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Search goes on to link WWII portraits to families

Mar. 26, 2014 - 11:33AM   |  
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PITTSBURGH — As a Red Cross employee during World War II, Elizabeth Black longed to be more than a “Donut Dolly,” serving coffee and doughnuts to weary American soldiers in Europe. The Pittsburgh native possessed artistic skills, an engaging manner and a pretty face, with blue eyes and dark hair.

She began sketching American soldiers and mailing her portraits to their anxious families back in the U.S., a project that carried her across England, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg.

Before the war ended, she had sketched more than 1,000 grateful GIs, including Leopold Koppel of Crafton Heights. Betty Koppel Houston, 77, was about 8 years old when her father’s image, autographed to his wife, Betty, “with love and kisses,” arrived rolled up in a mailing tube.

“I hadn’t seen my dad. I was excited and my mother was excited. She thought it was a good likeness of my dad,” Houston said, adding that her mother framed the picture and hung it in the family’s living room, where it stayed for 45 years.

A documentary about Black, produced by WQED, aired locally last November. Since 2012, WQED producer David Solomon has managed to connect 30 families with images of their loved ones’ portraits because Black photographed the sketches and kept four notebooks that soldiers signed with messages to her. Solomon is pursuing good leads on 25 people whose portraits can be seen at the website http://wqed.org/tv/specials/portraits/.

“Portraits for the Home Front: The Story of Elizabeth Black” airs again at 8 p.m. Thursday on WQED and has been picked up for national broadcast by American Public Television. Since the documentary was broadcast locally last year, researchers from Connecticut to Hawaii have volunteered to help find relatives of people who sat for the artist.

Koppel, an infantryman who served with the Army in the Battle of the Bulge, was enjoying some rest and relaxation in Holland on Feb. 2, 1945, when Black sketched him. The drawing hangs today in Houston’s Irwin home near the framed American flag that draped her father’s casket in 2002.

Finding Houston was relatively easy compared with tracing “Lulu,” the only woman in the 100 surviving portraits found by Black’s son, John, in a trunk in 2010. Debby Griffith MacSwain, a Colorado woman who served in Vietnam and is president of the American Red Cross Overseas Association, found that Lulu was Mary Louise Weller Chapman, 95, of Berkeley, Calif.

In a telephone interview, Chapman said she served overseas with the Red Cross during World War II. She retired in 1984 and spent much of her career as the youth director for the Red Cross Bay Area chapter. Last year, she celebrated 70 years with the organization and still helps select young Red Cross volunteers from all over the world who apply for a leadership scholarship that bears her name.

During the 1940s, Chapman was teaching physical education to elementary students in Tarrytown, N.Y., and wondering how to help the war effort. “Everybody was doing something,” she said.

Inspiration struck when she saw an ad in Mademoiselle magazine.

“There was a picture of a Red Cross gal in a uniform and an American GI on a knoll in England with their bicycles nearby,” she said.

Her mother was the volunteer chairman of the Red Cross chapter in her hometown of Oriskany, N.Y.

“I felt at home in the Red Cross,” Chapman said, adding that she was 24 when she sailed to England on the Aquitania and arrived in September 1943. A co-worker named Edna gave Mrs. Chapman her nickname, taking it from an Andrews Sisters song, “Don’t Bring Lulu.”

On one of their rare breaks from a six-day work week, Chapman sat for her portrait in the English home where she was staying.

As she sketched, Black told her subject, “I think I do men better than women.”

But Chapman was pleased with the likeness.

“I thought she did pretty well. On my portrait, she didn’t write my name or my town, which she did with the GIs. I may have been one of the first ones she did.”

Although the original was lost, Chapman still treasures a copy of the artwork that shows her wearing a pin with the name Lulu. A pilot made it for her out of brass wiring.

“I do think that Elizabeth really made a lasting contribution. Families have these portraits forever,” she said.

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