Helping America's Most Vulnerable

Meet Iona Osnoe: Veteran, Volunteer and Westrum House Resident

(this story was written in January 2011)

At age 90, Iona Osnoe rests comfortably in her chair and looks back over her long life. “It’s true,” she says with a smile. “A lot has happened!” Iona is a resident of Volunteers of America’s Westrum House, an affordable senior community in Topsham, Maine. She is also a veteran of the U.S. armed forces and has been a tireless volunteer for a variety of programs sponsored by Volunteers of America.

“Iona is not only a lovely person,” says Travis Drake, Manager of the Westrum House for Volunteers of America, “but also a striking example of the many ways that Volunteers of American can touch the lives of friends and neighbors here in Northern New England.” A Maine native, Iona was born in Brunswick and raised on her parents’ farm on the Highland Road.

“My father kept dairy cattle for butter and milk,” she says, “and my mother took care of chickens, for eggs.” During World War II, Iona enlisted and served as a private in Norfolk, Virginia, in the Aircraft Warning Service. “This was before the days of radar,” she explains. The service maintained a network of aircraft-spotting towers along the coast (many of which can still be seen to this day) to determine whether aircraft spotted overhead were friends or foe.

After her discharge, in 1943, Iona worked at a variety of jobs, including Hyde Windlass (which later became a part of Bath Iron Works) in Bath, Maine, turning gears on lathes for the engines of PT boats — alongside her sister, who helped assemble the engines. “I enjoyed that job,” Iona says. “I often wondered if one of my gears was in John F. Kennedy’s famous PT-109.”

She also worked at the Navy Exchange, helping the Commander’s wife with their children, and moved to Pensacola, Florida, briefly when the Commander was transferred there. Iona joined the American Legion in 1945. While working for her brother back on the family farm, she met Leonard Osnoe, her husband-to-be, who was hauling pulpwood in the adjacent woodlands.

“One day, our two cars reached the intersection of the Highland Road and the old Route One at the same moment,” says Iona. “When Leonard stopped to let me go first, I stuck out my tongue at him!” Leonard tracked down her sporty ’37 Chevy coupé — and the couple soon got married and became the parents of seven children.

Iona: how I met my husband

“The Sixties were a tough time to raise children,” says Iona with a frown. Four of her sons served in Viet Nam. “When they came back, they didn’t get a very good reception — they were called names and ignored by other people.” Since then, two of her children have moved to Minnesota, two have passed away, and three live near her in Maine.

After her youngest daughter started school, Iona went back to work, cleaning people’s houses and working for the Merrymeeting Community Action program (now known as the Community and Economic Development program [CED]). She subsequently served on the board of directors of the CED as well as Pine Tree Legal Assistance in its early days.

From 1974 until 1982, she worked in the unemployment bureaus at Bath and Augusta. After that, she helped keep house for several years for a disabled friend. “But I’ve worked even more since I retired!” she says, laughing.

Over the years, Iona has volunteered, for example, as a greeter for a medical center in Brunswick. More recently, she volunteered as a greeter for the Midcoast CA$H Coalition tax program (which is fiscally managed by Volunteers of America) and spent time helping to prepare and serve meals at Volunteers of America’s Camp POSTCARD for Maine 5th- and 6th-graders. “There I was — 90 years old — and I really enjoyed being with those kids!”

Iona adds that she enjoys her life at Westrum House, one of 10 affordable senior housing communities across Northern New England, developed and managed by Volunteers of America. “I’ve been here many years now,” she says. “I get along well, and I get around easily. It’s very comfortable and feels like a small, friendly community. I couldn’t ask for a better home. It still feels like a family community.”