By Larry Briscoe
Claire Cummings was a trailblazer. She achieved her pilot’s license before women were generally thought of as pilots. She was one of the first members of the United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.
Mrs. Cummings’ life of 90 years was celebrated Saturday by a full house of family and friends at a memorial service held at Ridin High Cowboy Church in Union Valley.
Full military honors were presented by a contingent of Marines including a U.S. flag-folding ceremony. The flag was presented to her grandson, Ben McLeod, on behalf of a grateful nation.
The Patriot Riders motorcycle club lined the entrance to the church with flags with members standing at attention.
She was born June 5, 1922, in East Paterson, N.J., the daughter of Herbie and Sadie Weis. She died Friday, Jan. 11.
Pastor Steve Bishop spoke at the memorial service of Mrs. Cummings’ determination, courage and discipline.
“Wouldn’t we all love to be that disciplined?” he recalled the stories of her achievements. “She was a woman of very few limitations.”
Bishop advised, “Live your life without limitations like she did and honor your heavenly Father.”
Claire’s initiative was clear early. Girls had not served as drum majors. That was before Claire. But there was only one problem — they did not make boots large enough to fit her.
Daughter Barbara Shortnacy said Saturday she thought all her children inherited their mom’s large feet.
Claire’s dad had a good friend who came to the rescue — Mr. Capezio whose shoes are now coveted by women worldwide.
“Mr. Capezio said, ‘Bring Claire to the house tonight,’” Barbara said of her dad’s conversation with his friend. Capezio took the necessary measurements and made Claire’s boots to fit. She became the first female drum major.
What was she like as a mom?
“Strict,” answered Barbara and noted she and sister Joyce cleaned house every day.
She remembered one Saturday when they had made their beds but not up to inspection.
“She flipped a quarter on them, and it didn’t bounce,” Barbara said.
Their mother took the covers and beds and placed them in the middle of the room, and they were instructed to make them right.
Another time, Claire opened the girls’ sock drawer and found it did not meet expectations.
“All nine drawers got dumped,” her daughter declared. “Do it again.”
“She was strict — but very fair,” Barbara remembered. “We called her Sarge.”
Joyce said their mother joined the Marines Women’s Reserve on Feb. 14, 1943, the same month the Women’s Reserve was established. She was assigned to basic training at Hunter College, New York City, N.Y.
“She was one of 11 who were sent to Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 1943,” Joyce said.
That was March 19, 1943. The women helped organize the boot camp at Lejeune. She drilled the recruits and was assigned to extra police duties to the Women’s Reserve members who were restricted to their barracks since there was no brig for women at the time.
Barbara said Claire was in charge of the service club. With that assignment, Cummings escorted the commandant of the Marine Corps at the time to inspect the area. She also escorted Elizabeth Arden, owner of the cosmetic firm. She and Arden toured the salon in the club since the Arden products were used exclusively.
The Marine Corps wanted Arden to develop a lipstick and nail polish color to match the red cord on the Women’s Reserve caps.
The women’s serge forest green uniforms “were made out of the same material used for the men and were styled with a man-tailored jacket, a six-gore skirt and matching visored bell-crowned hat trimmed with a bright red cord.”
In honor of the Marine’s “Halls of Montezuma,” Arden coordinated the color with the red cord and red chevrons on the uniforms. The resulting name was Montezuma Red.
The Elizabeth Arden company honored Cummings and her family along with other early Women’s Reserve members at an anniversary celebration with gifts of Montezuma Red lipsticks.
On the subject of firsts — Claire met her husband, Ben Cummings, at Camp Lejeune when he returned stateside from Midway Island after serving at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He was a survivor of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
A year later, they were married on Feb. 14, 1944, at Camp Lejeune. They were the first Marine couple to be married there.
Cummings was pregnant in 1945, and the tour of duty was automatically handled as a discharge, a son was born, followed later by their two daughters. On her day of discharge from the Marines, legislation was signed into law allowing the Women’s Reserves to be given assignments only as far as Hawaii.
The only medal awarded during those early years of World War II was the Ruptured Duck Discharge Button. She achieved the highest rank of platoon sergeant.
In the early 1960s, the family settled in Texas, and after 43 years of marriage, her husband died. She retired in 1986 as an assistant vice president in banking and later took on part-time work.
Her survivors include her son, Bob Cummings and wife Karen of Royse City; daughters, Joyce Cummings of East Tawakoni and Barbara Shortnacy and husband Billy Don of Royse City; grandchildren, Mike Cummings and wife Renay, Angie Smith, Ben McLeod, Libby Ellington and husband Larry and Rodney Goodwin; great- grandchildren, Ashley, Amanda, Kody, Kourtney, Kamren, Valerie, Tasha, Danielle, Rodney, Casey and Brooke; numerous great- great-grandchildren; a brother, Jim Weis and wife Melinda; and a cousin, Billy Allen.