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Wagner shares letters of great aunt in book
March 15, 2017

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The World War I letters of Alice M O'Brien, a winter resident of Captiva in the late '30s, have been compiled in a book "Alice in France: The World War I Letters of Alice M. O'Brien," which is now available.

"It's been wonderful. People are really inspired by her story," Nancy O'Brien Wagner said. "She was so patriotic and so generous towards a country that did not treat her as an equal."

Alice was the great aunt of Wagner, who edited the letters for the book.

"About 10 years ago when my dad passed away I was helping my mom clean up the attic," she said, which resulted in finding her great aunt Alice's letters, which were transcribed by her father.

With some more digging, Wagner found the original letters, also in the attic, and thought "these are great, they are incredible. Let's put this together and see what we have."

The letters spanned from March 1918 to November 1918.

"My father had done the transcription, but missed some letters and made some errors," Wagner said, which led to comparing the letters to another collection of letters, Alice's friend, from 1922.

Through reading the letters, Wagner discovered that her great aunt volunteered to serve in France during World War I as a mechanic, auxiliary nurse, canteener and supply truck driver.

She said when Alice did not have enough cars to fix, she ended up putting one together. When the job of a supply truck driver surfaced, which was reserved for men, Red Cross knew that she had put a car together and said she would be OK for the job. Wagner said her jobs also included working for the causality department letting individuals know who had died, as well as caring for the men injured from the battle field.

"There was a whole generation of women - they were smart, really determined and really independent," Wagner said, adding that many of the women who went to France were considered "old maids" because they were 25 years old.

Alice began visiting Captiva in the late '30s when she became a property owner as a winter resident and built a compound. The rest of her time was spent in Minnesota.

Alice was a huge supporter of J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge and gave a parcel of land to the state of Minnesota, which became a major state park in the metro area. Wagner said she visited the island in February because she wanted to see the look out tower at "Ding" that was built in Alice's honor.

"She was friends with J.N. Ding Darling and was on the board when the reserve got going," she said.

Wagner said in the early '60s, she became a minor owner of the Captiva South Seas Plantation Company.

"She helped to subsidize the local beauty parlor, coffee shop and gift shop," she said, adding that she was also involved in the first bridge being built for Sanibel. "She was really smart and used her skills to ask some really critical questions."

O'Brien died in 1963.

"She was a pretty dramatic, colorful character," Wagner said.

Wagner is the co-founder of Bluestem Heritage Group. This is the first book that has been published that is of personal significance.

"I think that humans are humans and what motivates us is pretty universal, but our circumstances are unique," she said. "I love seeing how we respond to different times. I love seeing the patterns. There is a lot of what is happening today that echos what was happening 100 years ago."

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