promoted to the rank of Cadet. After completing 16 weeks of training she became an officer: Ensign, U.S. Coast Guard.
But there were restrictions on what the SPARS could do. “We were not allowed to serve on board a ship, or outside of the continental limits of the U.S.,” Brenda recalls. “We were treated with respect, but we couldn’t give orders to a man, even if he was of lower rank, unless we were told to do so by a superior officer.” Times have certainly changed since then.
Brenda finished her tour of duty as Naval Supply and Accounts Officer at the Coast Guard yard in Curtis Bay, Maryland. “That duty was fine,” she says, “but we had to rent our own quarters and take a streetcar to get to the base.” She made Lieutenant J.G. before being honorably discharged in April 1946, having served for 3 years and 2 months. “I received a nice letter from President Truman, thanking me for my service,” she says. “I suppose everyone did, but it did make me feel a little special.” And special she was.
Brenda married Don Lumsden on December 7, 1946. She had been offered “a pretty cushy job as secretary to the president of Wellesley College,” she recalls, “but Don said, ‘Nah, you don’t want to do that; let’s get married instead.’ ” They picked the December 7 date to remind them of the reason they had both joined the military, Don as an underwater demolition specialist and she as a guardian of our coasts.
Brenda and Don went back to Massachusetts, raised two children, Dale and Diana, and Brenda also helped out Don in his company, which made protective elastic wear. “We sold elastic stockings to veterans hospitals throughout the country,” Brenda says. They also sold elastic armguards to several National Football League teams, and they made a good living.
They retired and came to Florida in 1984. “We searched the entire West Coast of Florida from Naples to St. Pete,” Brenda says, “and we liked the Venice/Englewood area the best.” At first they lived in Venice and commuted to Englewood Country Club to play golf. Because they spent so much time at the club—lots of golf, dancing, bridge, tennis, social events—they decided to move to a home on the course, now known as Boca Royale. That was in 1988. Brenda stayed very active: secretary/treasurer of the homeowners’ association, working on exhibitions for the Englewood Historical Society on Old Englewood Road, helping in Veterans Day celebrations, pushing wheelchairs as a volunteer at Venice Regional Hospital. And playing golf. She’s the proud owner of a plaque commemorating her hole-in-one on No. 5.
Don passed away at age 90 a few years back, but Brenda keeps on truckin’. “I think doing those obstacle courses in Coast Guard training helped with my strength,” she says. “I played golf from age 47 to age 94. I keep my brain active with Mah-jongg and bridge.” She does some walking, keeps house, does her own cooking. “I’ve got good vision and good hearing, but I talk loud,” she admits. Her secret to longevity? “Never lose your sense of humor. And remember that friends and family are what life is all about.” She likes Englewood. Small town, with nice beaches. “No skyscrapers,” she points out. “And lots of good people here.”
Brenda is one of them, and we are blessed to have her.
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person's background.