Diana Rhea loved working and loved Boeing. She combined those loves for 75 years, starting in 1942 as a 20-year-old clerk-typist and retiring last year at 95. Ms. Rhea died Wednesday at 96.

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Diana Rhea loved working and loved Boeing. She combined those loves for 75 years, starting in 1942 as a 20-year-old clerk-typist and retiring last year at 95.

Along the way, she endured the death of a young son and raised a daughter as a single mother. In 1968, she became Boeing’s first female manager in Manufacturing Engineering, supervising a team of up to 40 people maintaining inventory records for airplane parts.

By the end, her work and her life were inextricable. Within weeks of her retirement, Ms. Rhea’s health deteriorated and after a visit to hospital she developed septic shock. For just over a year, her daughter Ann Catherine Ice cared for her. Ms. Rhea died peacefully Wednesday morning aged 96.

“She loved working. She simply felt it was helping her stay physically and mentally healthy and couldn’t imagine not working,” her daughter said. “She felt she had a lot to offer in knowledge and expertise, simply because of her benefit of working in the same place for decades.”

Ms. Rhea became Boeing’s longest-serving employee. In the later years of her work life, Boeing made accommodations to allow her to keep working.

Diana Rhea is shown circled in this photo of the 5,000th B-17 being rolled out of Boeing’s Plant 2 in Seattle on May 14, 1944. (Boeing)
Diana Rhea is shown circled in this photo of the 5,000th B-17 being rolled out of Boeing’s Plant 2 in Seattle on May 14, 1944. (Boeing)

She was granted her own indoor parking space at the 737 final assembly plant in Renton, where she parked her Ford Taurus with the license plate “LUV-JETS” in a frame that read “Lady Diana, Boeing Aircraft Company.”

Then, when she could no longer drive, her daughter was allowed to drop her off each morning at the plant doors. Ice said that as they would come off I-405, when she’d see the Boeing logo lit up on the side of one of its buildings, her mother would invariably proclaim, “The Great Boeing Company.”

In her final years at Boeing, while she could have taken a desk job in an office, Ms. Rhea instead chose to walk the aisles of the Renton plant every day, pushing a cart that held work orders for 737s under assembly and delivering them to the mechanics at each airplane.

“She wanted to be out where the airplanes are. She thought that was exciting,” said her daughter. “She claimed that walk around the plant several times a day kept up her health.”

At age 90, then with 70 years of service under her belt, Diana Rhea delivered work orders for 737s being assembled in Renton.  The written orders are stored in flip folders on long metal trays called “panels”, like the one pictured on the side of her push cart.  (Jessica Oyanagi / Boeing)
At age 90, then with 70 years of service under her belt, Diana Rhea delivered work orders for 737s being assembled in Renton. The written orders are stored in flip folders on long metal trays called “panels”, like the one pictured on the side of her push cart. (Jessica Oyanagi / Boeing)

Ms. Rhea was born Diana Bruncev in Aberdeen in 1922 and moved with her parents to Tacoma, where she attended Secretarial Business College. At 19, she took jobs in a bakery and in a hospital laundry.

After the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941 propelled the United States into World War II, Boeing hired many women to step up warplane production as men went off to the fight. Ms Rhea was hired in March 1942 at fifty-nine-and-a-half cents per hour.

During her lifetime, the work transformed. Even in the late 1960s, the team she managed sat at long rows of wooden desks, filing the parts records on cards in large metal cabinets. By the end, the same records were digital, stored on desktop computers.

Diana Rhea in 1945  (Courtesy of Ann Catherine Ice )
Diana Rhea in 1945 (Courtesy of Ann Catherine Ice )

Ms. Rhea headed several special assignments in the long transformation, helping to replace the hundreds of thousands of paper ledgers and cards at the Renton plant with mechanized ordering systems. She did the same at the company’s Helicopters Division in Philadelphia and Boeing’s major parts plant in Wichita, Kan.

Ms. Rhea, described by her daughter as a “glamour queen,” married Delbert Rhea in 1952. In 1960, the young couple’s oldest child, Vance, died from a brain tumor.

Devastated by the loss, after having nursed their son in the last year of his life, the couple broke up and divorced within six months. After that, said her daughter, “I became the focus of her reason to live. She always told me that.”

As a single mom, Ms. Rhea kept her job at Boeing, dropping Ice off with her grandmother in Tacoma early in the morning and collecting her in the evening.

Ice grew up doing many of the household chores, cooking and cleaning. “She went to work and I did everything else,” she said.

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As for being a female pioneer and a role model for her daughter, Ice said Ms. Rhea didn’t talk much about it. “She just lived it and made it happen.”

Ice became a rock music promoter and in Ms Rhea’s later years, when she lived with her daughter, she would often go along to her shows. “She loved rock music,” said Ice.

Ms. Rhea was eventually remarried, to Albert Webb, but only after her daughter had left home and was married.

Throughout the trials of life, Ms. Rhea continued to work and was recognized for her perseverance.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes then-chief executive Alan Mulally gave her an award for 60 years of service in 2002.

Ten years later, it was one of his successors, Ray Conner, who gave her the 70-year award. Conner remarked that “as society moved through a series of turbulent times — from the Cold War, to the unrest of the ’60s, to the fall of the Berlin Wall — Diana was at her post, a constant, steady presence to her Boeing teammates.”

Ms Rhea was also recognized for contributing to Boeing’s Employee Community Fund every year from its inception in 1951 until she retired.

In a Boeing interview in 2012, she said that even in her earliest days at the company, “though I earned a meager salary, contributing was important to me, because I remember the days when my family and I lived in poverty.

On March 9, 2017, as she retired 75 years to the day since she was hired, Boeing put on a workday party for her at “Rosie’s Diner” (as in, “Rosie the Riveter”), a cafeteria inside the Renton factory. The following month it held an evening dinner party at the Temple Theater in Tacoma.

Ms. Rhea was predeceased by her husbands Delbert and Albert, her son Vance, her sisters Pearl Mirkovich and Andryana Bruncev, and her stepsister Kathleen Gaffigan.

She is survived by her daughter, Ann Catherine Ice, her granddaughter Lauren Keyes, Lauren’s husband Christophe and great-granddaughter Kennedy.