Hard-working hands, determined spirit lead French-born seamstress to success

  • Published
  • By Valerie Mullett
  • 341st Space Wing Public Affairs
Her work environment is as humble as her roots. Her passion for sewing is matched only by her passion for life. She's taken the best from both worlds to combine the elements of success. Her determination is her driving force. 

And there is no slowing her down. 

From the time she was a small child growing up in France, Irene Harris has learned to look adversity square in the face and find ways to overcome it. Today, it's all a memory that's fueled by who she's become. 

"I could tell you stories about growing up during the war ... my father was a member of the French Resistance and was captured and sent to a concentration camp," she recalled. "My sister and I did not have any shoes to wear and we often had to go out and steal food to eat. But children have no fear so we just did it." 

Raised by her grandmother, she admits she grew up in very austere conditions. "There was a lot of love, but we grew up in a very, very strict home and we were very, very poor," she said. 

Her grandmother is also the one who taught her how to sew at a very early age.
In the early 1950's, things began to change for her when she got her first sewing job for an Army and Air Force Exchange Service facility at Evreux Air Force Base, France, and met the man she would eventually marry in 1959. She was 24 years old. 

In 1960, the newlywed's were sent to Westover Air Force Base, Mass. 

"I realized the first thing I needed to do was to learn to speak English," Ms. Harris said. "I could not get a job if I couldn't speak English." 

So she taught herself the language by sitting in front of a television and listening to the different programs. She also made her husband, who spoke fluent French, speak to her in English to make her concentrate on learning the language. 

"In one year, I taught myself to speak English," she proudly boasts of her accomplishment. "I spoke as good then as I do now." 

Once confident with her speaking capabilities, she applied for a piece-work job at the Holyoke Dress Company in Springfield, Mass., where she was hired and worked for two years. 

"There were many immigrants working at the company and I felt very comfortable being around them," she said. "But I was also very nervous, at first because there were so many people. I come from a small town and don't really like the big cities." 

Gaining more confidence in her new-found lifestyle and language, she was prepared when her husband received orders to Incirlik, Turkey, and she was left behind to get their house sold and belongings packed and shipped. 

"I was very determined back then ... I still am," she said. 

Going to Turkey was "a blessing because it was more like home." Europeans didn't have trouble with as many things as Americans did, such as eating food purchased on the economy, or fitting in with many of the customs, she explained. "I loved it over there, which is why after we left and went to Grand Forks, N.D., I cried every day to go back."
It only took a year and she got her wish. But not before she and her husband added a son to their family, Anthony. 

In all this time, her sewing had taken a back seat. She did do favors for people, but wasn't working full time as a seamstress. 

Their second assignment to Turkey landed them in Ankara, the capital city, where there was no established military base. All of the military operations were blended into the operations of the city. "I couldn't tell you what my husband did during that time," Irene admitted, "But I spent a lot of time at the embassy and a lot of time raising my son." They were in Ankara for seven years before being stationed at Malmstrom in 1972. 

He retired from the military in 1979 and shortly after that, Irene began her career at Malmstrom. 

Her first job was as a waitress at the Chinook Club, the NCO Club here at the time. She then moved into the cashier's cage, working nearly three years for that establishment before branching out to the base house cleaning business with another French-born friend she had met. 

"I was very strong and cleaning houses was good money," she explained, "but I really missed my sewing." 

She tried her hand at her own custom drapery business for a short time but found an ad in the newspaper for Mr. Wise's cleaners as a seamstress on base in 1990 and went on an interview. The rest is Malmstrom history. 

Irene Harris has been the main seamstress at the AAFES facility located in the dry cleaning section of the concessions at the base exchange for 17 years and she doesn't plan to stop doing what she loves anytime soon. 

"It is fun here everyday," she said. "My customers are all like my kids ... I love them all."
A lot of customers have come and gone in the time she's been manning the sewing machine here and she's made a lot of friends. 

Co-worker of five years, Shelly Corr, recalled one time a customer came in and needed a pair of dress blue pants hemmed. 

"Irene asked him when he needed them and he told her later that day for a change-of-command ceremony," Ms. Corr said. "Irene told him she would try, and then in her joking way, told the customer he could always wear his birthday suit if she couldn't get them done." The customer said he didn't think that would go over very well, according to Ms. Corr. Irene agreed, then, to have them ready for him. 

"I asked Irene after he left if she knew who he was and she said, 'No, who is he?'"
It turns out it was the wing commander. 

All kidding aside, she takes her job very seriously and is good at what she does.
Irene confesses she doesn't like to say "no" to anyone and will do whatever it takes to get their alterations done by the time they need them. 

"I never say 'no' if I don't have to," she said. 

For those who haven't had the pleasure of her caring and skillful ways, you can find Irene buzzing around her little work area Monday through Friday from "about 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m." and you can bet she'll stop to help you, too.