An enlisted member of the Navy WAVES, the young woman hurried offstage after singing for World War II sailors. A male singer waiting to go on reached for her arm as she ran by. “What's your hurry, little girl?” As she looked into his blue eyes, her own eyes widened. He asked her to return to the stage to sing a duet played by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. “Do you know 'Now Is the Hour'?” the singer asked. “Sing the harmony, and I'll sing the melody.”
On a recent day at her Omaha apartment, Eugenia Orlich Hartig, 89, sat at her piano, playing and singing the song she sang at that USO event long ago in San Francisco — with Frank Sinatra.
“Now is the hour when we must say goodbye. Soon you'll be sailing far across the sea ...”
All these years later, she easily recalls the hour when Ol' Blue Eyes (not yet 30) asked her to sing.
“I was in shock,” she said. “Absolute shock.”
She didn't get a photo and never met him again, although she saved the sheet music from the song and noted his name and the year — 1943. She did cross paths with other celebrities over the years, though, as a television interviewer, singer and actress, and as an instructor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D.
One of her students, who substituted for her on the interview show, was Mary Harum. She became famous as the TV host of “Entertainment Tonight” — as Mary Hart.
Eugenia, or “Gena,” moved to Omaha about 13 years ago to be near her three sons and their families. She lives at the New Cassel Retirement Center north of 90th Street and West Dodge Road.
She is among dozens of military veterans living at the retirement home who will be honored there next month in advance of Memorial Day.
The first-time event on May 16 is being organized by a military veteran of a younger generation — Cynthia Frady Petrich, 46, a New Cassel staff member and a combat veteran of the Persian Gulf War.
She says “combat veteran” proudly.
Although then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in January officially removed the ban on women in combat — allowing women to volunteer for combat roles — Cindy notes that women long have served in combat zones.
At 24, the Creighton University ROTC graduate was quoted in The World-Herald and in USA Today saying she was at peace with herself at the prospect of ground combat.
“That's what we're going to have to do, fight,” she said. “But I'm pretty confident in our ability to wrap this up.”
Although it turned out she wasn't shot at and wasn't in ground combat, she served in an intelligence unit with the 937th Engineer Group near Rafha, Saudi Arabia.
“We were the farthest females up front,” she recalled.
A biology major at Creighton, she served as a chemical officer in the Army and had trained in a nerve-gas chamber wearing protective gear.
“It didn't really frighten me,” she said, “because I knew the equipment worked. We had a few officers who didn't make it through (chamber) training. Anyone who was claustrophobic would really have trouble with that.”
Today she is president of the New Cassel Foundation and came to realize that many residents are military veterans with great stories — including noncombat veterans such as Eugenia Hartig.
All who served, Cindy said, should be honored. Army Col. Tom Brewer of Murdock, Neb., who spent five years fighting in Afghanistan, will speak at the May ceremony.
Cindy comes from a military family — a grandfather, her father, her two brothers and her husband have served, too. She played sports and was valedictorian at Ralston High School.
She received appointments to three military academies but accepted an ROTC scholarship at Creighton.
As a woman in the military, she said, she suffered no discrimination or sexual harassment. Her 1990-91 deployment in the desert, she said, felt like a brotherhood with male soldiers.
She is glad that serving in ground combat will be voluntary for women, adding: “I don't think any of the standards should be lowered.”
Since joining New Cassel, the mother of two sons has enjoyed hearing the stories of many residents and was delighted to meet Eugenia.
The older woman is a twin. After her mother gave birth, she must have been in a state of euphoria — she named the daughters Eugenia and Euphemia.
The sisters talk by phone three or four times a week. Eugenia plans to visit Euphemia at her home in Missouri soon after their 90th birthday, which is Tuesday. (Their nicknames are Gena and Fema.)
They grew up in Chisholm, Minn., where their father ran Orlich's Grocery. The twins eventually worked the checkout counter. Their family physician was Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who became a prominent figure in the book “Shoeless Joe” and the movie “Field of Dreams,” played by Burt Lancaster.
During World War II, Euphemia enlisted first, and then Eugenia joined the WAVES, which stood for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.
After the war, Eugenia graduated from the University of Minnesota. For a year she dated aspiring actor Peter Graves, who became famous for TV's “Mission: Impossible” and once welcomed Eugenia and her family onto the California set.
Eugenia and her late husband, Leo Hartig, delivered the news for about 20 years on KELO-TV in Sioux Falls.
Eugenia, meanwhile, starred in local musicals, singing lead roles such as Maria in “The Sound of Music” and Anna in “The King and I.”
Her sons, Geoffrey, Michael and Tom Hartig, have enjoyed artistic and professional success in Omaha, including with InFlight Productions Co., now owned by Michael. Founded in 1978, it produces corporate and commercial video.
Geoff is a photographer. Tom, a saxophone player, is a video editor for Chip Davis' American Gramaphone Co.
“Our mother has led a long and colorful life,” Michael said. “She was a celebrity in Sioux Falls.”
She has given voice lessons and would like to do so again. In her Omaha apartment, surrounded by photos of her family and of herself in stage roles, she often plays her piano and sings.
It's been a long time since Sinatra called the petite 20-year-old “little girl” and brought her back onstage to sing with him. She enjoys lots of good memories.
“When I can sing,” she said, her fingers moving across the keys, “I'm happy.”
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