Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Two Indomitable Greenwich Women

Today we honor two women of Greenwich, one a fearless aviator and WASP during World War II, the other a woman who served in local government at a time when few women did or could. The timing seems right for both since this month we will be commemorating Veterans Day and also since this month we go to the polls to elect city officials.

At the Greenwich Library Oral History Project, we are thankful to our volunteers who make the Project possible. And our blog writers are among our valued volunteers. 

This month we recognize two of our writers, Joseph Campbell, who has been contributing blog posts for more than a year, and new to our members is Noor Rekhi of Greenwich Academy. She contributes her first post this month as our Oral History Project student blogger.

We are grateful to them both. Jean P. Moore, OHP blog editor

Noor Rekhi, student blogger
 We begin with Joseph Campbell’s post: 

Gloria Whitton Heath in uniform,
World War II
Greenwich has had many famous residents throughout its history. One of these was a woman named Gloria Whitton Heath(1922-2018). Ms. Heath became a pioneer in women in aviation and a leader in post World War II international aviation safety. Interviewed in 2012 by volunteer Janet T. Klion, Ms. Heath’s story begins in college, the literal start of her journey in aviation.

The first steps of the journey were taken thanks to her brother, Royal Vale Heath, Jr., who had joined an aviation cadet program. He invited Ms. Heath to visit him at college for a flight with his instructor. She accepted—and became hooked on flying. When Ms. Heath went back to her school, she spoke with a pilot instructor about taking flying lessons. He told her to get together with her friends and buy a plane. He would then teach them to fly, so Ms. Heath and her friends did just that. They gathered the required contributions and assured the college they would not all die in a crash. They painted the plane in school colors to gain more support, and up they went learning to fly. Ms. Heath managed to earn her license and to graduate, no easy feat, she notes in her interview. 

Ms. Heath graduated in 1939. The war in Europe had begun, and on December 7, 1941, with the Japanese Empire attack on the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, America, too, was in it. 

England, having been at war for several years, saw women taking on a larger role in the military and civilian sectors. This included training women pilots to ferry aircraft from the factories to the airfields, freeing up male pilots for combat. Nancy Harkness Love, whose husband was the head of the US Military Air Transport Service, got a group of American women pilots together prior to American involvement in the war, and they went to England to help with transporting aircraft.  

When America entered the war, the idea of women flying warplanes was floated past commander of the Army Air Corps, General Hap Arnold, who was skeptical of women flying. Eventually, though, under the guidance of Jacqueline Cochran, the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) was formed.

In her interview Ms. Heath discusses how training for these new women pilots began in Texas, where they took the same air cadet training program that the men took under the same conditions with only slight modifications. Ms. Heath points out, for example, a higher standard required for women: If a male cadet failed a flight check, he could still go on to fly as a bombardier or as a navigator. A woman cadet, however, was not given the same opportunity. One failed flight check, and she was out.

Under such conditions, with little support from the men and initially even without official military uniforms, these amazing women began their air cadet training. They may have been WASPs, but they were not technically part of the military. They may have held second lieutenant bars and were thus saluted, but they could not salute back. Ms. Heath talks about how they winked in response when enlisted men saluted them. 

But without doubt, they were committed to the serious business at hand. During the war there were 1,100 WASP members serving the country. Thirty-five of them died in service. 

In her interview Ms. Heath goes into detail about the problems they faced. In addition to the discrimination, there were also professional rivalry, jealousy, and fear, fear that these trained women would take jobs away from their male counterparts vying for jobs in aviation after the war. 

Ms. Heath describes the battles that were fought in Congress and the War Department for recognition of their wartime efforts as aviators. She points out that after the war the US government sealed the records of the WASPs. In an effort to counter the cover-up, the WASPs formed their own association to protect their interests. She notes that one of their alumnae groups made films to get the word out that WASPs indeed had flown planes during the war for the Air Force.  

The WASPs were in existence for a little more than a year, but it was an important one for women in aviation. During that time they overcame many hurdles and became role models for the women who would follow in their footsteps. In time their achievements were duly recognized: Gloria Heath and the WASP fliers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but not until 2010.

