Trailblazer

LIHUE — Three weeks after the handsome man offered her a job in the mafia, he was murdered.

One morning, he showed up laying in the street with bullet holes up and down his body.

Less than a month before, he flirted with Genevieve Andersen, in her 20s at the time, at a Thanksgiving luncheon for big wigs in Kansas City before he made his pitch.

“A handsome, dark haired man,” said Andersen, 96, reflecting from her Lihue apartment on that Kansas City afternoon around 60 years ago. “Of course, he probably had a wife and four kids, you’d never know.”

The offer didn’t involve anything rough and unruly, like fixing bets or breaking legs. He wanted to know if Andersen would run for office. If she threw her hat in the ring as candidate for animal control officer, the Democratic party would back her. It wasn’t a secret that the Democrats and organized crime were in cahoots.

“I would have been dog catcher, which isn’t a big job, but that’s how it works,” Andersen said. “They could have gotten me elected, no question about it.”

Andersen, a reporter at the time for a radio station, turned it down, and it was while she was working on her cops and court beat that she came across news of the man’s slaying. There are moments, every now and then, that Andersen lets her mind wander back and wonder, what if?

“I just decided I didn’t want to get tied into something like that for the rest of my life,” she said.  “Sometimes, I look back at how my life would have changed had I taken him up. 

“I’ve never been sorry I turned it down,” she added after a beat. “But I have been curious.”

It was in Kansas City in the 1940s that Andersen credits as her formative years, professionally. After leaving the reporting game, she worked in promotion departments in radio, for the forest service in California, and much later, as a pet and house sitter in her retirement years on Kauai.

“When you’ve lived as long as I have, you’ve done a lot of things and been a lot of places,” she said of her resume.

But it was the Coast Guard that introduced Andersen to the city where everything took off. She was stationed there after enlisting in 1943, when women were being included in the service for the first time. 

Today, Andersen is Kauai’s oldest female veteran and she’s quick — and proud — to point out how much things have changed since then. Today, women command posts, serve on the front lines and are afforded all the rungs in the ladder that used to be reserved for men. At a recent meeting of women veterans, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard asked to meet Andersen, thanking her for being one of the trailblazers that helped opened doors for people like Gabbard — the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and military police company commander with the Hawaii Army National Guard.

“Maybe I helped a little bit,” Andersen said Thursday, deflecting praise that she was a pioneer. “Sometimes, I feel sort of good about the fact that maybe I did help this whole movement of the women.” 

Back then, all the women were assigned desk jobs. They weren’t allowed on boats. Her own parents were “horrified” about her decision, she said. Women filed paperwork after an abbreviated three-week boot camp-style crash course and worked at desks, where they were often glared at — dirty looks as Andersen called it — by male brass uncomfortable with change.

“I would just smile sweetly and walk away,” she said. “It’d drive ‘em crazy.”

It was the attack on Pearl Harbor that drove her to enlist. Working as a high school teacher, she can still see the faces of the students huddled in the Martinez, California, auditorium listening to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Day of Infamy speech on Monday, Dec. 8, 1941.

She said she still gets chicken skin when she visualizes those scared, confused faces, and she can still feel the tingle that ran up her spine knowing, for a lot of them, the end became suddenly, terrifyingly near.

“You wondered how many of them would survive,” she said, adding that the school began preparing for an early graduation, no longer able to wait until June to turn the young men loose. “So they’d go out and die sooner. That’s what I always said. It was hard. I couldn’t go back and teach anymore.”

After two years in the Coast Guard, she used her G.I. Bill to secure a pilot’s license. She’d fly her police friends up above their Kansas City houses, just for kicks, and she’d grin at the tough ones who became scared. Having the plane controls at her hands is something she can still feel, too. For her 90th birthday, she found a pilot and a plane as a gift to herself and flew around Kauai. It was a last rodeo, of sorts, when she steered the aircraft above the Garden Isle.

“It felt so good,” she said, having moved to the island 20 years ago after her husband died, a place she is content to call her home. “I just wanted to feel the controls one more time.” 

As far as being the oldest female veteran on island, Andersen — whose birthday is next month — takes the title in stride. She’s served in plenty of industries, held plenty of jobs — though mafia or animal controller isn’t one of them — but the headway females have made is a powerful piece of history to be a part of.

“Now, the women are right out in the front,” she said. “It’s great. I feel it’s wonderful. We’re quite capable.” 

Still, a title is just a title, nothing more, she said, even if it’s the oldest.

“I guess it’s good to be the oldest anything,” she said. “People say, ‘It’s so good to see you.’ I say, ‘It’s so good to be seen.’”

The annual Veterans Day parade will be 10 a.m. Saturday from Panihi Road to Kapaa Beach Park.

This year’s theme is honoring women veterans. The procession will begin in Historic Kapaa Town and end at the park.

A craft fair and vendors will be set up in the park until around 2 p.m. Kuhio Highway, from Kipuni Place to Lehua Street, will be closed from 9:30 a.m. until the conclusion of the parade.

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