As promised, I did watch the Oscars Sunday night but managed to get ‘er done in just over an hour thanks to my trusty DVR. I was able to fast forward through all the commercials, lame jokes by the host, long boring acceptance speeches and the annual tribute to those in the film business who died in the last year..most of whom you’ve never heard of. Of course, the Ang Lee movie (one of the few I did NOT see) swept most of the awards. It wasn’t long until this showed up on Facebook and made me spray a sip of my screwdriver all over the computer screen.
I probably shouldn’t even mention last week’s blog about the Oscars since it didn’t bring very many comments. One of them was from my old pal, Jack, who simply wrote “Yawn.”
I first got to know Jack way back in the 70’s when he was a jet pilot with the South Dakota Air National Guard.
He was among lots of pilots and broadcasters who gathered regularly at the “Captain’s Galley” lounge for, cocktails, fun conversation, girl watching and live music. Jack eventually became a commercial airline pilot and left town only to return a few years ago to spend retirement from high atop a luxury Sioux Falls apartment building. There’s only one way I know of to get Jack back into my blog corner and that’s to write something about his first love; flying.
So here goes.
I forget the exact year but it was sometime during the mid 80’s when it was suggested that I do a story on Nellie Willhite; a little old lady in Sioux Falls who just happened to be the first licensed woman pilot in South Dakota.
She was pushing 90..I was told..but sharp as a tack. Now, I’ve heard that sort of thing a lot in my reporting days; you gotta do a story on my uncle Torvald or my grandma Esther who’s turning 100. The photographer and I go to the party and find grandma Esther propped up in a chair with hair looking like a dandelion gone to seed ..barely able to see or hear much less do an interview. They’d mostly just shade their eyes from the bright lights and say “What?” a lot. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not making fun of the elderly..especially since I am one, but most really advanced age folks aren’t quite as coherent as their kids think they are.
So, to be honest, I thought that’s what I was getting into with Nellie…especially when just as we were about to go meet her I was told that she’s deaf and had been since childhood following a bout with measles at her home near Box Elder.
Well, you’d never have known it to talk with her. She apparently retained enough hearing to get by just fine plus she had developed a lip reading ability to perfection.
Her interest in aviation began after seeing Charles Lindberg land his “Spirit of St. Louis” airplane at the Renner airport shortly after Lucky Lindy’s historic non-stop trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. Nellie took flying lessons and the very next year, at the age of 35, became the first woman pilot in the state. Her father coughed up 27 hundred dollars to buy her first aircraft; a Eaglerock bi-plane in which she became proficient enough to earn a living by barnstorming and doing aerobatics in air shows.
In the photos above, that’s young Nellie in her full flight regalia and giving rides during her barnstorming days in her very own bi-plane, “Pard,” which she flew until 1935.
She purchased the plane from another South Dakota legend aviator, Clyde Ice. Nellie also became a charter member in the “99 Club” formed by “Lady Lindy” Amelia Earhart. It was an exclusive club consisting only of pioneer women pilots in America. When I asked Nellie about Earhart, she whispered her answer saying “She was sort of a publicity machine and not that great of pilot.”
In later years, Nellie taught aviation classes and flew airmail. At the beginning of World War II, she applied to join the British Air Transport Auxiliary in Canada hoping to fly military aircraft to Europe but it didn’t work out.
In her later years, Nellie Willhite received numerous awards and honors for her aviation achievements not only in South Dakota but around the world. When she was in her early 90’s, actress Marlee Matlin..who is also hearing impared..paid her a visit to research a possible movie about Nellie but it never materialized. Matlin was so taken with this early aviatrix, though , that she bought Nellie a new digital hearing aid..which, apparently she never wore.
Nellie’s last flight was as a passenger to New York where she gathered with other surviving member’s of Amelia’s “99 Club.” She, like, Clyde Ice, survived a lot of close calls in those rickety old planes to live extraordinarily long lives. Clyde made it to 103 while Nellie didn’t fly off into the sunset until the age of 98 in 1991.
When our interview was concluded, I had to sit back for a second just to absorb the experience of meeting with this remarkable woman. As she, and her little dogs, escorted us to the door, I said how much I appreciated her sharing her story. She just smiled and said, “Come back again some time, you haven’t heard the half of it.”
Suddenly I thought of all the questions I’d neglected to ask; about her romances, her work with South Dakota’s only woman U.S. Senator, Gladys Pyle, and more about her close acquaintance with Amelia and what she thought might have happened on Earhart’s fateful around the world flight.
Nellie probably knew precisely what went wrong and I missed the scoop of the century.
(Thanks to Augustana’s Center for Western Studies for information about Nellie Willhite to help me fill-in the blanks of my memory.)