Velva Irwin didn’t squawk when her father insisted she go to National Business College between her junior and senior years at Gibbs High School. It was 1944, and women were pouring into the workforce. She enjoyed venturing into downtown Knoxville from Corryton, and she figured she would have some marketable skills when she graduated the next spring.
Instead, in August, after two months of learning bookkeeping and business machines, she found herself seated behind a state-of-the-art Burroughs calculating machine at the K25 administrative building in Oak Ridge. She was 16 years old.
One of a handful of still-living Manhattan Project workers in East Tennessee, Irwin has been writing her memories of her Oak Ridge experience as part of the Creative Writers Workshop at the John T. O’Connor Senior Citizen’s Center on Winona Street. The group, which has experienced and new writers, meets two Monday mornings a month at the center. Irwin began attending the workshop in 2004.
She says that for years it was considered verboten to talk about one’s Manhattan Project experience, even in a less sensitive position such as hers.
“You don’t learn too many atomic secrets in payroll audit,” she says, smiling.
Mostly what she wants to capture – for her fellow workshop writers and her children and grandchildren – are the unique details of that time, so very different from ours. It was a world where sugar and shoes were rationed, and where weather reports were considered a security risk. The city was so new there were planks on the ground to keep the office girls from getting muddy as they walked out to lunch. She and her mom, who also worked there, caught an old green Army bus at 6 a.m. every day in Fountain City and rode it to Oak Ridge.
On Aug. 6, 1945, two days shy of Irwin’s one-year work anniversary, the United States bombed Hiroshima.
She remembers everyone suddenly being aware of what they were creating there, in Oak Ridge. She remembers being told the facts about the bomb destroying four square miles of the city in Japan, but she doesn’t remember taking in, on that day, the magnitude of what had happened. She did get the rest of the day off, she remembers.
A few weeks later, she gave her notice. She had saved $100 of her $1,400 take-home pay (the rest went for family expenses), and she used it to pay for books and other necessities for her last year of high school. Her family had moved into town, and she graduated from Knoxville High School in 1946.
She was a good student and enjoyed studying, but college “… wasn’t a thing that was available or even thought about,” she says.
After graduating, she worked at C.M. McClung & Co. and later worked as a clerical teacher’s aide at Halls High School and a secretary at Ritta Elementary before retiring from the school system in 1989. She married her husband, Joe, in 1953, and they have lived in the same ranch home in the Alice Bell community since 1954. They have three children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Irwin volunteers as the librarian at Alice Bell Baptist Church. She says that with the Alice Bell school no longer operating, the church library has also become a repository of history about that community.
In 2017, Irwin and her daughter took an HonorAir flight to Washington, D.C., with a few other Manhattan Project employees and veterans of several wars. Her husband, who is a veteran of the occupying forces in the Pacific, went on a previous flight.
She says listening to the stories of the other people on the HonorAir flight was as interesting as visiting the memorials themselves. Learning other’s stories is part of the appeal of the writing group, too, as her workshop mates have included people writing about their own childhood memories of World War II in Europe and those writing about the high-powered careers they had in business or public service.
“We have some intriguing people in there,” she says.
After a June-July hiatus, the Creative Writers Workshop resumes at O’Connor Senior Center in August. The facilitator is Barbara Stephens, who wrote a popular local grandparenting column for several years. For more information, and monthly activity calendars, visit the O’Connor Senior Center page on Facebook or call the center at 865-523-1135.