July 02, 2020

Hanny’s choice World traveler Eaton finds a home as docent at Rockland’s Farnsworth Museum

Think about a movie script.

Think about a pretty Dutch girl living an ideal life in Haaksbergen, until the Nazis invaded and took over her father’s hotel and placed her in jail for her outspokenness.

Think about her surviving the war and getting a job as a nanny in Paris, where she met a dashing U.S. Army hospital administrator from Belfast, Maine, and where they had a candlelit romance in the cafes and clubs along the Seine.

The couple was forced to return to Holland briefly to get married. The honeymoon continued in Italy during stays in Vicenza and Tirrenia.

The scene would then shift to America, where the young Army couple would make stops in Texas at El Paso, Abilene, Kerryille, then off to New Mexico with stops in Silver City, Las Cruces and, of course, Roswell. Then it would move to Arizona with more stops in Sierra Vista and Tucson.

The Dutch girl would travel all over the world, moved more than 60 times, but never drove a car. Not one inch. For five decades she stayed at home, focusing on her family, until she took a paid job as a docent at a Rockland museum.

The script might be hard to sell.

But Hanny Eaton, a still vital 82, has lived the script at every step along the way.

She lives a full, active life, walking all over Rockland and working as a docent, or lecturer, at the Farnsworth Art Museum’s Homestead. Visitors would have no hint of her own rich history and experiences abroad other than a slight hint of a foreign accent.

“I have no regrets. I have very happy memories,” she said at her Rockland home.

The hotel home of her childhood was ideal before the Nazis came. “It was an exciting place. My father, Engbert Keyzer, ran the hotel and there was always a party or a wedding and we all pitched in. In 1940, when I was 16, they [the German soldiers] took over the hotel. They slept in the ballroom and never paid,” she recalled.

The Nazis never abused the family. The teenage girl noticed many of the young soldiers but knew better than to get involved. The Dutch villagers would shave the head of a girl who socialized with the hated Germans. “I watched them do it,” she said.

“The resistance was strong in the big cities, but not in a small town like ours. In the cities German soldiers would be found drowned in the canals, until the Germans threatened reprisals,” she said.

As the American bombers soared overhead on the way to bomb Germany and the war result seemed certain, “I got brave,” Hanny said. She criticized a German officer for not paying for shop goods. She was arrested, put in a truck and placed in a Dutch police station, where a family friend ran the department. She was kept a few days, interrogated for her facility with languages, especially German, then released.

Finally the war ended and the hotel was occupied by the Americans, then English, and Canadians. “I did have a Canadian boyfriend,” she admitted.

In 1951, Eaton took a job as a nanny for an American embassy family living in Paris. She went to visit a friend at the American hospital and met Bill Eaton, a military hospital administrator. The nurses noticed the sparks between the two and invited the Dutch girl to hospital parties.

She still remembers their first date at a posh Paris nightclub with a Russian doorman and a very expensive menu. Herald Tribune columnist Art Buchwald wrote about the club that week, saying the musicians played violins all night to drown out the screams of the customers when they got the bill.

The couple had an idyllic four years in Paris, enjoying a lively night life and taking in the city’s museums and other cultural treasures. They traveled all over the region, including the Cote d’Azur and Monaco. “I beat Grace Kelly to her honeymoon island.”

Even then, anti-American sentiment was strong in France. “You would see “Yankee go home” signs everywhere. They wanted the American money, but disliked Americans. Actually we liked Italy better. The people were much friendlier,” she said.

The culture shock was jarring when the couple moved from Paris to El Paso, Texas. All she knew about Texas came from westerns. There was considerably less shooting but much more heat than she anticipated.

After four years in Texas, the couple was transferred once again to Italy, where they lived for six years, then back to the U.S. Army hospital in Silver City, N.M. The city was surprisingly cosmopolitan thanks to a huge copper mine nearby. The couple made friends from all over the world.

In 1966, her husband was transferred to Vietnam, where he was exposed to Agent Orange, which she believes affected his health and possibly contributed to his death in 1999, when they were living in Abilene, Texas.

At the time, Eaton’s daughter Kathleen Colton, a fabric designer, and her husband had finished building a home on Matinicus Island. They encouraged her to settle nearby in Rockland.

“I like the city. It is nice and flat and I can walk everywhere,” she remarked. “The people here are wonderful.”

Eaton is a familiar figure, walking all over the city, until the snow and ice get too dangerous. She said the secret to a good life is to “keep walking, eat decent … and maybe a little red wine at night.”

Longtime friend Roxanna Adams is amazed at Eaton’s life.

“In addition to everything else, she is one of the best-dressed women in town and a gourmet cook,” she noted. “She is absolutely remarkable and she has made quite a life for herself.”

One Rockland store manager, who shared morning coffee with Eaton, told her about a newspaper ad for a seasonal museum job a few years ago. The interview lasted about 10 minutes. When she identified a Victorian knife rest, “I was hired on the spot,” she said.

Janice Casper, historic sites curator at the Farnsworth, described Eaton as “amazing. She knew the Victorian place setting immediately. She is from the Old World and appreciates the finer things in life. She hasn’t missed a day and I have used her to fill in for others. She is very lively and loves to talk to people. She is always extremely well dressed and has seven pairs of glasses to go with her different outfits.”

Having completed her fifth season at the museum, Eaton is enjoying every minute of her job. “I love going to work. How many people can say that?” she asked.

For Eaton, the highlight of the fall season was one weekend in September, when a busload of Dutch tourists stopped at the Farnsworth. The group came to the homestead, met Eaton and spent a few minutes speaking in Dutch and singing an old Dutch school song. “I don’t remember much Dutch anymore, but we all remembered the songs,” she said.

The movie might close with the camera backing away from the museum homestead, with the sounds of a Dutch folk song filling the air.

I am thinking of Meryl Streep for the role of Hanny Eaton.

The Bangor Daily News is profiling people age 80 and older who choose to remain in the work force. We welcome suggestions for people to profile. Contact us at 990-8170 or e-mail bdnstyle@bangordailynews.net. Emmet Meara can be reached at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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