NORMAN — When Mabel Ruth “Mike” Stephanic rolls down the halls of the Norman Veterans Center in her wheelchair that’s decked out in her favorite collegiate color, she greets everyone who crosses her path with a warm smile and a hearty Oklahoma hello.
Stephanic doesn’t care much that she’s an Oklahoma State fan living in Sooner country. After all, she says, she taught at OSU for 27 years and that should give her the right to be proud of her Cowboys. She does admit, however, that her nursing degree is from the University of Oklahoma.
But there’s more to Stephanic than her kind eyes and her lovable nature. A World War II Army nurse, Stephanic blazed a trail when she enlisted all those many years ago.
The older of two children, Stephanic was born in Topeka, Kan, but grew up in Ponca City.
“My dad was a quintessential Virginia gentleman. But he was strange in one way that he thought a girl should be able to take care of herself,” Stephanic said. “I learned to box. I played tackle football. I was the only girl in a neighborhood of all boys so while my name is Mabel Ruth, I was named for my mother’s sister and a cousin, the boys decided that was too much of a mouthful so I was christened Mike. And I’ve been Mike ever since. I’ve been Mike since I was about 3 or 4 years old. Mother never did call me Mike but practically everybody else did.”
Growing up in a household where gender lines were not drawn is one of the reasons that Stephanic thinks motivated her to enlist in the Army.
“I remember hearing the reports on the seventh of December (1941) and I was starting my senior year. I knew right then, I was going to have to be there,”
Like most war stories, Stephanic graduated from high school in December, married her high school sweetheart in January and the couple soon shipped off to the battle zone.
The couple reported to LeGarde General Hospital in New Orleans, from there they were sent to Yuma, Ariz., for maneuvers.
“While we were there, we were told we had orders to move out. We got on trains at midnight. We had no idea if we were going to the west coast and going to the Pacific or if we were going east and going to Europe. It so happened that in the morning we woke up and found out we were headed east so we would be going to Europe,” Stephanic said.
When leaving the states, Stephanic was with the 32nd Evacuation Hospital, an Oklahoma unit. While she was in Ireland, the 107th Evacuation Hospital needed one nurse.
“They were going in on the 12th of July. They were short one nurse. They literally put names in a helmet and mine was one that got drawn out. In a way it was funny because talk about cultural shock. I went from an Oklahoma outfit to one from Boston, Mass. All of the time when we were overseas, if we got anyone in from Oklahoma or Texas, I was called on to interpret. I kept saying there was not a thing wrong with the Texans or the Oklahomans, it was just that they were in the wrong spot,” Stephanic said.
While she was deployed, Stephanic had little contact with her husband Edward.
“I communicated as well as I could with my parents and then my parents got in touch with him. Once in a while we got letters through to each other but for about three years, we really didn’t know what the other one was doing,” Stephanic said. “In a way, when there is no way you can communicate, you quit thinking about that and you think about what you can do, which is the job that you were there to do. I think that probably made it easier, in a way.”
Stephanic, who defines herself as incurably curious, said while she was deployed she always wanted to know what was going on.
“I knew what was going on in my outfit, but I wanted to see what was going on elsewhere. It seemed like when I was off duty, if there was a Jeep or a command car going some place, I got a ride so I could see. I got to see quite a bit of France, Luxembourg, Germany, Belgium, just because the fact that I was a ride along,” Stephanic said.
Stephanic was deployed for about 2 and a half years serving as an operating and triage nurse. Today, there are still things about her deployment that haunt her.
“There were some who were still alive and we couldn’t save them. And to this day, that hurts. When you pull into a place and see like stake wagons and they are piled with what looks like cordwood, although it isn’t, it’s bodies. That was harder than actual surgery or triage because at least when you are doing surgery or triage, this guy has had a gun, he had had a fighting chance, but they never did have, and that hurt. But I guess that is being female,” Stephanic said.
Despite the tough times, and there were many, Stephanic said that she enjoyed her time in the service.
“There were times when I was scared to death. There were times where I was nothing but elated when it came to D-Day, because we were finally doing something. And then with V-E Day, I had talked my tentmate into volunteering for the Pacific. And she would sit on her cot and cuss me. And then they announced V-J Day and sent us home instead, so then she quit cussing,” Stephanic said.
Growing up in Ponca City, Stephanic had all of the intentions to be a doctor.
“But at that time, in the ’40s, there wasn’t much money and there wasn’t much way I could make my way, but I could manage nursing. But I was never really sorry because I found many things to do as a nurse that I enjoyed,” Stephanic said. “Because, maybe it sounds self serving, but really and truly, it was the first time I felt as though I had a reason for being. I was in my 20s. I thought I was very grown up. I know now I wasn’t. Now at 94, I’m sure I wasn’t.”
When Stephanic got back to the service, her father was transferred to Stillwater. Life later took Stephanic to Woodward for three years to teach practical nursing. After that, Stephanic came back to Stillwater where she taught freshman chemistry at what was then Oklahoma A&M.
Living at the Norman Veterans Center for a little over a year, Stephanic and her son were the first mother and son combination of residents. Gary Stephanic died last April, but he always referred to his mother’s youthful spirit as her third childhood, which Stephanic attributes to her longevity.
Although Stephanic’s birth certificate might read 94 — she just celebrated a birthday a few weeks ago — she has yet to slow down. In fact, while she’s not enjoying jewelry work or knitting baby caps, she is still fighting battles.
“Here, as a group of former service people, we need help. I don’t as much as a lot of them do, but we have a great many who are completely dependent upon the help that they get from our aids, our RNs, our LPNs as well as the support people. We need more and they need money. We’ve got some that have been here six and seven years and have not had a raise. They work so hard, they really do,” Stephanic said.
Stephanic was able to voice her concerns a few weeks ago when she was honored Veterans Awareness Day in a joint House and Senate ceremony. Stephanic received a citation from Gov. Mary Fallin during the event. Stephanic and 12 other veterans who live in the Norman center also were recognized.
Although she doesn’t consider herself a role model, “I’m too ornery,” Stephanic said, she still encourages women to pursue their dreams.
“I’d say go for it. Because, let’s face it, when I was in, there were very few “jobs” that you could do if you weren’t a nurse or a cook, that was about it. Now, a gal can do just about anything. A lot of girls growing up now are able to do many great things that they were not able to do, not even 10, 15 years ago. Consequently, they are trained and they need the jobs. Let’s face it, some of us just need to do things,” Stephanic said.