Virginia-born Mary Vivian Aston (1888–1959) studied at the Institute of Music Art in New York and the Newcomb School of Music in New Orleans. In 1918, she was head of the Vocal Department and director of the Girls’ Glee Club at Mansfield (PA) Normal School (later Mansfield University). The school’s 1918 Carontawan yearbook referred to her “soft Southern voice [that] has charmed us all” (27).
She headed overseas in summer 1918 for YMCA canteen work. Margaret McGill, who led a unit of female war workers associated with colleges such as Bryn Mawr and Mount Holyoke, explained that Aston became an informal member of the unit after the death of unit member Elizabeth Russell (“News from Our Workers Abroad” 38). McGill’s account in the Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly, “Bits of War Work in Three Countries,” provided some details on Aston’s service. Because of the need for canteen workers in England, Aston first was assigned to the Lord Street Canteen for US service members in Liverpool (dates seem to indicate that she was there at the same time as Ithaca, NY’s Agnes Yutzey). McGill quotes Lady Ward (aka American Jean Templeton Reid) that it was important to have “the right kind of American women” (225) working in England to strengthen relations between the two countries. McGill indicates that she and Aston also assisted with the care of those suffering from influenza.
Next, Aston and McGill were sent to Diekirch, Luxembourg, as the first female YMCA workers in the country and set up a canteen at the Hotel de l’Europe. Until their arrival, there was nowhere for US servicemen to go to unwind. McGill stated that the hotel’s cafe was converted to the canteen’s “living-room”:
The tables were used for papers and magazines and drinking cocoa; the old counter over which beer and schnapps had doubtless passed so often was used for the cocoa service. On the counter, when it was not the cocoa hour, our daily papers were stacked. . . . . Chicago Tribune was first in favor—the 33rd [Infantry Division] was the Illinois National Guard Division; the London Daily Mail was second choice; and the [New York] Herald the least popular. The piano in the corner . . . was in constant use. Miss Aston was a very pleasing accompanist . . . (227)
Other features of the canteen were an “ancient” billiard table and a room where servicemembers could write letters home. McGill noted that Thursday was “doughnut day,” and Sunday night was “fudge night.” She stated:
Miss Aston established a cocoa circuit. Many towns in the neighborhood of Diekirch and Ettelbruch had no service from American women war workers; so on certain afternoons of each week, she took a cocoa serving equipment and gave them one pleasant change from the dreariness of their daily routine, with an American woman to talk with and American cocoa to drink. (228)
McGill noted that Aston was later transferred to Coblenz (where the US army of occupation was stationed). As a letter from the YMCA makes clear, the YMCA had a negative reputation with 33rd Division servicemembers until the work of Aston, McGill, and their colleagues changed the division’s opinion.
Aston (along with Ithaca’s Yutzey) returned to the United States on the Mobile in September 1919; this newspaper article indicates that they attended a dance in honor of the returned 1st Division and the female YMCA workers who were providing services to the division. In 1921, Aston headed the vocal department at the Dramatic Art Studio in Glendale, CA. In late 1922, she toured with the Apollo Concert Company. She later was a music instructor for many years at Southwest Junior College (now Southwest Mississippi Community College). Her nephew was film and TV director Will Price, who was the second husband of actress Maureen O’Hara.