SOUTHERN INDIANA — Laurel Keehn was 27 years old and already a mother of two girls when she first went to work as a cartographer for the Army Map Service, making maps that were used by the military.
Keehn was a stay-at-home mother, doing things like cooking and sewing and taking care of the house prior to taking the job with the mapping service. The company had originally been open during World War II and then closed down for several years. When it reopened in the early 1950s is when Keehn started working in the Louisville office.
“A friend of mine had been working there and I was thinking about going to work and so I put my application in and that was that. I had no idea what I was getting into,” she said. “Really, there's a lot to mapping and if I had any idea how much there was to it, I would have said, 'Oh, I can't do that,' and probably never would have applied.”
Although it was 1951 and few mothers worked during this time, Keehn and her husband decided that her working for a little while might help with finances. It was never meant to be more than a temporary situation.
“I think we thought we could maybe get ahead for awhile. We were building a house and stuff like that,” she said. “I was only going to work for two years. Well, I worked for 26.”
She said the work was satisfying, and she loved the people she worked with. By the early 1950s when she started, the spots were filled by women returning after working there during the war and servicemen returning from battle.
“You did feel like you were doing something worth doing,” she said. “It felt like you were doing important work. Vietnam and Korea and different ones, the boys have got to have good maps.”
The process of map making varied, depending on the project and information at hand. Sometimes, she said, one map could take up to five months.
“You always had a base to work with, like an old map,” she said. “It might not have been the same scale, but you had something to start with. And then you either had intelligence information on things that changed or you had the photos or both and so then you revised the map according to what information you had.”
Keehn had her third daughter while she was working for the map making service, and while she and her husband made the daily commute from Palmyra to Louisville, about an hour each way, the girls were cared for by their grandmothers who lived nearby. Keehn said she was grateful for this family help.
“My mother-in-law lived on one side of me and my mother on the other,” she said. “Some people said, 'How in the world did you stand it.' Well it worked for us no problem.”
Keehn's daughter, Gayla Keehn, was 5 years old when her mother went to work for the map making service. During the week, the girls would stay with their grandmothers and on weekends spend more time with their parents.
“Mother was a stickler for hanging clothes out,” Gayla Keehn said. “We'd hang clothes out if it was snowing. As long as it wasn't raining, we'd hang clothes out.
“When we were home, even on Saturdays and Sundays, we were out of bed by 7. We did the laundry on Saturday and we went to church and so forth on Sunday so it was very routine, what we did during the week.”
Gayla Keehn said it was nice to live between the two sets of grandparents, because “anytime you needed something, you knew there was somebody there.”
She said she knew that their situation at home was different than some of her classmates, but she appreciated the work that her mother was doing.
“I don't remember very many people in my class who had mothers working outside the home,” she said. “I know during the war, the women went to work, but the majority of them, after the war, they quit and stayed home with the kids — more traditional. The wife stayed at home and the husbands did the money-making.”
She said she looked up to what her mother was doing.
“I was real proud of my mom and the work that she did because I knew it wasn’t the easiest job in the world, but it was something she really enjoyed,” Gayla Keehn said. “They depended on those maps to know where to go and the specifics of how the ground was and the terrain that they were in. Without those maps, there could have been a lot of lives lost for no reason."
Whether she realized it at the time or not, Keehn was making a great impression on her daughters.
“Mom taught us more or less that you can do whatever you wan to do,” she said. “Just because you're female doesn't mean you can't get a job, hold a job, do more than one thing at a time.”
Keehn, now 92, is retired and lives in an assisted living facility in Corydon. She has spent most of her life living in Palmyra and was living in a facility there when she was struck by a car last May. She was treated at the Clark Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center in Clarksville, an American Senior Communities facility, which she said went a long way to helping get her back on her feet.
“That [accident] really did a lot,” she said. “I'm a miracle that I'm alive.”
Keehn said if she could go back, she would do it all over again, working at the Army Mapping Service.
“Yes, you miss it," she said. "You miss it quite a bit the people and the work, because I really liked my work. I didn't dread going to work.”