JACKSON COUNTY, MI – Mary Elizabeth Clark may have seemed like a typical pilot. She was calm in the cockpit and elegant on the ground, her niece Mary Lee Clark said.
But there was nothing typical about a woman pilot from the 1940s to the 60s, said Mary Lee, adding that when Clark took her nieces and nephews in his Piper PA-28 Cherokee plane, the men on the radio were often surprised to hear a woman’s voice answer them.
“She took us to Dayton, Ohio one time and called the control tower,” Mary Lee said. “It was 1966, so it was pretty rare to hear a woman call as a pilot, and the guy was surprised. I mean, women couldn’t even get their own credit cards in 1966. That’s how unusual that was.
Clark, who died in 1981, would posthumously become Jackson County’s first Congressional Gold Medal recipient for her time in the Civil Air Patrol during World War II. The award, which honors civilian contributions to the country, will be presented to the family at a Civil Air Patrol ceremony July 8 at the Jackson County Airport, 3606 Wildwood Ave.
The ceremony will be an opportunity to tell people about a pioneering woman in aviation, said Mary Lee.
“I think it’s very hard for people to really understand how unusual it was for someone in their twenties in their 40s and 50s in a small town like Jackson to do what she did” , she said. “I loved that her life could serve as an example to other women.”
The honor will be accepted on behalf of the family by his niece Jennifer Clark, who found the necessary documentation to submit for the award. Congress passed legislation to create the award in 2014, and Jennifer did the heavy lifting to prove her aunt was worthy of the recognition, Mary Lee said.
“The (Jackson CAP) didn’t have any documents, but my Aunt Mary kept things,” Mary Lee said. “There were (Jackson Citizen Patriot) articles in which she is pictured. Jenny was able to provide any other documentation proving Aunt Mary was in the Civil Air Patrol during WWII.”
Clark joined the CAP in 1941 and later served during the war as a member of the American Red Cross in the Philippines, China and Japan. While at CAP Jackson, she practiced bombing techniques that could be used for targeted drops of emergency supplies, performed guard duties at the airport, conducted aerial inspections of the city, and towed targets on the back of planes so others can practice firing live ammunition.
The CAP was not part of the US Army Air Core, the predecessor of the US Air Force, until April 1943, and it was friendlier to women than the military branches, Mary Lee said.
“It was probably the only armed service that didn’t discriminate against women in World War II,” she said.
After Clark’s time in the war, she returned to Jackson, but her love for flying never waned. She earned her pilot’s license and commercial rating, owned racing planes, and was Jackson’s first pilot to compete in the transcontinental women’s air race known as the “Powder Puff Derby.”
On his white convertible, Clark had a little sticker on the bumper that read “I’d rather fly,” Mary Lee said. While showing off the flash seen in many pilots, Clark had a calm and sarcastic demeanor in the air, Mary Lee said.
“I remember going to that area of Ohio and saying to Aunt Mary, ‘What does it mean when it’s no trespassing,'” Mary Lee said. “And she just said, ‘Oh, we could be shot. “”
Clark spent four decades flying through glass ceilings in aviation, creating regional and national air races and setting a speed record in 1966, according to Jackson CAP officials. She was also a life member of the 99, an organization for female pilots.
Clark had 15 nieces and nephews, and they are all proud of Aunt Mary’s contributions to aviation to date, Mary Lee said.
“She gave all of us nieces a vision of what women could do in the world from our very sheltered lives in Jackson,” she said.
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