Iona M. Quillen

April 06, 2013|By JANET HEIM |
  • Iona Quillen is shown in November 2012 with Scruffy, a Morkie (combination Maltese and Yorkshire Terrier) that her daughter rescued. Although not an animal person, Iona and Scruffy became "best buddies."
Submitted photo

Iona Quillen was proud of her roots.

She spent a lot of time researching and could trace the family tree beyond her growing-up years in West Virginia, back to the McDonalds in Ireland.

She was an only child, but her parents adopted a male cousin after her mother’s sister died of tuberculosis.

After graduating from Romney (W.Va.) High School in 1952, Iona knew she wanted more. She headed to Washington, D.C., where she earned a business degree at Strayer University.

It was in D.C. that she met a Korean War veteran, whom she married. They had a daughter and a son, but “he had a hard time living with his war memories,” said daughter Wanda Gearhart of Hagerstown.

Wanda described her mother as a pioneer, both in career and family decisions. Unwilling to accept the way she was treated, Iona packed up the children and left her husband.

Jobs were plentiful in Hagerstown at the time, so Iona moved the family here. She also had an aunt living in Hagerstown and one in Greencastle, Pa.

She worked temporarily at the White Coffee Pot at Long Meadow Shopping Center in 1959 until she got a job in the secretarial pool at Fairchild Corp.

Iona quickly moved up the ranks and became a contracts administrator at a time when women weren’t climbing the corporate ladder.

“She was negotiating millions of dollars of contracts,” Wanda said.

Iona survived multiple layoffs, but finally lost her job at Fairchild.

“In Mom’s department, she and a guy did the same job. ... She got the pink slip because he had a family to feed. It was like a dagger to her,” said son Frank Quillen of Smithsburg.

She landed a similar job at Pangborn Corp.

“She knew she was hardworking and talented, and they knew it,” Frank said. “At a time when women couldn’t get in the boys’ club, Mom was knocking on the door.”

Right after Frank, who is 14 months younger than Wanda, graduated from high school, Iona was transferred to Knoxville, Tenn. Both Wanda and Frank stayed here.

While the move was good for Iona’s career, she missed her family and returned to Hagerstown about six years later in 1980.

“Most everything about Mom was around family,” Frank said.

Iona got a job with Air Flow Co. in Frederick, Md., and within a short time was made human resources director. For part of her time at Air Flow, Frank worked as a contract consultant at the company and commuted to work with his mother.

“The chance to ride to work with her was really precious to me,” said Frank, recalling her jokes and conversations on “any and all topics.”

When Air Flow was purchased by a New Jersey company, it was Iona’s job to lay everyone off, including herself.

After she completed all of the paperwork, her job came to an end and she decided it was time to retire.

Despite Iona’s career success, it wasn’t easy being a single mother, especially at a time when few women were raising children on their own.

“Mom scratched and clawed,” Frank said. “She provided everything we needed.”

She had grown up “very poor” and raised her children to appreciate what they had.

“I remember Santy Claus left my first bicycle, which was used,” Frank said. “I rode that bike until the rims were shot.”

He said they were the last family on the street to get a TV set. When they did, it was “a little black-and-white television with the antenna out the window.”

With little money for entertainment, the park was a popular destination. They also went to the Great Hagerstown Fair and roller skating at Starland.

On a shoestring budget, Iona would take her children to the beach, most often Ocean City, Md., each summer. Even though she didn’t swim, Iona loved the waves and the beauty of the setting.

She made sure her children took swimming lessons, and the beach trip grew to become a gathering of four generations of family, with long evening walks along the beach a tradition.

Wanda was in the eighth grade when the family got its first car, a 1960 Corvair.

Until then, they relied on taxicabs locally and would take the Greyhound bus to visit Iona’s mother in Romney. On their first trip in the Corvair to see family, the car caught on fire in the mountains of West Virginia, Frank said.

Until they had their own transportation, they lived in downtown Hagerstown. Once they had a car, the family moved to Oak Ridge Apartments, which was a welcome move, Wanda said.

Through the many obstacles the Quillen family faced, Iona taught her children to use humor to see the best in situations.

“Our family, we rely on humor and wit,” Wanda said. “We were raised to rely on each other, support each other.”

“Mom taught us laughter is the best medicine,” Frank said.

The running joke in the family is that Iona favored her son.

“Mom loved you best,” Wanda said to Frank. “We’ve had that joke since the Smothers Brothers.”

Her love showed in how she was there for her children. Frank said his mother was at every baseball and football game in which he played.

Wanda said when it was Mother’s Day in school, Iona would take off from work so she could attend.

Iona spearheaded family reunions and regularly attended her high school class reunions. It took some prodding to get her to her 60th class reunion in 2012 with an oxygen tank and wheelchair, but Iona finally agreed.

Wanda and Frank learned the value of a strong work ethic and high expectations from their mother.

“She taught us to stand up for ourselves,” Wanda said.

“My sister and I have grown up with good values,” Frank said. “We have good, respectable jobs. She made sure we knew right and wrong. We do good things, do benevolent things, because that’s the way our mom taught us.”

The family attended church regularly and Iona was a charter member of Paramount Baptist Church.

More than 12 years ago, Iona was diagnosed with breast cancer that had affected her lymph nodes. With her lymph nodes removed, she was limited in what she could do, but after radiation and some chemotherapy, her mother was told the breast cancer was gone, Wanda said.

Iona moved into Wanda’s Halfway home about 10 years ago. When an unrelated lung cancer was discovered 2 1/2 years ago, the doctor gave her one to three months to live.

“We think she stayed for us,” Wanda said. “She just hated to leave us. We made her feel needed. We kept her involved.”

When Iona died just days before Easter, the family had little interest in Easter dinner. Instead, Wanda prepared potato salad and pickled eggs using her mother’s recipes, as well as ham, for after the funeral.

The family included four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Wanda’s daughter, Melanie, was born on Iona’s birthday, which falls on Mother’s Day this year.

“She spoiled them rotten, and the great-grandchildren as well,” Wanda said of her mother. “They all love her. It’s quite a loss for every single one of us.”

Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Iona M. Quillen, who died March 28 at the age of 78. Her obituary was published in the March 30 edition of The Herald-Mail.

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