Here's is a woman who is literally "living history." Kalamazoo's Irene Stearns turns 100 years old on Sunday, January 30th. And while people in Kalamazoo may know her story as one of the "Kalamazoo Gals", soon many more people will know it, too.

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Author Johnathan Kellerman put it this way in the forward of the book "Kalamazoo Gals" by John Thomas,

(They were) “a band of intrepid, unpretentious, stunningly skillful, thoroughly American women” who made eminent contributions “to both the war effort and to the endurance of one of the greatest musical instrument manufacturers ever known”. These women produced some of the finest acoustic guitars ever while Gibson was not officially producing guitars and instead supporting the war effort. - City of Kalamazoo.

Stearns' story, as all the Kalamazoo gals' was, thoroughly American and thoroughly Kalamazoo, with Stearns having gone to Woodrow Wilson Elementary and then Kalamazoo Central when it was on Westnedge. Stearn went to work at Gibson in 1940; one of the first "Kalamazoo Gals", and now she's the last survivor.

'Kalamazoo Gal' Irene Stearns from the Gibson guitar factory. (Guitar via YouTube)
'Kalamazoo Gal' Irene Stearns from the Gibson guitar factory. (Guitar via YouTube)
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The story of these women is special, because it's more than a guitar story, though it is that, especially for musicians, as the Gibson Banner acoustic guitars are considered some of the finest ever made. These instruments featured a decal on the headpiece that said "Only A Gibson Is Good Enough." But on top of that, these women were the first of the Rosie the Riveters during World War II. As men and boys went off to war, they went into the workforce. You have to remember women weren't commonly working jobs and especially factory jobs back in the middle of the last century, and look at what they accomplished.

There is a movie in the works, but this feature from Guitar is wonderful. It's just Irene Stearns telling her story. If you are a Kalamazooan, it will especially resonate with you, as she talks about working at Upjohn, and getting the call from Gibson, and more.

(Guitar via YouTube)

As Irene Stearns turns 100, this is a story that needs to be told and re-told.

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