Travels take woman from the Pentagon to Paris

Originally Published June 16, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated June 14, 2013 at 2:22 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Jonnie Fuller, 92, of Conway stands in front of The Lord’s Prayer, one of the many pieces she has crocheted. She said it’s the only one like it in the world because she took graph paper and made the pattern. “It weighs 84 pounds,” she said. Named after an uncle, Fuller worked for the Pentagon for years and competed in and won dance contests as a senior citizen.

Jonnie Fuller of Conway wishes there was another word for senior citizen.

Fuller, who has rubbed elbows with U.S. presidents and won dance contests, doesn’t like the image the term creates.

“Why can’t we call them prime-timers, or something like that?” she said.

“People think of a bunch of old people slobbering. I’ve got news for you,” Fuller said.

She and her second husband and love of her life, William “Bill” Fuller, traveled to senior-citizen centers, winning ballroom-dance contests.

Fuller, who will be 93 on June 27, has stories upon stories about her life, which took her from Enola to Paris, France, with her first husband, Bill Anderson.

“I’ve got a memory like an elephant,” she said, sitting in a chair in her living room, a photo album on the ottoman.

Her parents were Jess W. and Arlie Bryant, and her father was a farmer.

“I walked behind a mule and picked cotton. … I did it because that’s what you did. If you eat, you work,” Fuller said.

Things got tougher when the war started.

“World War II changed everybody’s life,” she said.

Jobs weren’t to be found in Enola, she said, so she went to live in Little Rock with an aunt.

“We’d barely been out of the county, let alone been out in the world,” she said.

“I wanted to venture out and see if I could find something better than breaking my back.”

She got a job at a theater as a cashier. Her first paycheck for six days a week was $20, and she had to pay her aunt room and board out of that.

“It was OK because everybody was in the same boat,” she said.

Fuller met her first husband, a military man, at the theater.

“The town was full of soldier boys from Camp Robinson,” she said.

The girls noticed Bill Anderson of Indiana, and he noticed Jonnie.

“He was one of those tall, dark and handsome guys,” she said. “He had sky-blue eyes that would just melt.”

She and her co-workers made a bet to see which one of them would go out to dinner with him.

“He kept making eyes at me every time I went down to check the aisles,” she said.

She won the bet, and she and Anderson

eventually married.

First, they went to Illinois for his training, then moved to an Air Force base in Massachusetts, and he was stationed in Alexandria, Va.

He was Special Services, assigned as a crew member on planes that serviced the Pentagon and the White House, she said.

Anderson was an engineer, but he could also serve as a co-pilot, if needed.

As a member of the crew, “he flew five different presidents,” she said.

Those were Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

“I got to know Eisenhower really well,” Fuller said.

“He was a pretty average guy when he could be.”

She said he called her Missy.

Fuller has a photo of military men with Nixon. Her husband is at the president’s immediate right, and he and Nixon look like they’re sharing a laugh.

“Nixon — he had a side to him that was very personable. I’ve talked to him. He could sound like a very caring individual, but he was as conniving as the rest of them.”

She first worked at the Pentagon at an off-site location, and after a 3 1/2-year stint in Paris, she had an office in the Pentagon.

“I think I actually worked in the Pentagon, to be conservative, 12 to 14 years,” she said.

Her first job was in “software,” she said, handling paperwork for data processing.

“I did a combination of software and profiling and security. We studied profiling pretty heavy.”

Fuller said that meant she was trained to “read people” so that she could do “primary profiling” for interviews with people who wanted government jobs.

When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was set up, she said, Eisenhower was the commander of it and selected his own crew, which included her husband.

That required the couple to live in Europe, and they went to Paris for 3 1/2 years at the start of the 1950s.

(They stayed during the presidential election, and when Eisenhower won, they went back to work in Washington, D.C.)

She said Eisenhower told her, “I’d hire you to work for me in a minute, but French people don’t have jobs, and they’d have my head,” she said.

“I didn’t know a word of French,” she said.

She became friends with a man who owned a store across the street from where she lived.

Fuller, being a consummate baker, said she would take treats to him.

When the man’s mother died, Fuller received an invitation, which she still has, to the funeral.

A friend who lived in Paris told her she must walk behind the carriage with the family.

Fuller, who was wearing high heels, didn’t realize it was three miles to the cemetery from the church.

She walked those three miles on cobblestone streets — and back.

“When I got home, my feet were solid blisters,” she said.

Fuller had to attend many social functions, and she made all her own ball gowns.

“I knew I wouldn’t meet it on the street,” she said.

Once she and her friend Ellen “had a wild idea, and it was a wild idea,” Fuller said.

Clothing designer Oleg Cassini had a fashion show, and Fuller and her friend decided to sneak in and take notes.

Ellen was a sketch artist, and Fuller could sew.

“We decided, what did we have to lose? It was a big hotel in downtown Paris. We had our clipboards. We walked in like we owned the joint,” Fuller said.

They wrote down the numbers of the dresses and what they liked about them.

