80 TO 100: McElroy: A woman of the world

  • Thu Oct 1st, 2009 12:26am
  • Life

By Daniel Nash | The Courier-Herald

Kathe McElroy has a serious mischievous streak. You can see it in the glint of her eyes, in the way she pats your arm to punctuate her point in a story and most of all in her smile. It’s a smile that is polite, but not for the sake of politeness. It is a knowing smile.

McElroy, who will turn 83 in October, is a woman of the world, having travelled Europe and the Middle East extensively before becoming a U.S. citizen.

At the time of her entry into the country, she spoke six languages: her native German, Italian, Turkish, Arabic, Greek and English, which she admitted she still has trouble with today.

Her experience was a byproduct of her profession as a dancer. Her career and formative years were detailed extensively in a previous Courier-Herald feature (“Dancing through life,” June 21, 2006).

Born in Dresden, Germany, McElroy studied ballet in the cultural capital’s famous Semperoper opera house. She escaped death during World War II partly because of German wartime policies.

Teenagers were compelled to spend a year working on farms in the countryside to maintain production.

Shortly after Feb. 1945, she received a letter from her brother with a life-changing sentence:

“Mama and Papa are dead and the house is gone.”

In the Allied forces most controversial action, Dresden was destroyed. The Semperoper had burned to the ground.

Italy

After four more years in Germany, McElroy went abroad working for various ballet companies, shows and nightclubs.

Dancing earned her a degree of notoriety in Italy.

“The paparazzi in Italy were so bad,” she said. “One night, (dancing partner) and I were in our dressing room, and the journalists were all crowding outside our doorway. So I said to Gerda, ‘On the count of three, let’s pop the door open for just a moment and stick our tongues out!’ And that’s how they photographed us that night.”

If there was anything McElroy had an appreciation for, it was skill in dance. She had earned her degree in ballet, a requirement under German law so that dancers injured or struck ill could still earn a living as teachers.

Around 1950, she began a six-year run managing a traveling dance show. The dancers provided to her were a mess, she said.

“Italian girls are not dancers,” she said. “They are just good looking. I had to make dancers of them. It took them three days just to bow.”

The owner of the company later asked her how she did it.

“Work,” she said. “All you do as a dancer, is work. Every bone in your body must practice.”

First Marriage

McElroy married Thomas Stoudt, an American airline pilot, in 1957. For eight years, they lived in Saudi Arabia and raised a daughter. She exploited her talents to lead exercise classes for the other wives of American pilots.

When the family moved to the U.S., McElroy underwent close scrutiny. She had to carry in hand, at all times, documents from every country she had visited, and at customs her luggage was searched at length.

“I said to the security officer, ‘You see? There are my whips.’ I was a bit impatient by then.”

The family settled into life in Mason County. But her marriage ended in divorce.

Second Marriage and Remembrance

In 1973, McElroy married Ned and stayed with him until his death.

The beginning of this second marriage is where McElroy has left off in her memoir. Perhaps there is not as much to say, she said, because the subsequent time in her life was calm.

The book contains a narrative that begins from her earliest memories at 3 years old. Her granddaughter asked to read it, and a short time afterward, McElroy found her distraught.

“It’s Dresden,” she said. “I can’t believe this happened to you.”

When McElroy was discharged early from the farm in Germany, Dresden was a city of ruins. She lived in a shack by her family garden. Food was scarce.

A girl from the farm gave her the address of her family’s home in the countryside.

“The family was surprised at this strange, filthy girl on their doorstep,” she said. “I gave them the note from their daughter, and her mother invited me in for tea. Tea! Here I was, dirty and alone, and they invited me in for tea and bread.”

But they gave her a suitcase full of clothes and shoes and allowed her to shower.

“It was the best feeling in the world to clean myself,” she said. “That was heaven.”

It was this sentiment that brought her granddaughter to tears.

McElroy wrote the memoir primarily for her daughter’s and grandchildren’s remembrance. The possibility of wider readership hasn’t escaped her mind, but she confronts the idea with an attitude that can only be acquired by someone used to years of recognition.

“Perhaps when I am gone, my daughter can take it and turn it into a book,” she said.

Then, with a dismissive gesture and that knowing smile, she added: “Whatever.”