Editor’s note: This story is part of a series about Oklahomans who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read the stories of other Oklahomans here. Have you lost a loved one to COVID-19? Help us tell their story.
In her youth, Gyndola Owens helped to build the aircraft that brought the Allies of World War II to victory over the forces of fascism and imperialism. Later in life, she was a nurse who helped freed American prisoners of war in Vietnam return home.
Owens died of COVID in January at the age of 94.
Born Jan. 7, 1927, in the small Okmulgee County community of Bald Hill, Owens attended Okmulgee Public Schools before moving to Oklahoma City in the early 1940s. She found work at what would later become Tinker Air Force Base and helped to build Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft and also worked on Boeing B-17 bombers used in combat missions during World War II.
“She was a Rosie the Riveter,” said Owens’s daughter Sheree Chamberlain. “You don’t see a lot of African American women as Rosie the Riveter, at least when you’re looking at the television.”
After the war, Owens moved to San Francisco, where she obtained a nursing diploma from Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and also became a licensed real estate agent.
In 1964, she moved back to Oklahoma City, where she worked in health care, as nursing instructor at Guthrie Job Corps and as an assistant nursing home director in Oklahoma City. She later moved to Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1970 and worked with prisoners of war as they returned from Vietnam.
“My mother was just a very, very busy lady,” Sheree Chamberlain said. “She had some history behind her.”
Owens returned to Oklahoma in 1976 and worked in private nursing care for prominent families in the Oklahoma City area. For a time, she served as mayor and councilwoman at Forest Park.
Owens also loved fishing, crocheting and spending time with her grandchildren, Sheree Chamberlain said.
Though Owens was still going strong in her final years, she moved in with Sheree Chamberlain and her husband William Chamberlain in Oklahoma City. On weekdays, while the Chamberlains were at work, Owens would visit an adult day center, where she made friends and helped organize activities.
“Because my mother was always the leader in everything, she would help them coordinate those things,” Sheree Chamberlain said.
Owens received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in December 2020, but never got the chance to get a second dose that would give her maximum immunity to the virus.
On Christmas Day, William Chamberlain tested positive for COVID-19. Owens tested positive the following week.
She said her last words to family on Jan. 15 from a hospital room, two days before her death.
“Tell my grandkids I love them,” she said.
Owens is survived by two sisters, three children, seven grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.