“We were cheating like crazy,” Fuller said, laughing.

She said Cassini stopped them in the lobby and asked if they were clothing buyers. They admitted they were not.

“He said, “I admire what you’re doing,’” Fuller said.

“He was so nice,” she said.

He gave them fashion advice, Fuller said, including what skirt lengths are most flattering.

“He pointed to me and said, ‘You want to do whatever makes you look the tallest.’”

Fuller said she had to stretch to be 5 feet tall.

She said her goal in Paris was to get to know the people and the culture.

“I felt like if I’m privileged enough to be here in this country, do I not owe something to these people to find out what I can and learn something about them?”

She visited a hospital and learned about socialized medicine, for one thing.

Another adventure was going to the commissary, which was a daylong ordeal, she said, because it was 40 miles away.

“I got up at 4 in the morning to go buy groceries,” she said.

When her husband had time off, they toured Europe, and they went to the U.S. Embassy and got the names of some of the Americans they knew who had died in the war. They visited the cemeteries, including at Omaha Beach, and took photos of the graves to send to the men’s parents.

It was an emotional experience, she said.

“You’re looking at markers as far as the eye can see.”

When she and her husband came back to the States, she worked in the Pentagon and had an office in the building.

One of her jobs was to take notes at meetings.

“My husband had to have the top security clearance, and I had to have the same,” she said.

“If they had a lot of brass getting together on a particular subject and they were going to have a conference at a hotel or motel, … they’d pick me up. There’d be a room full of brass that you could sell and retire on. They’d be in a smoke-filled room, feet on the desk, talking and yakking. I’d take six or eight shorthand books. They were secret meetings. We were reminded constantly, ‘Remember, this is TS, this is TS — top secret,’” she said.

Her notebooks were taken and locked away until the next day, when she was asked to transcribe them.

Often, someone would throw a Washington Post newspaper on her desk the next morning, which included quotes from the meeting. There was a leak.

“There always is,” she said. “There’s one in every crowd. They’re crooked as snakes. Money talks. Favors talk.”

The only time Fuller got her name in the paper, she said, was after a Christmas party inside the Pentagon, thrown by U.S. Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson and his wife.

“We didn’t know there was a reporter there,” Fuller said.

She said the story was written because it was supposed to be the first time alcohol was served in the Pentagon. All the guests’ names were listed.

“I didn’t even drink,” she said.

Fuller sat by Wilson at the dinner.

“I was scared to death, but we had a marvelous time,” she said. “He sat there and told stories about being in Alaska.”

Fuller said that when Kennedy was president, she got to know his brother Bobby.

“Bobby Kennedy and me used to meet at the Washington National Airport when he was picking up John and I would have to pick up my husband,” she said.

They usually sat on the same black wrought-iron bench to wait.

“If I was there first, he’d say, “Have you got the seat warm?” she recalled.

Her first husband traveled most of the time, she said.

“I had the responsibility of being married but not the convenience,” she said.

They divorced after 31 years, after he retired from the military and the couple moved back to Arkansas.

She met Bill Fuller more than a decade later, and they married in 1984.

“It was one of the best things that ever happened in my life,” she said. “It was the first time in my whole life that I felt like I had been put out front and treated like a lady.”

They lived in Greenbrier on 22 acres for a time before moving to Conway.

“We both loved music,” she said. “I grew up in a music background, and he loved dancing.”

They went to the Fred Astaire Dance Studio and took ballroom-dance lessons.

“It was like we were born to do it,” she said.

That’s how she got involved with the Conway Senior Citizens Center, now the Conway Senior Wellness and Activity Center.

The couple found out dances were held at the senior center, and soon they were traveling to other states to compete in, and win, dance contests.

Medals from dance competitions hang on Fuller’s wall, as well as photos of her and her husband on the dance floor.

They won the Tri-State Senior Citizens Competition, for one.

Fuller said that anytime they went to the Conway center to dance, she wore a cocktail dress, and he wore a suit.

“When I go dancing, I like to look like I’m going dancing,” she said.

She and her husband also volunteered at the center. They delivered meals to people, and she worked in the office, helping any way she could.

Fuller has had some health issues lately, but she plans to volunteer at the senior center when she can.

Debra Robinson, executive director of the Faulkner County Senior Citizens Program, said Fuller and her husband “were a big part of our program for many, many years.”

She said Fuller is one of the most interesting people she’s ever met.

“I just tell everybody, she is our history,” Robinson said. “She’s my history book. I’m just intrigued when I sit and listen to her tell all the places she’s been, places she’s lived, the people she’s known, the parties she’s gone to. It’s just so interesting.”

Fuller downplays her experiences.

“Debra said, ‘I don’t know anybody who has had the life you’ve had,’” Fuller said. “I said, ‘Well, Deb, I just happened to be in a situation where the opportunities were there.’

“I’m a little country girl from Arkansas. It’s true, I was in positions where I could take advantage of numerous things, and instead of walking away, … I walked into them.

“I’m an extremely fortunate person,” she said.

Make that prime-timer.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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