Verda Alvina Wille

Honored by:Irma Winslow
Brick location:D:3  map

I am very pleased and proud to have the opportunity to honor my sister Verda Alvina Wille, who without a lot of formal education, rose to the position of an officer of the company she worked for, over a period of thirty years.

Verda was born in 1926, the sixth child and fourth daughter of Henry and Ida Wille, who lived on a sixty acre farm in Cook County, Illinois. This farming enterprise consisted of raising small vegetables for the consumer market in Chicago. Income from the farm was small, barely enough to provide for the family. In just three years there were events that would have an impact on Verda's life. In 1929 the stock market crashed and the country entered a period of financial turmoil, causing the worst depression the country had ever experienced. During the depression Verda's parents lost their farm. They then moved to Elmhurst, Illinois, a large town in DuPage County, about fifteen miles south of the farm. It was tragic for them that this happened after twenty years of farm ownership, but for Verda it was a blessing in disguise.

After Verda had been in grade school a few years some of her teachers realized something was wrong. When she sat in a seat close to the blackboard she still could not see the figures clearly. She herself didn't think anything about it as it was natural to her. She gave her teachers credit for realizing something was wrong. It seems that scarlet fever was the culprit that affected her eyes. The teachers, with the help of Verda's eye doctor, were able to get her transferred to the sight saving classes offered by the school district. She attended classes in one school in the morning, and in the afternoon was transported to a second school that had equipment for the visually handicapped to do reading, homework etc. When asked how she felt about going to the sight saving school she replied, "It was fine with me, because it enabled me to continue going to school."

During high school Verda went to the sight saving room to study between classes. After she began her third year she had to drop out of regular classes. The teacher in charge of the sight saving classes came to her home and tutored her. It took three years to finish the last two years of high school. She graduated in 1945. She was the second daughter in the family to graduate from high school.

When asked about her social life in junior high and high school she responded with, "There really wasn't much in social life. I was picked up in the morning and brought back in the evening. The other kids were from all over the county. There were only two girls in the class, the rest were boys." In high school the sight saving class took her away from the regular class just long enough to not be included in regular class activities. Because she did not attend the Lutheran school her confirmation class was with other students who also did not attend the school. This class was not included in planned activities for the confirmation class that attended the Lutheran school. Having to drop out of school she was not able to become a part of group activities that make a bond among students.

In 1945, when Verda was ready to enter the job market, the unions were supporting equal pay for women, on the basis that if the females replaced males at a lower rate of pay the soldiers coming home from the war would find their jobs classified as a woman's work with that of a woman's wage.

Verda felt some of this discrimination, not as a person, but as a group in her first job with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. She started as a mail clerk, advancing to stenographer clerk after attending night school to learn shorthand. The better clerical jobs were held by men. She said, "After seven and half years I had made friends with the people I worked with and didn't feel happy about leaving, but I saw no future in the job."

While at her next job with a food brokerage firm as a secretary, Verda attended Northwestern University night school for accounting classes. Verda had this to say about this job, "There have been times at work when I had been harassed. The most difficult was at the brokerage firm. The seventy year old president made sexual advances to the women in the office. After working there two and a half years this man called me into his office and started talking to me. I told him I didn't want to listen to him and quit on the spot, foregoing the year end bonus I would have received in a few weeks."

Verda's next job with the Zurich American Insurance Company, in its Chicago office, was to eventually lead, twenty seven years later to the position as secretary of the company. She started out as secretary to the controller, and then for five years worked for the head of the claims department. Here she found the same old story, the women were paid less than the men for the same type of work.

In April, 1964 Verda became secretary to the United States manager of the firm. But she had to prove herself before he would give her a raise. In August she told him that if he felt she couldn't do the work she was going to look for another job. She got the raise.

Verda worked in the president's office for five presidents, during which time she was promoted from executive secretary to administrative assistant to the chief officer and secretary to the board of directors. In 1973 she was elected assistant secretary of the parent company and six subsidiary companies. In 1982 she was appointed secretary of the holding company, the parent company and five subsidiary companies. The holding company owned a total of eighteen companies. In September, 1982 Verda was called into the office and her boss said, "It is time and timely that you be elevated to the position of Secretary of the Companies." She felt very gratified.

Sometime after she started working Verda assumed the rent payments of the house her parents were renting. Because she felt she wanted to accumulate some equity for the money she was paying out, in conjunction with a brother, bought a two family house in Villa Park, Illinois, with Verda and her parents taking the first floor. After moving she took over the expenses of the new home. Her father died in 1964 and Verda continued to make a home for her mother until her death in 1986 at 93 years of age.

Verda never felt the condition of her eyes would prevent her from doing what she wanted to do. Although she doesn't have 20/20 vision, her eyes have improved over the years and she was able to carry on her work satisfactorily.

Now retired, Verda is an avid reader and keeps up with the latest books. She occasionally goes on trips. Never having to do it before, she enjoys cooking and trying out new culinary ideas.

When I read articles in business publications of the strides women have made in business I always think of Verda and her achievements. I am mighty proud of my sister.

Submitted on 9-19-94