Clara Summerlin Mendenhall
Clara Summerlin was born in Fort Myers, Florida on December 5, 1880, daughter of Samuel Summerlin (1856-1944), a pioneer cattle rancher, and Katheryn (Kate) Deisher (1858-1901). In 1885, she lived in Key West, Florida. Fifteen years later, she resided in College Hill, Hillsborough County, Florida, with her parents, brother Rolla Lee (1877-1924), and sisters Viola (1889-1977) and Olivia (1892-1951). She also attended Chicago University but did not graduate. For a while she worked as a kindergarten teacher.
On December 26, 1907, she married at her home in Tampa Florida native Herbert Drummond Mendenhall (1883-1969), a civil engineer, architect, and graduate of the University of Texas. Soon the young couple moved to Lakeland, Florida, where Herbert served as city commissioner and President of the local Board of Trade. They both were members of the amateur Dramatic Club of Lakeland, starring in plays together. In 1917, Herbert was chief construction engineer building naval stores at Commodores Point Terminal in Jacksonville, and the Mendenhalls lived at 1501 Montague Terrace in town.
When the war came, Herbert Mendenhall volunteered his services to the government and he was commissioned a captain on June 6, 1917, in the U.S. Engineers Corps Reserve. Trained at Fort McPherson, Georgia, he was transferred to Washington, D.C., before he left for France with the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) on July 23, 1917. He was responsible for designing and constructing docks, wharfs, bridges, hospitals, and terminals for Base Section No. 2, Services of Supply sector, in Bordeaux, France.
Meanwhile, Clara applied to work overseas with several organizations and was appointed with four other women to work with the Y.M.C.A. in Paris. In addition to having some college and teaching experience, she also was fluent in French. (After the women were appointed, no more soldiers’ wives were allowed to work for the Y overseas.) Endorsed by the National War Work Council of the Y.M.C.A. on August 25, 1917, she went to France onboard the SS La Touraine on September 8, 1917.
Built in 1891, the SS La Touraine was a French ocean liner primarily involved in transatlantic service.
After arriving in Paris, Clara met Mrs. Theodore (Eleanor Butler Alexander) Roosevelt, Jr., wife of the oldest son of the former president who was on duty with the 1st Division. Mrs. Roosevelt worked for the Y in France coordinating the hiring of volunteers to run canteens, clubs, and leave centers for soldiers and teaching French to soldiers at night. She also designed the uniforms worn by women overseas Y.M.C.A. workers: a sensible gray-green jacket and skirt, with a long cape, with a French horizon-blue collar with red triangles on the upper collar lapel embroidered in silk, plus white shirt and a blue hat. When her husband went to France in 1917 on active duty, Eleanor Roosevelt, like Clara Mendenhall and other officer wives, decided to be a patriot in Europe, too. The Y leased the Hotel Richmond at 11 Rue du Helder in Paris and converted it into a combination officer’s club and lodge. The Y.M.C.A. hotel had 60 first-class rooms, which could accommodate approximately 100 Army and Navy officers at one time. Eleanor Roosevelt asked Clara to assist her in managing the hotel.
Eleanor Roosevelt wearing Y.M.C.A. uniform she designed (1918).
After ten months in Paris, Clara Mendenhall became ill and was sent to Bordeaux to recover for a few weeks. There she met Mrs. William Vincent (Helen Dinsmore Huntington) Astor, of the weathy Astor family, who asked her to help manage the Tourny Y.M.C.A. for soldiers. Marian Baldwin, another Y war worker who visited Bordeaux a few months earlier, described the Tourny as a “huge building,” some four stories high, with the letters Y.M.C.A. painted on the front, which could be seen many blocks away.
A former hotel, on the first floor there was a restaurant where soldiers frequented at all hours and consumed an estimated 6000 eggs per day and 2000 cakes per week. There were frequently long lines of soldiers waiting to be served, and Y women tending coffee, cake and bread stands. It took 150 French workers to run the kitchen and keep it clean. The second floor had a business center and writing rooms where soldiers could write loved ones back home. The third floor was the library, and on the fourth floor a tea room where all kinds of cool drinks and ice cream, upwards of 25 gallons a day, were served by Y workers from 9 am to 11 pm. At other times the Y women simply talked with the soldiers, or sang or played games with them. The Y at Bordeaux was always “packed with men on a few hours’ leave,” said Baldwin.
Y.M.C.A. Hut, 35 Allées de Tourny, Bordeaux, France
Bordeaux – Les Allées de Tourny, with the Y.M.C.A. hut in the background.
As hostess, when she was not ordering the food or overseeing the maids or typing invoices, Clara was placed in charge of the entertainment which she said was “a stupendous, although pleasant task.” There were three pianos, one on each floor. Band music, troup entertainments, itinerant Vaudeville acts, minstrel shows— anyone who had talent—were popular. One time a circus composed of American performers showed up at the Tourny Y. A number of bands that were extremely well known on the American scene came to Bordeaux to play. One of the very first jazz concerts in France took place – courtesy of the 808th Stevedore Regiment. African-American regimental outfits—such as E. E. Thompson’s 368th Regimental Band; George Dulf’s 370th Infantry “Old Eighth Illinois” Regiment Band; and, most famously, James Reese Europe’s “Harlem Hellfighters Band,” with singer and drum major Noble Sissle, were held. The concerts at the Café Anglais on the Allées de Tourny, became “an unmissable” event for American soldiers on leave and many Bordeaux residents alike.
In one of her letters to a friend in Lakeland that was published in a local newspaper, Clara wrote: “The Y.M.C.A. is the greatest power for good in the world today I truly think.” At the Bordeaux Y.M.C.A. headquarters where she was stationed, there were 32 Y canteens in surrounding camps which handled 75,000 men a week. Our aim, she said, was to provide a comfortable, clean place where the men could get a good meal, a cup of coffee or tea, candy, tobacco, books to read, free stationery. Her job was to help entertain and make the men feel at home. As Captain Mendenhall wrote his father: “The Y.M.C.A. and the letters from home are the only ties that link them with their better surroundings back home.” A great many sailors from the boats that have been torpedoed assemble in the Y.M.C.A. “to talk things over.” Although rewarding, the work was exhausting and took its toll.
In the fall of 1918, Clara was attacked with a bad case of the flu, from which she would never fully recover. The Y sent her to Nice in the Riviera, on the southeast coast of France, for several months of recuperating. After the Armistice, in the spring of 1919, she felt well enough to visit Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood battlefields and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Rheims which had been shelled by German artillery fire earlier in the war. But she was weak most of the time to do anything else. Thankfully, that summer her husband was ordered to return to the U.S., and they both left France together on July 23, 1919, returning to Lakeland, Florida.
Clara Summerlin Mendenhall died of meningitis on February 1, 1920, at a sanitarium in Orlando. On her gravestone in a Bartow cemetery her family attributed her early death to “22 months of heroic service with our soldiers in the Great War.”
Tampa Tribune 8/27/1919
Clara Summerlin Mendenhall’s gravestone
Clara Mendenhall’s YMCA World War I Service Card