In 1940, Rogers resident Lois Bouton -- who will celebrate her 102nd birthday this week -- was teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Illinois. A story in a school reader about the dramatic, courageous rescue of a boat and her crew by the U.S. Coast Guard of the Great Lakes lit a spark in the young woman, who was, clearly, looking for adventure. (At one point in high school, she says, she wanted to be a lion tamer.)
Bouton wrote to the Coast Guard asking if, as a woman, she could join up. The answer, disappointingly, was no -- until World War II necessitated an "all hands on deck" cry from the armed services. In 1943, Bouton excitedly applied to become a SPAR -- an acronym for the women's division of the Coast Guard that combined the organization's motto, "Semper Paratus," and its meaning, "always ready."
Her two-and-a-half years in the service would launch a lifelong dedication to the Coast Guard. Over the course of the ensuing half-century, she has visited servicemen in veterans' hospitals, corresponded with hundreds of thousands of members of the Coast Guard stationed in lonely, far-flung locales and visited dozens of lighthouse keepers all over the country.
Nowadays, Bouton is best known by the moniker "The Coast Guard Lady" -- a simple nickname that belies her enormous popularity and fame among the men and women who serve in that organization. In fact, last week, her lifetime of service was recognized in an enormous way: Bouton was the recipient of the 2021 Spirit of Hope Award. The award, created in 1997 in honor of Bob Hope's years of entertaining the troops, is given to entertainers -- Toby Keith and Kelly Pickler have been recipients -- organizations and service members who "epitomize the values of Bob Hope: duty, honor, courage, loyalty, commitment, integrity and selfless dedication; significantly enhance the quality of life of service members and their families around the world; and selflessly contribute an extraordinary amount of time, talent or resource to benefit service members."
"Had it not been for covid-19, and maybe a little bit as a result of her age, this award would have been presented to her by the president, the vice president or the secretary of defense," says Vince Jensen, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard. Jensen has known Bouton since the 1980s, when he started exchanging letters with her. Today, he considers her a friend and traveled from Washington, D.C., to present the award to Bouton Thursday in Rogers. "This is a huge deal. Probably in the same light as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I would put it in that category."
There's a marveling note to Jensen's voice when he talks about Bouton's impact on the Coast Guard over the years.
"The school teacher in her was always there, well after she retired, and the writing was key to her," says Jensen. "She did not want to let writing die. This was before we got more involved in the age of technology with email and texting -- she was all about writing. When she wrote, she never wrote you with the intent of 'Please write back.' You would read this nice cheery letter or postcard; it was a spell. And it was a spell that many people like myself got hung up in. As a result, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have written her and whom she has written over the 50-plus years."
Poor but not wanting
At 102, Bouton is as sharp, funny and friendly as friends say she's been her whole life. Some questions provoke quiet contemplation before answering, but there are a few questions you can tell Bouton has been asked repeatedly over the years, the answers having a practiced air to them: "What can I do to live as long as you have?" "I have no idea." She is so used to one of them -- "What's the first letter you remember writing?" -- she answers it before it's asked.
"The first letter I remember writing was in 1926, so my mother must have had me start writing thank you notes way back then," she says. She would have been 7 years old. "It was probably to some relative, maybe my grandmother."
Bouton was born in 1919 and raised in Waukegan, Ill., a suburban town about halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, the daughter of a homemaker mother and a father who worked at a foundry as a metal pattern maker. She was the middle child, with an older sister and a younger one, and, for the most part, her childhood was peaceful and uneventful. One memory that definitely sticks out was the year she got scarlet fever, when she was around 4. Her father had to quarantine at a hotel while she, her sisters and her mother huddled at home, relying on neighbors to drop food off on the front steps.
"My mother had to wash her hands in Lysol any time she came out of her room," she says. "Anything we had in our house, we had to buy and keep. We couldn't pass it on to anyone. My mother's church circle was having some awards, and they were going to have some big mums on the table. We had walked over to the nursery about four blocks away and bought the flowers. We had a house of flowers for a while, because we had to keep them. We had books from the library that we had to buy. And my mother had to buy some readers to teach my sister. I decided I wanted to read, too, so she made some flashcards for me."
The case was mild, the rest of the family evaded contagion, and one good thing came out of it: Bouton learned to read before she started school. That feat bumped her up one grade higher when she did start -- a mistake, she thinks now, because she was a shy girl who had trouble feeling comfortable in crowds.
"My class was divided into two groups, and I was an average student," she says, and then, laughing, "I was always at the bottom of the good group, and I probably would have been happier if I had been at the top of the other one."
Even the Great Depression, though felt in her family, did not upset her life unduly. The family moved to California for a time, to live in a rental house owned by an uncle who was, relatively speaking, doing well during the difficult financial times. Bouton's father worked at a business the uncle owned.
"Before school started, we took a vacation to Sequoyah Park, and there were nine of us in the car," she says. "We had a box on the top of the car about a foot deep, and we had tents, everything we needed piled up in there. Back then, you didn't have to worry about seat belts."
