It’s safe to say that Alberta Elder has seen a thing or two in her 97 years. Born in 1921, only one year after women obtained the right to vote, she’s seen seventeen presidents elected, witnessed prohibition, and still clearly recalls the newsboys’ declaration that Lindbergh had safely landed in Paris. Lest we forgot our history lessons, Alberta is there to remind us. She was also there for Black Thursday, World War II and the end of the Great Depression, the Cold War, Elvis, Beatlemania, Korea and Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and everything after and in between. Quite a life, indeed.
Nearly a century into her journey, Alberta thought it about time to commit her story to paper. The inspiration, she says, came after a couple of gentle nudges from her nieces Dale and Pat. “Years ago, I happened to make an off-handed comment about how she should get her memoir down,” says Dale. “But I never thought she’d take my idea by the horns and actually do it!” Pat says something similar. “I didn’t have any notion that we were in any way inspiring to the project.” What she does recall, and quite fondly, is a chance reunion she had with Dale and Alberta. “It had been many years since we’d all been together in the same place, so of course we got to talking about the old days. Maybe it was the act of us remembering aloud together that inspired Alberta,” she says.
Thinking she’d record an oral history of her life, Alberta started by sorting through her collection of family photos. But the images unleashed a floodgate of memories and before she knew it, she was writing a book. The result is entitled The Journey that Began in Detroit, a 296-page memoir that she’s currently readying for press.
As the title suggests, Alberta’s story begins in Detroit, a city that isn’t so much a backdrop for her memoir as it is a supporting character, a spirit, an impetus, whose very presence made obstacles appear to melt away. “Detroit had a vibrancy and energy—anything seemed possible,” she says, recalling an image of the neighborhood boys working on their Model Ts in the alleyways. “It never occurred to them that perhaps they couldn’t fix them. They knew it was simply a matter of figuring out how.”
Alberta grew up with her half-brothers Arthur, Howard, and Paul. Her father Albert, a widower, had lost his first wife to Spanish influenza and was left to raise the three boys alone. He remarried Helen Marie Reeber, who gave birth to Alberta in 1921. Life in Detroit was as beautiful as it was exciting. “All the streets were lined with big trees. The branches of huge maples and elms almost closed off the sky,” Alberta remembers. And if she couldn’t find inspiration in the setting, she surely found it at home and in the company her father kept.
Her father, a friend and schoolmate of Henry Ford, quit school at fourteen. “He didn’t like the teacher, so he, right along with Henry, walked out and quit,” she laughs. At first he helped his father deliver milk, but within the year Albert, still only fourteen, went into business for himself, first supplying oil and later transitioning into the lumber and coal supply business.
Time, history, and retrospectives are not always kind to fallible geniuses, but Alberta, whose father remained close with Ford throughout the years, is quick to note the man’s generosity. “Once, the wife of one of the teamsters who worked for my father became ill,” she says “Dad worried because no one could discover what was wrong.” So he turned to his old pal Henry, who admitted the woman to his hospital. The woman recovered and was never billed for the treatment.
Alberta went to grade school at St. Agnes, then St. Mary Academy in Monroe, before moving on to Marygrove College where she took a pre-medicine track of study, carrying 18 credit hours straight through. Following graduation in 1943, with the world still at war, Alberta was recruited by a research division of General Motors to conduct chemical analysis for the war effort. “I felt like I was out of my league,” she says, “but I was happy I’d learned to do analysis to the fourth decimal place—they only needed me to do it to three decimal places!” Why she and her colleagues were analyzing metal she’ll never know, though she suspects that it had something to do with galvanizing military aircraft materials.
In 1944, she married her first husband, James, and for the next 25 years, they zigzagged the country like “corporate gypsies,” she says. James worked for the industrial division of Scott Paper, which took the couple from New York to New Jersey to Michigan to California. “We were always moving,” she recalls. “No sooner would we buy a home then we’d resell it. We’d get about two days’ notice and then we were off again.”
After divorcing, Alberta married Crawford Elder in 1971. Since then, a lot has happened. Alberta has served on the board of the League of Women Voters and was the first woman president of a new parish that combined the congregations of Saint Hugo of the Hills in Bloomfield Hills and Holy Name in Birmingham, Michigan. She also put in two decades of service with Blue Shield where she moved through the ranks, starting as a complaints and appeals representative and eventually becoming a hearing officer.
Now in New Hampshire, Alberta is enjoying the process of looking back, immersing herself in a world of family photos, genealogical trees, newspaper clippings, and the 296-page manuscript that she’s proofing for “what seems the umpteenth time.” For Alberta, the project is worth every drop of sweat though. “I wanted to give my nieces and nephews a glimpse into the lives of their grandparents…they didn’t know my dad’s story because he was bedridden during his final years; they didn’t know his active life. I want them to know what it meant, what it was like to grow up in a city like Detroit.”