Ms. Heath’s contributions in aviation didn’t end with the disbanding of the WASPs. After the war, she became a leader in the field of aviation safety and search and rescue and wrote a manual on how to ditch an aircraft in water.

Gloria Whitton Heath died in 2018, leaving a lasting legacy. Her contributions in the field of aviation and to the women who followed are significant. It is with pride that we honor her on Veterans Day.
Gloria Whitton Heath
[Gloria Whitton Heath’s interview, Pioneer in Women’s Aviation and Flight Safety(2012), by Janet T. Klion, can be read on the first floor of the library in the reference area.]

Student blogger Noor Rekhi writes this month about Florence Cross, who worked for many years in Greenwich government as secretary and then as executive for the town’s selectmen. She was interviewed on two occasions in 1977 by OHP volunteerMarian Phillips.

Here is Noor Rekhi’s blog post based on these interviews:

Florence Cross started working as a secretary to the First Selectman in the 1950s and held that position for over two decades. During that time she built strong relationships with many first selectmen, learned valuable life lessons, and had a great impact on Greenwich. But any commentary on her years of public service would be incomplete without reference to her relationship with and admiration for Agnes Morley, another woman who was dedicated to Greenwich and who worked in government for many years to improve our town.
Florence Cross
 Ms. Cross entered government at a time when not only the number of women in the public sector was sparse, but also during a period when it was less common for women to work. Nevertheless, Ms. Cross pursued a career, and after meeting Jack Gleason, Greenwich’s first chief administrator, she set her sights on town government. While originally she was offered a job in the Department of Parks and Recreation, Ms. Cross was determined to be a part of the Office of the First Selectman.

It was in this office that she expanded her knowledge of politics and became well-versed in town affairs. In fact, on two occasions she was the acting chief administrator of Greenwich. Her dedication and commitment to local government are impressive and inspiring; she often left the office at night, working long hours without overtime.

One of the most prominent features of her interview is the friendship and fellowship she fostered during her tenure in the public sector. The closest of these relationships was with Agnes Morley, an engaged citizen and the Democratic selectman of Greenwich from 1965-1970. A Democrat in a Republican run administration, Ms. Morley already faced obstacles when entering public office, and being a female elected representative in a male-dominated era only exacerbated the doubts some held about her capabilities. 

Agnes Morley was frequently excluded from social gatherings thrown by her colleagues, who refused to take her or her policy plans seriously. Nevertheless, as Ms. Cross recollects, Agnes Morley persisted as a pivotal figure for the town and as a model citizen. A strong advocate for open communication and expression, she frequently took part in vigils promoting the causes she believed in. On many occasions, she stood as a role model for others to follow. Ms. Cross recollects how Ms. Morley insisted on going to the polls in a primary election, despite being sick, because she believed that everyone should take part in government. 

Ms. Cross includes another incident of Agnes Morley’s commendable character and integrity: While running for office, Ms. Morley and another man campaigned with an understanding that if they won, Morley would assume the position of the First Selectman, and he would be the other selectman. However, at a later time her running mate decided to backtrack on their agreement and attempted to take the position of First Selectman. He failed, but even so, most people would be appalled and angered if their running mate proved so untrustworthy, but not Agnes Morley. As Ms. Cross explains, “It never occurred to her to forgive him because she didn’t feel there was anyting to forgive. It was a matter of understanding.” Ms. Cross herself indicates she would not have been so understanding had she faced a similar situation. 

In the interview, Ms. Cross expresses her wish that the legacy of her friend would be remembered, saying, “I suppose in 50 years, somebody is going to say, ‘Who is Agnes Morley?’ I would hope that there will be somebody around who will know and remember.’”

Agnes Morley and Florence Cross stirred the status quo, enriched our town, and paved the path for more women in government. Thanks to the contributions of the Oral History Project, both their legacies of service and dedication can be preserved for our posterity. And as a result, they will both be remembered. 

[The Florence Cross interviews, later published as a book, Twenty-One Years at Town Hall: Oral History Interview with Florence Cross, 1978, by Marian Phillips, is available through the Greenwich Library, its branches, and the Perrot Memorial Library.]