When Maryellen “Mama Mike” French was 5 years old in Brooklyn, N.Y., she told her mother she had three goals: serve in the Navy, marry a Navy man and have 13 children.
Her mother told her the idea of having a large family was wonderful, but she needed to forget the dream of serving in the Navy because only men were allowed to do that.
“Needless to say, I was able to prove to her that she was wrong,” French said recently from her Middleburg home.
During World War II the government implemented a program in the Navy Reserve called Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, better known as WAVES, due to the need for additional military personnel. French said she jumped at the opportunity.
She served as a Navy hospital corpsman in Maryland, Iowa and Illinois helping soldiers who were wounded in combat. She met a Navy man who would become her husband and in 1948 they adopted the first of three children.
It wasn’t quite the 13 she hoped for when she was a child, but on March 25 — her 95th birthday — she realized her family had grown much larger than she ever imagined. French said that’s because all her peers from her time in show business serve as a second family.
“You have to be in the theater to understand there’s a special kinship,” French said.
French started working at the Orange Park Community Theatre 20 years ago where she’s performed, directed and worked in various roles behind the scenes.
These days she takes tickets and greets the audience as they arrive each night to see the show.
“They call her the guardian of the gate because nobody gets past her without a ticket,” said Mike French, her son who also works at the theater and a big part of the reason everyone calls her Mama Mike.
She said she knew there would be a gathering for her birthday, but she had no idea how much her theater family had in mind. They made a video slideshow featuring photographs from throughout her life and decorated the walls to spotlight themes from each decade over that span.
“Every bit of it had the energy of putting together a [theater] production,” said her daughter, Denise French, who also works at the theater.
Part of the unexpected surprise was a tribute to Maryellen French’s Navy career. Jeffrey Richardson, a retired Navy lieutenant who’s acted in a play at the theater, presented her with a Citation for Meritorious Service from American Legion Post 250 in Middleburg.
“Her service to our nation in shore establishments allowed for the deployment of officers and men for sea duty in direct support of allied service members worldwide,” the citation said.
Maryellen French said the award presentation reminded her of one of the proudest moments of her life.
At times during her Navy career she had to play the part of a “Dutch uncle” when sailors were feeling down about their injuries. She said she tried her best to give them the advice they needed to help move on with their lives.
She said one man in particular was so upset about losing a limb that he was too ashamed to return to his family.
“I told him I would want him home if I was his wife,” French said, remembering the young man’s reluctance to move on.
She was able to talk him into going home, and then their paths crossed again about three years later.
The reunion came when French was at a grocery store in Yorktown, Va., where her husband was stationed at the time. She recognized her former patient with his children and his “very pregnant wife” along with him.
The man introduced French to his wife and explained she was responsible for reuniting their family. The pregnant woman pulled French aside to thank her, and that moment of thanks will never be forgotten, the Middleburg resident said.
Other memories from a lifetime ago serving in the Navy came flooding back at the birthday party as Kyle Lowe — the son of theater president Vicki Lowe — played a lively rendition of “Anchors Aweigh” on his trumpet.
The guest of honor sang right along with the music, and she even joked that at her age it’s nice to hear any song other than taps played on a horn.