Erma Klatt was a 16-year-old girl, all of 5 feet, 1 inch and weighing 110 pounds, when she went to work in the Albina shipyard in Portland, Ore.
It was the fall of 1944, the war in the Pacific was still raging and the shipyard was cranking out ships, landing craft and sub chasers for the U.S. Navy.
With so many men in the service, industries of all kinds were hiring women in huge numbers.
“I just went down and applied, and they needed someone,” Klatt said. “They were just kind of crying for help.”
She went to work as a welder, wearing leather pants, jacket and hood, plus a heavy face mask. She was making a dollar an hour while friends her age were clerking part-time in drug stores and other shops, making 25 cents an hour.
She was thrilled to have the work.
“A dollar an hour. You have no idea how far it went,” she said. She had been a foster child since the age of 4, living with eight different families in Portland, and she had never had much of anything.
Part of her earnings went for room and board — foster children were expected to pay their own way after turning 16 — but she also splurged a bit on herself.
“I bought clothes,” she said. “You can be assured of that. The first thing I bought was a white coat, which was so dumb because it got so dirty.”
Klatt’s 83 now — “I don’t hide that anymore” — and has lived in Billings for 40 years. Partly as a result of what she went through as a girl, she has been involved with the St. Vincent Healthcare Foster Grandparent Program for the past 16 years.
For 6-1/2 hours a day, five days a week, she works with children at Big Sky Elementary — close enough to walk to from her apartment —by tutoring and mentoring and being a friend to pupils with academic, social or developmental needs.
“I tell you, I love those children and they love me,” she said.
Many of the children she has worked with over the years have come from dysfunctional homes.
“I feel it,” she said. “I know the children that are suffering in that area. Nobody has to tell me. I know.”
She doesn’t care to talk about how she ended up as a foster child, but she doesn’t display the least hint of resentment or self-pity, either. She worked hard for her foster families, doing chores, cooking and taking care of younger children.
That’s another reason she was so glad to have a real job in the shipyards. She said 65 percent of the workers in the shipyard were women, very few of them as young as she.
She had her own friends in town and didn’t socialize much with the other workers, but “there was a lot of partying going on,” she said. “I do know that.”
As it turned out, Klatt would not work in the shipyards long. Late in 1944, Klatt’s foster family temporarily took in a male relative from Great Falls, a sailor named Ralph Klatt, a seaman second-class on an oil tanker. The tanker was damaged in battle and had to be taken to the Portland shipyards for repairs, so he stayed with the family for the duration.
He was 21, a big handsome fellow; she was 16, a petite, attractive girl. It was a whirlwind romance. They met early in December and were married on Dec. 28.
Ralph Klatt shipped out again once his ship was repaired and young Erma drove back to Montana with her new mother-in-law in January 1945.
One early memory of Great Falls was listening to the locals brag about their magnificent new downtown department store. Three full stories, could you believe it? The big-city girl from Portland had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing.
After her husband was discharged from the Navy in 1946, they moved to Power, near Great Falls, and took up farming and ranching. They had three sons together, but two of them died in accidents, one at 23 and the other at 27.
Erma and Ralph divorced 40 years ago and she never remarried. Ralph died just last September. Her surviving son lives in Cascade.
Erma had many jobs over the years in Billings, including a stint at the downtown Woolworth’s store and 13 years as a health aide. And for the past 14 years, she has also volunteered one weekend a month at the Ronald McDonald House.
She loves being a foster grandparent.
“I think I’ll do it until the Lord calls me home,” she said.
Barbara Brady directs the foster grandparent program, which serves seven counties and three Indian reservations.
She said many of her elderly volunteers have “amazing life stories” that help make them such good mentors to young children. She said Klatt’s service in the shipyard was an important part of the war effort, and in a way her foster grandparenting is an extension of that service.
“They’re all different, but they all have one common denominator,” Brady said of her foster grandparents. “They want to do something for their community. They want to leave a legacy.”