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Frances Jordan Banks, a 102-year-old World War II Army nurse who served in India and spent many years on an Aroostook County potato farm, lived a life that was book-ended by pandemics.
The Cape Elizabeth native was born during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and died a few days ago of COVID-19.
Banks had been living at Cape Memory Care, a residential care facility in Cape Elizabeth that is a site of an outbreak of the disease.
The centenarian married late in life and didn’t have any children, but plenty of nieces and nephews to mourn her.
“She treated each of us as though we were her favorite, along with our children,” Sally Jordan, her niece, wrote in an email to the BDN. “My two sons, fast approaching 50, each called in tears when hearing of Aunt Frances’ passing.”
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Jim Rowe, the president of the Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society, said that she had a wealth of information about the past.
“We were sorry to lose her. She was a beautiful, beautiful lady,” he said. “Spanish flu is the world she was born into. The world she leaves behind is COVID-19. It’s pretty ironic.”
He spent a memorable afternoon with Banks about four years ago, while he was doing an oral history project about Fort Williams, one of Cape Elizabeth’s most important landmarks. Rowe had put out a request to talk to anyone who had served at the fort, and one of her relatives thought she would be willing to talk.
“It was an amazing afternoon for me,” he said. “She was very articulate. She was very clear of mind, and you could see a wry sense of humor coming out.”
According to a short online biography of Banks that was posted when she was slated to be the marshal of the 2016 Memorial Day parade in Cape Elizabeth, she lived on a 100-acre farm on Two Lights Road as a child. Banks graduated from the State Street Hospital School of Nursing in 1939, and joined the Army in 1942 as a lieutenant. She served for the duration of the war.
“She said she joined the Army to see the world, and where did they station her? Fort Williams,” the biography said.
Five of the six Jordan siblings, including Banks, served in World War II. One brother, Lloyd Jordan, joined the Air Force, and was shot down and killed over Sardinia, Italy. The war ended before her sister Clara, also a nurse, could join the service.
Rowe said that Banks was a “wealth of information” about what it was like at the fort during the war. After nine months in Maine, the Army sent her farther afield, and she wound up as head nurse at the 94th Station Hospital in Piardoba, India, which was part of the Burma-China campaign. She and nine other nurses served with the 462nd Bombardment Group, which flew the B-29 Super Fortress planes over the Himalayas.
“Frances said they lost a lot of B-29s, either from battle or when they flew ‘over the hump,’” the biography said.
After the war, she and the other nurses chose to go home instead of staying in the Far East. They travelled back by way of Casablanca, Morocco, where they spent nearly two weeks waiting for a plane to take them home.
“She did say Casablanca was nothing like the movie — a very drab city,” the biography said. “She never did find Rick’s Cafe Americain.”
Back home, she worked for a time as a nurse in Boston. That’s where she met Athill Banks, a potato farmer from Mars Hill who traveled south for eye surgery. They married, and she lived for many years in a little log cabin in the woods and potato fields, Jordan said.
There was a pond in front that was stocked with trout.
“Her tradition with all overnight guests was to send them out with one of her fly-fishing poles, teach them how to cast, and then fried up the trout that they caught for their breakfast,” she said.
In Mars Hill, the Bankses lived close to nature — sometimes a little too close for comfort.
“The back of the cabin was wooded, and bears often visited her,” Jordan said. “One day, she had left her door open and one walked right inside. She strongly told him to leave.”
The cabin, tiny and rustic, was decorated with bear skins hanging on the walls, but Banks had a taste for elegant things, too. Her everyday dishes were pink Mason’s Vista china from England, that her niece described as “exquisite.”
“I fell in love with them and have collected them ever since,” Jordan said.
About eight years ago, when her aunt had tired of living alone in Mars Hill and decided to be closer to her family in Cape Elizabeth, she emptied out her cabin and moved south. She told Jordan she had set aside a box in the garage with her name on it, and in it was the best piece of that china, a covered casserole dish.
“She didn’t say, as she was probably 92 at the time, ‘here’s something to remember me by.’ But I understood. A classy lady, through and through,” Jordan said.
Banks was a nurse, but her family also knew her as a teacher “of all things” and relied on her guidance and wisdom. Something she said long ago — “You are the driver, and always have to be responsible for your actions,” has stuck with her niece.
“Those words have long guided me,” Jordan said. “You are solely responsible for your own actions — you can’t place blame on anyone else.”