June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

WALTER PIDGEON WASN’T SCOUTING talent when he discovered Rose Monroe on an Ypsilanti, Mich., assembly line in 1944. The Hollywood star was just doing his bit to help win World War II, making a film to plug war bonds at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory. But then he learned of a young widow named Rose, whose job it was to pound rivets into B-24 and B-29 bombers. In other words, a real, live Rosie the Riveter, the theretofore fictitious heroine of a hit song and a subsequent poster celebrating workingwomen on the home front. It was irresistible—imagine finding a postman named Zip. And so Monroe was signed for Pidgeon’s film.

Rose Monroe, who died at 77 of kidney failure in Clarksville, Ind., on May 31, wasn’t the original Rosie—another aircraft worker, New York philanthropist Rosalind P. Walter, inspired the 1942 tune. Still, Monroe seemed born to the role. One of nine children raised in Science Hill, Ky., she proved adept at carpentry, her father’s trade. After the first of her three husbands died in a car crash, she started at Willow Run, one of millions of women who showed they could wield a wrench or a welding torch as capably as any man, contributing immensely to the war effort.

When GI Joe came marching home, most women returned to domestic roles. But Monroe embodied Rosie’s self-reliance to the end. She never endorsed a line of power tools or otherwise traded on her fleeting celebrity, but eventually she started Rose Builders, a Clarksville construction firm specializing in luxury homes. “She instilled in us that there’s no job that has a woman’s or a man’s label,” says Connie Gibson, 59, Monroe’s older daughter. In her 40s, Monroe realized a lifelong dream by earning a pilot’s license, though a 1978 crash resulted in the removal of a damaged kidney, which may have hastened her death. Later she survived the drowning death of her son Troy and the loss of her third husband to leukemia and lived to see 13 great-grandchildren. “She’s a real tough act to follow,” says younger daughter Vickie Jarvis, 43. “She really is.”

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