Hazel Barber is nothing if not unique.

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Willows resident reveals story of her life

By Jan McDonald / Special to The Times

For one thing, she has a wicked sense of humor often aimed at herself. At The Willows, where she lives, she’s known as "Hays," she explained, because "I’m in a daze all the time."

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She considers that she will be 93 years old at the end of this month, even though she was born in 1911.

"I’m doing it as a horse," she said. "I was one year old when I was born."

And people can say of her, "I’ve met a real nut &045; a Hazel-nut," she laughs.

Although hardships early in her life ended any belief in God that she once may have held, that doesn’t keep her from finding solace and comfort in nature. "I talk to trees all the time," she said.

Never married, Hays enjoyed a full and varied life, taking on a number of jobs, joining the WACs during World War II and traveling from one coast to another as she soaked up all life had to offer.

Born in Blackinton, Mass., Hays’ described her early life as "sad in a way." Her mother died when she was three, and her father couldn’t cope.

She and three of her siblings ended up being sent to an orphanage where the other three died.

For a while she lived with an aunt and uncle who ran a nursery in Pennsylvania.

"I didn’t like them because they would catch the robins and eat them."

At the age of 10 Hays went back home.

"I got to the point I had to help my father," she said.

She helped with other farm duties and never played as other little girls did.

In spite of her upbringing and her father constantly moving the family from one house to another, Hays managed to stay in the same school in Blackinton. Since she was a small child she has suffered from vertigo, so she walked everywhere.

Riding makes her sick. As she grew older, she was able to control it somewhat.

Although dates and places often get confused, Hays recalls the struggles she faced as a single woman trying to make it on her own. After high school she took a series of job just to stay alive. She was a hat check girl, worked for a bootlegger and served as a drowning victim for those being trained as rescuers.

When the financial collapse of 1929 occurred, she was working for an insurance company and living at the YWCA in Jersey City. She watched as investors jumped out of windows when they were wiped out in the devastating market crash.

At one time she attempted to train as a nurse at Johns Hopkins, but she didn’t have the money for books. Instead, she ended up joining what later became the Women’s Army Corps and was chosen to attend Officer Candidate School as World War II broke out.

Her first assignment was with the transportation section at Camp Gordon, Georgia, "where all the boys thought the WACs were theirs to sleep with before they went overseas."

It was at Camp Gordon that Hays met Harriet, a friend she would have for life.

Hays served at the medical rehabilitation facility in Palm Beach, Florida, where "They did some beautiful work." In Dothan she was a motor pool officer supervising 12-14 women mechanics. "They could fix anything."

At one point she was supervising 50 German prisoners of war and had no qualms. "I wasn’t afraid of anything," she boasts.

But not everything that occurred was pleasant "There are so many incidents you try to forget, but you can’t," Hays said soberly.

She became strongly opposed to war when she worked at a hospital in Butler, Pa. There she provided all the supplies needed by the men who were going home after being treated for their injuries. "It was hard," she said. "It broke your heart, but, nevertheless, it was war."

At the end of the war she left the Army, met up with her friend Harriet, and the two headed for Washington, D.C. They remained fast friends until Harriet’s death in 2001.

Hays had always enjoyed working with figures. She decided to get her degree in accounting and found herself the only woman in the class or former soldiers. "They all used my notebook." The degree didn’t do her any good, because no women were allowed to serve as accountants.

Learning to type well enough with two fingers to pass requirements, she got a job typing in the payroll division of the U.S. State Department. Later she was transferred to Public Affairs and then on to the Budget Department. "That’s where my accounting came in."

Harriet also worked for the State Department but couldn’t talk about her responsibilities. "But I was ‘top side’ and saw things," said Hays. For instance, she said, she learned of the facts surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In her job with the State Department, she also got to know many governmental leaders, such as President Lyndon B. Johnson. "LBJ was a sweet-talking man. Everybody loved him."

She and Harriet decided to leave governmental service at the same time, and, said Hays, their lives began after they retired in 1966.

They started a garden. They began to travel and were in Selma at the time of the Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing. They learned to shoot and joined a gun club in Manassas, Virginia. Later they moved to Texas and taught 4-H students how to shoot. Their travels also took them to California and then back to San Antonio, Texas.

The two took hundreds of photographs of native birds and meticulously catalogued them. The collection now is with the Texas Department of Wildlife.

Hays began to carve, focusing on birds native to Texas. At the age of 60 she taught herself to play the piano, "and now I can’t play a note."

But a long life such as Hays’ cannot be without sorrow. Harriet died 18 months ago.

She already is making plans. Her body is willed to the University of Alabama School of Medicine.

Her mind is crammed with recollections of her long life. So many memories have faded or become blurred that Hays has come to believe "Everybody should write ‘The Story of My Life’."