Following the Impossible Dream

I first met Shutzy Reynolds two years ago.  I interviewed her for a Memorial Day story and she had a tremendous impact on my life.  I cherish the meaning behind the silver wings she gave me to inspire my daughter, Ally. So when I was asked by Gladys Magazine to write an article for them about an inspirational woman I knew exactly on whom I was going to focus. So here is some inspirational reading for this snowy weekend. Enjoy!

Following the Impossible Dream

for Gladys Magazine

by: Michelle Wright

Her legacy is woven of dreams and determination and Florence Shutsy-Reynolds continues inspiring women everywhere.

“Anything is possible if you just fight for it. If it’s the right thing to do and you have a dream, go for it.  I dreamed of flying.  My dream expanded far beyond what I initially thought and women today can do the same thing.” she said with the sparkle of perseverance still bright in her eyes.

“Shutsy”, as she’s called (pronounced Shoot-see),  knows something about turning an impossible dream into a reality.  She’s about to celebrate her 88th birthday, but when I ask her about her dream of flying, a lifetime of memories come flooding back.

“To fly those beautiful airplanes? Heavens!  That was a dream. That was a dream that was beyond my wildest expectations. That’s enough to make your heart soar.”  Shutsy said with a deep breath.

Shutsy sat down with Gladys Magazine in her humble Connellsville, Pennsylvania home to share her amazing story of courage and perseverance.  It wasn’t easy. The government hid her WWII service to her country, people accused her of lying about flying for the military- that’s something women didn’t do- and she often felt like a second-class citizen. But she kept her dreams alive and her head held high and a lifetime later Congress finally acknowledged her service and presented her with the Congressional Gold Medal.

But to appreciate Shutsy’s story you need to start at the beginning, so we chatted at the very same kitchen table where it all began.  That’s where she was sitting when she told her family at age 7 that she was going to be a pilot. Her sister and two brothers laughed at her dream, but she says her parents were very supportive, adding that’s probably because they realized it was impossible.  It was 1929 and there were two insurmountable problems standing in her way. First, flying was very expensive and Shutsy’s family didn’t have much money.  But the real obstacle was because she was a woman and piloting a plane just wasn’t something women did.

But Shutsy was determined not to let those two things hold her back.  Just after high school graduation she heard about the government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program at the Connellsville Airport.  She enrolled and earned the second highest exam score which earned her a full scholarship.  That’s when her first bit of turbulence began for being a woman.  Some program administrators wanted to take away her scholarship and instead give it to a man because the need was growing to prepare combat pilots for an impending war … but Shutsy fought back. She kept writing letters demanding she get what she earned until she finally secured her spot.

“It made me feel like a second class citizen. But my parents didn’t raise me to be a second class citizen. They raised me to be a fighter. So I fought for it! ” She said.

Shutsy was awarded her pilots license in 1941. Soon after, she heard about a new program starting up called WASP.  It stood for Women Airforce Service Pilots and they would be the first female military pilots. It was designed to free up male pilots for combat in World War II.   Since there weren’t enough male pilots left in the states to move aircraft to bases across the country or service the planes, the government had no choice but to allow women to do the job.  Shutsy couldn’t be more excited about the thought of serving her country and flying a plane … but she was three years too young.  Once again, she wasn’t about to let another obstacle stand in the way of her dreams. So she tracked down the WASP founder — cosmetics company mogul Jacqueline Cochran — and wrote a letter to her every single day until Cochran agreed to lower the age.  To this day, Shutsy is convinced it was her barrage of letters that got her in.

Shutsy wasn’t the only woman who offered her service.  25,000 women applied to join WASP but only 1,830 were accepted and only 1,074 graduated. Shutsy was one of the proud graduates.

After graduation she was constantly in the air and loving it but things started to get discouraging. Even though Shutsy said the government promised to make the WASP fully enlisted in the military, the government now decided to classify them as civilians fearing a public backlash about women doing men’s work.  But she says the work they were doing was far too dangerous to be classified as civilian. 38 WASP were killed during missions but the government refused to honor their service.  Uncle Sam refused to even pay for their burial expenses. Shutsy recalls friend and fellow WASP Beverly Moses’ death. She was on a mission when the plane she was in crashed. The men onboard who lost their lives received proper recognition but the government didn’t acknowledge Moses.

