How a secondhand uniform changed a Lockwood homemaker’s world.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
Diane Pirzada has long had a strong sense that a special mission awaited her. “I’d always felt there was something calling me,” says the energetic mother of three.
Four years ago, the former flight attendant and self-professed “woman of faith” went looking for a nurse’s uniform to wear to a World War II-themed party in her hometown of Lockwood, a little town near King City. In the Monterey vintage shop she visited, she found that mission, and something more: an alter ego and a spiritual guide that has changed her life permanently.
The shop on Cannery Row had just received part of the estate of a Red Cross volunteer named Rosabelle Hamann, who had served during 1943-45 in New Guinea. While she worked with the sick and wounded, Hamann also painted striking watercolor portraits of some of her patients.
Pirzada was moved from the moment she saw Hamann’s pins, ribbons and paintings.
“I was swept off my feet and took a seat then and there,” she says. “I felt that I had found what I was looking for in my life. Everyone wants to find a treasure. Most people think a treasure will be money. These [portraits] are treasures of the heart.”
The discovery redeemed a feeling Pirzada says she had felt days earlier: “A week before the dance I felt there was a spiritual force guiding me.
“One thing led to another to bring me to the right store in Cannery Row,” she adds. “A lot of things were moving me in Rosabelle’s direction.”
As Pirzada sifted through the artifacts of the woman’s life, her curiosity grew with her sense of purpose. She immediately decided to learn more.
She found that Hamann, who died in 2003, put herself through college during the Depression. After the war, while she taught in Heidelberg, Germany, she helped to find homes in the U.S. for German war orphans. When she returned home, Hamann got an advanced degree at Berkeley and taught for 25 years at Monterey Peninsula College, where she left $375,000 for continuing education scholarships. In her Pirzada saw a valuable tale of women as role models, as key contributors in the war, and as capable of accomplishing the incredible.
“Rosabelle had a story to tell to other women,” Pirzada says. “She was a strong role model.”
Pirzada knew she should be the one to tell that story.
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Pirzada started collecting every Hamann artifact she could. She began trying to find the men in the pictures using the names and hometowns Harmann had written on the backs of some. She succeeded in locating one man in West Virginia and the son of another in Pennsylvania. With so many World War II veterans dying each year, hers has been a race against time.
Pirzada soon envisioned other projects to help broadcast Harmann’s story. “From the moment I was in the antique mall I saw [Hamann’s story] as a movie in my mind.” The book idea followed shortly after. After working on the story of Hamann’s life for two years, Pirzada says she’s ready to start looking for an agent.
She also envisions a museum. “So many soldiers from the Monterey Peninsula who passed through Fort Ord were lost,” she says. “But we don’t have a [military] museum on the Monterey Peninsula.” Pirzada is working with Honorflight, a national nonprofit organization created to honor America’s veterans, to establish one here.
Speaking, however, has become Pirzada’s passion. Since this summer she has regularly presented Hamann’s story to community groups and military organizations. Along with her other Hamann-driven endeavors, it soaks up all of her free time.
The effect has been powerful, according to Molly MacGregor of the National Woman’s History Project.
“You’re writing Rosabelle Hamann back into history,” she told Pirzada.
“We’re always grateful when someone like Diane comes across a woman like Hamann and really understands her,” she says, “because Hamann represents many other women.”
Pirzada is proud to take it on.
“Rosabelle is a guardian angel for me, she’s inspired me to do the ‘impossible,’ to be the best that you can be and extend yourself,” Pirzada says. “It can make a difference in other people’s lives.”
As an audience member told her after her recent talk at the Estrella War Bird Museum in Paso Robles, “I’m very touched by your presentation this evening, but also by your own personal story. It was just as powerful as the first story you told.”