The family stayed in California for a couple of months, she says, then moved back to Waukegan, where her father started his own business. Because poverty was so prevalent at the time, says Bouton, it didn't really make an impression on her as a child.
"Everyone was poor," she says. "When we graduated from eighth grade, one of the girls needed shoes. I think my mother called half a dozen or more people and got 25 cents out of each one of them to buy her some shoes."
Bouton says she doesn't remember having any career aspirations -- beyond lion taming -- in high school, but she found herself attending a teachers' college after graduation because her mother nudged her that way.
"I will tell you how good of a teacher she is: Four of her students from many years ago came to her 100th birthday party," says Bouton's friend and caretaker, Pauline Lasister. The two met decades ago when Bouton made a trip to Alaska, where Lasister and her husband were living. Since Bouton lost her daughter -- her only child -- to cancer last year, Lasister has taken over many of the caretaking duties for Bouton since then. The duo are so close, Lasister can tell Bouton's story almost as well as Bouton herself.
"Some of them come to visit her all the time, here, from everywhere," Lasister continues. "A couple on a motorcycle came to see her -- they met in first grade, fell in love and, eventually, got married. I could not believe it when they said, 'She was my first grade teacher.'"
"She turned 7, and he gave her seven of his marbles, and he only had 12 marbles," says Bouton. "She went home and told her mother she was going to marry him. And, eventually, they did."
Bouton landed a job right out of school and started teaching in a one-room, rural school in Illinois. She was so young when she started teaching -- remember, she had started school a grade ahead and teachers' college was only two years -- that when one of her first-year students asked her who she was going to vote for in the presidential election, she answered, "I'm not old enough to vote." Despite that, judging from the number of students who remember her fondly enough to stay in touch, decades later, she had no problem assuming authority with a gentle touch.
"I had good kids," she says. "Sometimes, the bigger boys kind of took over, but I had good kids."
The one-room schoolhouse required her to teach five grades at once -- and it must have been an administrative miracle to keep them all occupied at once, as she taught one grade at a time. Three years after she started teaching, she was happy to move up to a four-room school where she was responsible for only one grade.
"I'll tell you how much she must have been loved," says Lasister. "When I helped pack up her house, she wanted to give things away to people. She had a collection of teacups and saucers, and they were china, and they were beautiful. All different colors and shapes. He students gave her all of those. I said, 'Oh my gosh, you must have been so loved.'"
Coast Guard calls
Bouton enjoyed teaching, but once she had read the story of the maritime rescue, she couldn't stop thinking about joining the Coast Guard. In November 1942, the SPARs were established, and Bouton spent the second semester of school feverishly contemplating signing up; by August, she had made her decision. It had to have been an unusual one for the time -- programs allowing women in the armed services were in their infancy -- but Bouton doesn't remember her family being particularly surprised when she broke the news to them.
"I came home one weekend to enlist, and my mother asked me why I was home and I told her, and all she said was, 'You didn't want to join the Marines?'" says Bouton with a laugh.
Active duty started in September 1943 with a train trip from Chicago to Palm Beach, Fla., to her new home at the Palm Beach Biltmore Hotel which, she says, "was not as fancy as it sounds." The indoctrination period was six weeks, and included the process through which the women were tested and classified into the positions in which they would serve. Bouton was tickled to be tapped as a boot camp teacher because of her working experience and training. She was soon transferred to San Francisco where, with her customary spirit of adventure, she went willingly. Overqualified for file clerk but lacking the training for any other office positions, Bouton was put on the maintenance team. She admits it could be boring, but Bouton was used to finding a way to challenge herself, no matter the circumstances, and was proud to devise a way to vacuum the 12 floors in the hotel where they were stationed without ever having to unplug the sweeper.
But Bouton knew she was capable of doing more, so when the opportunity to apply for radio school came up, she jumped at it. Once trained, she was stationed in Cape May, N.J., where her job was to listen to the call and distress channel and use Morse code to help guide ships. The work was taxing, the schedule tough, and the training had been difficult, but it was while she was training in Atlantic City that Bouton met her beloved husband, Bill, on the boardwalk. He approached her as she was writing letters.
"He had to wait until I was finished writing before he started talking," she says. He asked her out, and she agreed to meet him, only to get called into duty on the evening of their date. She sent a friend to find him at the restaurant where they had agreed to meet.
"He had an 'E' on his sleeve for efficiency in something, so the girl I sent was going around looking at everyone's sleeve, and [people at the restaurant] were helping her look," she says. "The third or fourth person that came in after that said, 'Here he is!' He didn't have my barracks' address, so I told him to come there for the next time and how to get there. Somebody asked me one time, 'What if he'd liked the other girl better?', and I said, 'I thought of that; I sent a married woman.'"
When Bill, who was in the Army, asked Bouton to marry him, she happily accepted, and the two were wed in a quiet ceremony in Illinois -- using sugar rationing tickets to buy a modest wedding cake at the bakery. Following the end of the war, the two were discharged within two weeks of each other, and the couple returned to Bouton's home state where, she says, her teaching job was, luckily, waiting for her.
