Chimzar “shook hands with history”

by Tom Coombe -

Catherine Chimzar liked to say that she “shook hands with history.”
Many current and former residents may likely remember Chimzar, who passed away this week at the age of 93, from her 30 years as a secretary in the office at Ely Memorial High School.
More recently, Chimzar was a fixture at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, attending mass on a daily basis and sitting in her usual pew before moving away in 2012.
Only now, in the wake of her death, are more people, even family members. learning of Chimzar’s years in Washington, D.C.
The young lady who not long before boarded a train for a new adventure, wound up sipping tea with Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House, attending a party with civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., and even was followed at times by the Secret Service.
Chimzar, who worked for the federal government during and after World War II and gained high-level security clearances through her work with the NASA space agency, largely kept her experiences to herslf.
“People could keep secrets in those days,” said Diana Mavetz Petrich, Chimzar’s niece. “I think when she got back she never really talked about what she had worked on and just got used to not talking about it. One day I asked her when we went to lunch “what did you do in Washington?” and she opened up. I was talking to my sisters and brother and cousins and they asked me how I knew this. They didn’t know. Katie was one in a million. She was one in 10 million.”
Affectionately known as Katie, Chimzar, a 1941 Ely Memorial High School graduate, attained a perfect score on a U.S. Civil Service examination.
It resulted in a letter from the government offering her a position in the nation’s capital.
“Here she was, 18 years old, and the farthest she had been was Duluth,” said Petrich.
Chimzar started with a job at the Pentagon, working, in her words “in the bowels” of the nation’s military headquarters.
She would eventually gain the highest security clearance awarded a civilian and attracted a hand-engraved invitation to afternoon tea at the White House.
“It was almost like a celebration of women,” said Petrich. “There weren’t many women in these positions and Eleanor Roosevelt was really a forward-thinking woman and she invited Katie and several other women who worked in the Pentagon.”
At the initial tea, Chimzar and the First Lady “hit it off,” Petrich said, and the Ely native was invited for additional tea parties at the White House.
Through her work, Chimzar also met the best friend of Coretta Scott King, which resulted in an invitation to a birthday party for a man who now has a national holiday in his hame.
Chimzar told her niece about King’s strong handshake and the time he spent with her at the celebration.
“She said he was very friendly,” Petrich said. “She said he was smaller in stature than what she thought he would be. He was very personable. Katie said ‘I don’t know if he purposely spent more time to make me more comfortable, but I felt very welcomed by him.”
Petrich continued: “I asked Katie ‘how did you feel?’ She said I was the only non-colored person there yet it was so nice to be able to talk to people who came from different backgrounds.’ She found it so interesting.”
Chimzar worked for NASA as the space race was heating up, and her position made her ripe to be contacted by foreign agents, prompting Secret Service surveillance.
“She would frequently have the Secret Service follow her after work,” said Petrich. “She said ‘they weren’t worried I would do something. They were worried people would find out what I did.’”
Chimzar never married and had her own career path in Washington, but Ely beckoned once her parents became ill and she returned home to care for them, first taking a job at an Ely bank then joining the Ely School District in 1959.
For 30 years, she directed the high school office and made her impression on hundreds of Ely students.
“You can go on the Ely Minnesota Remember When site on Facebook and see the comments,” said Petrich. “She knew more than she let on. She was just so giving, always upbeat, always positive, always interested.”
Chimzar was a devoted aunt to numerous nieces and nephews and a devout Catholic as well, leading the rosary at St. Anthony’s and serving as a Eucharistic minister.
“At one point in her life she was going to be a nun,” said Petrich.
But Chimzar answered a different calling and made her mark, not only in Washington but her family as well.
“She always just wanted to believe the best in people,” said Petrich. “When one bases their life on that thinking it’s amazing how you can live a happy life.”
Chimzar spent her final years in the Twin Cities area, closer to family. keeping her mind sharp by completing newspaper crossword puzzles and word jumbles and continuing to keep track of family.
The daughter of Slovenian immigrants, Chimzar is survived by a younger brother, a sister-in-law and numerous nieces, nephews, grand nieces and grand nephews. Funeral services are set for Saturday at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church.