April 01, 2014
Growing up in the small town of Northumberland, Pa., during the Great Depression, Ruth Eleanor McCorkill ’43 had no idea she’d one day be a trendsetter in a male-dominated field that required significant time in the public eye. “In some ways, I’m a loner,” says McCorkill. “I grew up alone and did a lot of things alone.”
Ruth Eleanor McCorkill
McCorkill’s mother died at the age of 52 when, McCorkill says, in describing herself, she was “14 going on 12.” Although McCorkill, an only child, was naive and uncertain of what she wanted to do with her life, her father (an insurance agent who never remarried, choosing instead to focus on raising his daughter) made sure McCorkill got a good education.
Despite her lack of a clear vision for a career, McCorkill decided to study business administration. Along with supplemental classes in typing and shorthand, it seemed like the most versatile skill set she could acquire for an uncertain future. The decision unknowingly set McCorkill on the pacesetting path she would ultimately blaze.
But as a young woman, McCorkill just thought she was being practical. After all, a good business sense, coupled with proficiency in the archetypal secretarial duties of the time, would make her a viable candidate for a wide swath of careers.
It was a time when most women were nurses, secretaries or teachers, if they worked outside of the home at all. Once married, many women left the workforce to start a family. McCorkill’s female classmates were primarily studying to be teachers or to work in ministry, which, at the time, often meant becoming a church organist or office secretary. McCorkill wanted to leave herself open to the unknown.
As it did for the rest of her generation, the unknown crept into McCorkill’s life on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, pulling the United States into World War II. Now 93, McCorkill finds that her recollection of some of life’s details have dimmed, but, just as many younger Americans today know where they were on 9/11, she distinctly remembers when she heard the news about Pearl Harbor.