“When Beverly was killed we took up a collection to ship her body home. She wasn’t allowed to have a flag on her coffin.  She never had a memorial service. No flag on her gravesite. ” Shutsy recalled.  “The word in Washington was ‘Don’t talk about what the WASP did because next thing you know they’ll want to take these jobs and if somebody hires them — all they have to do is hire one or two– and they’ll break the ceiling. Then we’ll have women on our hands wanting to come into the military.’  So they buried our records.”

Still, Shutsy passionately served her country.   For two years women flew missions for the United States until the war started coming to an end. That’s when the public started demanding for women to give up their jobs to make way for returning servicemen.

“They’d say ‘Go home. Quit your job.  Guys are coming home from the war. You were there to release them not replace them.’  That was the battle cry,”   She continued,  ” ‘Go home. Scrub the kitchen.  Have a family. Go back.’  But women never went back after the war.  We broke that boundary and life has never been the same since.”

When the war ended Congress quietly dissolved the WASP organization.  Because the government refused to to acknowledge her service,  Shutsy said it was hard to find work.

“It was after the war and I was trying to get a job. I’d say I flew military aircraft and they’d say  ‘yeah sure.’  So we all changed it and said we had a defense job. To say you flew military aircraft nobody would believe you. It made me feel bad as hell.” But she adds, “I proved that I could do it.  I proved to myself that I could do it. What everybody else thought, I couldn’t care less.”

Shutsy bounced around a bit after WASP.  She took a job in Winston-Salem, NC as a chief dispatcher with the AAF. Then she took a job in Alaska as a Link Operator.  When she was on her way to Anchorage, she went on a blind date. Lyle Reynolds was a Navy Reservist headed to work in the Panama Canal Zone. They hit it off and kept in touch.  Six years later, in 1952, he sent her a plane ticket to come visit. The old chemistry was still there and before her trip was over they were making wedding plans.

She and Lyle lived in Panama for 16 years and even though she wasn’t flying anymore her desire to learn continued.  In her spare time, she soaked up every bit of knowledge she could from the Panamanians: welding, silver soldering, splicing cable, airbrushing, and furniture refinishing.   She also perfected her silversmith skills in Mexico where she visited often.  She says that is another important lesson for women today.  Never stop learning new things.  She says it’s important to prepare yourself for what might lie ahead in life.

“Get a good education.  The more schooling you have the better you’ll do. That’s what the secret is.” she insisted, “You make your own life.”

Shutsy and Lyle had returned to Connellsville by then to care for her ailing mother after her father died.  They opened up a custom jewelry store and all of those talents she learned in her spare time turned into another passion.

In the late 1970’s the government announced it would start accepting women into the military for the first time. That caused an outcry by WASP members who had stayed quiet all these years.  In 1977 she got word that she had waited on for so long.  Congress was going to officially acknowledge the WASP’s service. Finally she would get the two medals she deserved. The American Campaign and the Victory Medal came in the mail seven years later.

In 1989 she lost her dear Lyle.  Now a widow,  Shutsy didn’t stop working. She turned their custom jewelry shop into a factory for WASP memorabilia.  To this day, she produces airbrushed flags, silver wings pins, rings, and charms of the WASP symbol.  She donates the profits to WASP to keep their courageous stories alive.

But Shutsy’s dream of flying would again exceed her expectation.  When Astronaut Eileen Collins went to space as the shuttle pilot she wanted to take some women’s aviation artifacts with her.  In addition to taking a scarf that belonged to Amelia Earhart and Bobbi Trout’s original license, Collins requested a set of WASP wings to represent all women… so Shutsy handcrafted WASP wings for space.

In early 2010, Shutsy heard the news that left her stunned.  Congress was going to honor all the WASP and present them with a Congressional Gold Medal. This time it wouldn’t come in the mail but would instead be delivered in person at an official service at the U.S. Capitol.

“I never expected it. Never in my wildest dreams did I figure we’d get any recognition. Do you realize it was 67 years?” she said.

After a lifetime of waiting, Florence Shutsy-Reynolds and 200 other WASPs were each presented the Congressional Gold Medal. It was one of  the largest gatherings ever inside the Capitol Building and was designed to make things right after almost seven decades.  These truly beautiful women didn’t serve their country for the glory but rather to selflessly give of themselves and their talents to change the world. And change the world they did, not only for women but for all mankind.

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