Eila Rousseau, who with her late husband, Bob, owned and operated Mt. Shasta’s Finlandia! Motel for more than three decades, died Friday, October 5, 2018 at home in Shasta Lake City. She was 90.
An emigrant from Finland, Eila was gregarious and generous. She loved to swap stories and was adept at injecting humor even into tales of woe. Eila was the perfect innkeeper; her warm nature brought her lifelong friends and loyal customers who returned year after year to the Finlandia! to share in her and Bob’s company.
A hard and reliable worker, Eila was especially accomplished at the traditional handicrafts of weaving, knitting, embroidery, and sewing that she learned growing up on a small farm in the Karelia region of eastern Finland that is now part of Russia.
Eila Esteri Halonen was born December 24, 1927 in Muolaa, Finland, the second youngest of eight children. On the night of November 30, 1939, when Eila was 11 and the temperature was 40 below zero, her family escaped the advancing Soviet Army. They had carefully packaged their traditional costumes, leaving them for one of the older sons to collect, but he was too late: Everything left behind was burned to disrupt the Red Army’s march. During the family's journey by sleigh West towards Helsinki, Eila’s newborn nephew died; her father became ill and never recovered.
In 1942, during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, Eila, her mother, and younger brother managed to return to their farm to rebuild. They brought her father’s body home to re-bury. Because men were in short supply due to the war, the regional government lent Soviet POWs to the Finnish farmers as day laborers. A 14-year-old Eila, armed with a pistol, was charged with picking up the Soviet prisoners to deliver to the farms and then bringing them back to the local jail at night.
Eila and her family had to evacuate again in 1944 when a treaty ceded the eastern part of Finland to the Soviet Union. This time they traveled west with their farm animals on a cow train. At every whistle stop Eila and her cousin milked the cows to fill the buckets brought by people meeting the train.
Settled as evacuees on a farm outside Helsinki, Eila’s family could not afford to send her to high school. Instead, she moved in with an older sister in Helsinki who had lost her arm during the war. The family had an uncle in Berkeley, California who agreed to sponsor her for American citizenship. The paperwork would take three years.
Meanwhile, Eila attended Hotel and Restaurant School at the Hotel Torni in Helsinki, where she later worked as a waitress during the 1952 Summer Olympics. That December, she arrived in the US.
Eila’s first job in the Bay Area was decorating the Claremont Hotel for Christmas. She eventually secured a union job as a waitress at the Showboat Restaurant in Oakland’s Jack London Square.
It was at the renowned Ali Baba Dance Hall on Grand Avenue in downtown Oakland where Eila Halonen met Robert Rousseau in 1954. He was a contractor from the Peninsula. In Bob, Eila found her dancing partner.
A WWII vet who had served in France and Belgium as a tail-gunner in the US Army Air Corps, Bob was instantly smitten. He asked Eila to go for burgers. Within a year, they had eloped to Reno, flown to New York, sent telegrams notifying their families that they were married, and embarked on a four-month honeymoon to Europe.
Bob met Eila’s family in Finland. Eila met Bob’s war friends in Belgium. They bought an Izeta car at the factory in Kiel, Germany, and tooled around France. They shipped the tiny car with the steering wheel on the door across the Atlantic, but Bob flipped it on an icy road in Colorado. He was speeding, rushing to get home to Oakland in time to file his 1955 taxes.
Eila and Bob were living in Belmont, CA when their two children, Robert John and Kathleen Anna, were born.
In 1966 the family moved to Mount Shasta, and while Bob was building their 14-unit motel, Eila worked as a waitress at The Lamplighter. The Finlandia! opened in 1968. Bob finished a house for the family in 1982 and added 10 more units in 1995.
The family’s ties to the community remain strong. Eila was a past president of the Siskiyou Women’s Service Club. John and Kathy attended Mount Shasta schools through high school. The family attended St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, where in 1989 Kathy married her husband, Tom Elmendorf. Kathy and seven girlfriends she has known since kindergarten celebrated their 50th birthdays together in Hawaii.
In 2000, Eila and Bob retired to Shasta Lake City. After Bob’s death in 2001, Eila became digitally savvy enough to be in constant contact with family in Finland, who loved her dearly. Younger generations came to visit often, even though she had left her homeland more than a half century earlier. Her warmth and empathy even extended to the Kardashians, reacting as a friend to their televised ups and downs.
Eila had a wry sense of humor, an accent she occasionally thickened at will, and often broke into Finnish song, even to her very last days. She recalled events significant in her life by the outfits she had worn and the company she kept.
She is survived by her son, Robert John Rousseau, of Shasta Lake City, daughter Kathleen Rousseau and son-in-law Thomas Elemendorf of Oakland, grandson Robert Elmendorf of Farmington, CT, granddaughter Kayla Elmendorf of Oakland, sister-in-law Raija Halonen of Lahti, Finland, numerous nieces, nephews and extended family in Finland.
Eila was buried beside Bob on October 9, 2018 at Mount Shasta Memorial Park, after a Funeral Mass at St. Anthony’s.