Female uniforms weren’t yet available when Liz Whitbeck enlisted in the newly formed Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in 1943. But she joined enthusiastically, a trait she carried forward later in life as she made her mark on many Minneapolis civic institutions.
Whitbeck, a veteran who became known for bringing people together as a voracious volunteer, died Oct. 9 at age 98.
A teacher in upstate New York at the start of World War II, Whitbeck volunteered to spot planes along the Canadian border. She wanted to do more, but was hampered by a teaching contract until 1943 — when she traveled to New York City to enlist in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.
The women arriving at boot camp were given oversize jackets and heavy men’s shirts — until women’s uniforms were ready. Whitbeck eventually trained pilots to fly using only their instruments, through simulators and accompanying them in the air.
“We became like sisters to them,” Whitbeck told an interviewer in 2007. “After three months of training, they left for the real deal and there was not a dry eye when we said goodbye. We knew them so well, but never heard from them again.”
The Marine Corps discharged women in 1946, but later let them enlist under new Volunteer Training Units. Whitbeck — then Elizabeth Steele — was the first person to submit a contract, according to a 1986 history of women in the Marines. Staff Sgt. Steele became commander of the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut unit, assisting veterans as they rejoined the civilian workforce.
“If it hadn’t been for Liz and the others that went into the service, served their country, took on jobs or roles and made it an accepted position for women to serve, it wouldn’t be the numbers of [women] going into the military today,” said Vicki Latiolais, secretary for the Minnesota chapter of the Women Marines Association — where Whitbeck also held leadership posts.
After marrying Minnesota native Bill Whitbeck and moving to Minneapolis, she became active in local civic life.
She held leadership positions in the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis, the East Isles Residents Association, the League of Women Voters and Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library — now Friends of Hennepin County Library.
She developed the first book sale in 1970 to dispose of retired books, drawing so many people they sold out in four hours. That sale launched what became a regular event at local libraries. Later she launched a committee to give tours of the library, which led to the creation of an association offering tours of other major Twin Cities sights and businesses.
“Mother could never sit down,” said her daughter Betsey Whitbeck, recalling how her mother would iron as the family watched television. “She needed to be constantly busy.”
From her home east of Lake of the Isles, Whitbeck also worked tirelessly to bring her neighbors together.
“Before there were neighborhood associations, she kind of was the neighborhood association,” said longtime friend and neighbor Martha Head. “If you were interested in something, she got you active in it.”
Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman said Whitbeck, an active member of the local Republican Party, respected people from across the political spectrum.
“I wish for a day when we again have that same kind of bipartisan attitude,” said Goodman, a DFLer who represents the area. “Because it’s really all about community, not as much about politics. That’s what she stood for.”
Whitbeck is survived by her daughter, Betsey, of Stillwater, and her brother, Cecil Steele, of Gouverneur, N.Y. Services have been held.
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