But for Bouton, the mere fact that she was no longer actively serving in the Coast Guard did not mean she was ready to leave the people and service behind. She was an active pen pal with many of the women with whom she had served, and, after the onset of the Vietnam War, she started making frequent visits to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital.
"One of my neighbors worked on one of the wards," she says. "I had sent cookies to [the patients] a few times with her, and some of them wrote back. I wanted to see who was writing, so I started going down there. I had such a good time the first time I went, I kept going for six or seven years."
"Tell them what you were called before you were the 'Coast Guard Lady'," prompts Lasister.
"'Chocolate Chip Cookie Lady'," says Bouton with a broad smile.
In 1973, Bouton and her husband retired to Northwest Arkansas, and Bouton longed for that connection with service people. She wrote to an admiral in Alaska and asked for addresses for the Coast Guard stations and lighthouses located within that state, and he sent them to her.
"Some of the lighthouses only had three or four people stationed there, and whoever had been in service longest was the officer in charge. I got letters from some of the stations saying they were glad to hear from me -- they didn't realize anyone knew they were there. One of them wrote back and said, 'The officer in charge ordered me to write to you, so thank you,' and that was his letter. I wrote back to him anyway. I still hear from him."
In fact, Bouton's letters had a huge impact on many of the people with whom they landed -- sometimes it was because the isolation of a far-flung post made them particularly lonely, sometimes it was because they didn't have family and friends back home who were willing to send them letters, sometimes it was because they were going through a particularly stressful time in their lives, and Bouton's cheery letters seemed like fate telling them that they mattered.
"She still hears from some of the people she visited in the hospital -- some of them even came to her 100th birthday party," says Lasister. "Here's a neat story: Have you ever heard of the Polar Star? They go to the Arctic, and they're on ships, and they're not around anyone. It's usually one of their first assignments in the Coast Guard. When we were at the Walmart celebration, after it was over, a young guy in a suit came over and got down on his knees and took her hand, and he said, 'Miss Lois, when I was 21, I was on the Polar Star, and I got a letter from you and that letter meant more than you'll ever know. Because I was lonely, and we didn't hear from people. You made me feel so good.'"
Still going strong
Now in its fifth decade, Bouton's letter writing campaign takes enormous organization.
"I will tell you that she has eight card files," says Lasister. "She's got a card on everybody she's ever written and every letter they've ever written to her, their birthdays, their parents, their kids -- it is amazing. I found myself in there. It is amazing. They're putting a lot of that stuff in Coast Guard museums."
Evidence of the adoration the Coast Guard Lady receives is all around her small apartment at a retirement home in Rogers -- even after Lasister helped Bouton box up so many of her belongings and give them away to friends and museums who wanted to document her work. A drawer holds dozens of challenge coins, the memorabilia passed around by service members; Lasister says that Bouton donated thousands of the coins when she moved into the retirement home, but there continues to be a steady stream of them arriving through the mail. Signed photos of servicemen hang on the wall, and a shelf holds pictures of families, couples getting married and groups of Coast Guard members surrounding a beaming Bouton -- all people Bouton met through her outreach. The awards ceremony on Thursday drew high-ranking officers of the Coast Guard, as well as enlisted men and former Coast Guard members who cherish the relationship they forged with Bouton through the mail.
"I just see the love that these people have for her -- I mean, I love her, but we're almost family," says Lasister. "Through all of her letters, the love those people have for her is unbelievable. At her 100th birthday party, I took photos for four hours, because everyone wanted a photo with her."
You would think such affection and regard might be overwhelming, but Bouton's humility prevents her from accepting that the accolades must be meant for her. When you ask her how the love makes her feel, she simply says, smile beaming, eyes sparkling: "I think of the Coast Guard Lady as someone I would like to meet."
• One piece of advice I like to give is: I don’t always give advice, but I used to send words of wisdom that I read on Red Rose tea bags to various people.
• My greatest accomplishment while in the Coast Guard was: being able to vacuum the entire 12 floor stairway without unplugging the vacuum cleaner. It was hard to do, and none of the other women were able to do it but me.
• One thing that would get us closer to a perfect world is: More love!
• The best compliment I’ve ever received is: being called “The Coast Guard Lady.”
• One thing I would change about my past is: I’m pretty satisfied with my past. I would change nothing.
• Two books that have had the biggest impact on my life are: “Dewey” by Vicki Myron and “Roots” by Alex Haley.
• The thing that I’m most grateful for in my life are: friends.
• The person who has had the biggest impact on my life is: Pauline Lasister for all the help she has done for me.
• Three words to describe me are: friendly, passionate, kind.
• One thing I would like to learn is: I’m still learning — there are so many more things I need to learn, especially getting used to my new home.
• The one question I get asked most often is: “How and why do I write so many letters?”
• The way I measure success is: in the letters people receive from me, and I’m told that it made their day.