Last in a series of stories on this year’s 8 over 80 recipients.
WATERLOO — Since her official retirement 18 years ago, Lorraine Griffie has slowed down — somewhat.
The active 85-year-old has been able to travel and spend time with friends and family. She doesn’t volunteer quite so much. She even scaled back to working part time.
“I stand in front of the mirror and practice saying, ‘No,’” Griffie insisted, laughing. “I really have tried to stop doing so much.”
There’s just so much to do. If a cause is near to her heart — veterans, civil rights, children, education — Griffie’s resolve may falter.
“I have known Lorraine for over 50 years,” said nominator Robert J. Brown, listing Griffie’s involvement in everything from African Americans Taking Action Against AIDS Council to the the board of Black Hawk Grundy Mental Health.
Still, Griffie doesn’t believe her service is particularly special — many others do more, she said. She views her service and volunteering as good citizenship.
Griffie was born in Chicago. At age 11, she moved with her family to Waterloo.
After graduating from East High School, she attended the former Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls, where she majored in general education.
“I was 19 or 20 years old, and I was always looking for something different to do. I wanted to get out and see the world,” she said.
A friend on leave from the U.S. Army regaled her with stories, which intrigued Griffie. She investigated the Women’s Army Corps, but she was underage and needed her parents’ permission to enlist.
“The recruiting officer told my parents I’d be safe; I’d have three meals a day and a place to sleep,” Griffie said. “That convinced my dad, and my dad convinced my mom.”
The Army wasn’t what she expected.
It was 1952, and the Army exposed Griffie to segregation for the first time.
As a young African-American woman, she wasn’t immune to racial conflict. However, she had no firsthand experience of the South’s harsh Jim Crow laws.
President Harry Truman had previously declared all military bases be integrated. Griffie left Fort Des Moines on a train bound for Georgia.
“When we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, the train stopped, and all of the people of color were told to get off and get in the last car,” she recalled. “On the way down, we sat on the regular, cushioned train seats. In the back of the train, the seats were narrow and hard, like the bare wooden pews you sit on in church.”
From then on, Griffie was introduced to “colored” washrooms, drinking fountains and more. It was a harsh introduction to the realities of segregation.
Still, it could be easy to forget the world beyond the base was segregated.
“My bunk buddy was white, and we were really good friends,” she said. “Our first leave was going to give us four hours in town.”
The young women planned to go shopping and take in a movie.
“When we told our friends, they said we couldn’t go out into the town together,” Griffie said.
“It was a culture shock for me,” Griffie said. “My bunk buddy, she cried. We had been so excited. We had to wear Army clothes all the time, and we planned to buy new civies. We could not even shop in the same stores.”
It didn’t stop there.
“When we went into town, we rode on the city bus,” Griffie recalled. “Without thinking, I did what I always did; I took the first available seat. There were other girls on the bus who motioned to me, and I didn’t understand what they wanted.”
Eventually, Griffie saw a sign and realized what she had done: “Colored Patrons, Please Seat from Rear.” The bus driver had looked at her but said nothing.
Today, Griffie wonders if her uniform or the uncrowded bus made the difference. Maybe the driver just didn’t want the hassle.
“When I think about what could have happened, I can’t believe it,” Griffie recalled. “It was a different time, as quiet as it’s kept.”
Griffie met her husband while they were both serving in the Army. After they were discharged, they settled in Chicago and started their family. Griffie has three sons and two daughters. Her sons went on to military service — the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines.
Griffie’s combined experienced influenced her later service. In Chicago, her children went to a school with outdated books.
“We protested that and pulled 250,000 kids out of school. That got me started,” Griffie recalled. “Coming out of those experiences I had in the Army, I saw what was going on with the kids in the school system, and I had to do something.”
Griffie was on the PTA. She chaired a committee. With others, she marched. They burned the unusable books in protest.
When she moved her family to the Cedar Valley, friends pressed her into service.
She has supported and served a variety of groups, from Family & Children’s Council Advisory Board to Northend Arts and Music Fest. She volunteered on political campaigns, the Gates Park Neighborhood Association and Faith Temple Baptist Church.
She also worked. Past positions included Job Service of Iowa, the U.S. Census and the Waterloo Chamber of Commerce. She also served as secretary for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center of Hawkeye Community College, where she also taught a typing class.
In 2000, she retired from her position as program manager for the Iowa Department of Public Health’s Culture-Specific AIDS Center.
Retirement didn’t clear Griffie’s calendar. She enjoys spending time with her children, 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
She works part-time for Bakari Behavioral Health Inc. She also pursues her passion for helping veterans, especially female veterans of color.
She co-founded the Cedar Valley Coalition of Black Veterans and Sister Soldier Network, a multi-state organization devoted to enhancing the visibility of advocates for service for African-American military women.
“I think now, in having been involved in mostly service organizations … I have seen firsthand that there are so many minority women veterans who are not attended to as they should be,” Griffie explained.
Often, the public lacks awareness of the deep, different and often invisible needs of female veterans of color, she added.
“Women have always been involved in the military. We have always been where the fighting is,” said Griffie.“Women of color are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s often not treated. If there’s one thing I can do, it’s that I want to bring visibility to that.”
“Women have always been involved in the military. We have always been where the fighting is. Women of color are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s often not treated.
“Women have always been involved in the military. We have always been where the fighting is. Women of color are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s often not treated. If there’s one thing I can do, it’s that I want to bring visibility to that.”