Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Faribault renames its airport in honor of WASP, Elizabeth Wall Strohfus March 4, 2017

Elizabeth Wall Strohfus, circa 1943, at Avenger Field. (Photo from family archives.)

Elizabeth Wall Strohfus, circa 1943, at Avenger Field. (Photo from family archives.)

ELIZABETH WALL STROHFUS traveled the country for nearly 30 years sharing her story of flying fighters and bombers for the U.S. military during World War II.

She served as a parade grand marshal, participated in panel discussions, talked at schools, visited museums, gave countless interviews. But not until now has she been permanently honored and recognized in her hometown of Faribault. This week the City Council approved a resolution renaming the municipal airport as The Faribault Municipal Airport—Liz Wall Strohfus Field. That resolution will be forwarded to the Federal Aviation Administration for final approval.

What an honor for a woman who faced many challenges (simply for being a woman) before and after becoming a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot. She will be the first WASP to have an airport named after her.

That’s quite an accomplishment for Strohfus, who convinced a local banker to lend her $100 to join The Sky Club at the Faribault airport. The then 22-year-old used her bike as collateral and subsequently proved to the “women don’t fly” banker that he was wrong. She could fly. And fly she did, training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, with the first class of WASPs to earn their wings. Strohfus went on to train infantry gunners for battle, teach instrument flying to male cadets and ferry B-17 and AT-6 warbirds around the country.

But when the war ended, the WASPS received no recognition for their service to country. Eventually Strohfus, after retiring as an air traffic controller in the late 1980s, began efforts to correct that. She traveled the country sharing WASP stories in her signature down-to-earth storytelling style. She successfully lobbied for the WASPs to be recognized as active military duty and for burial honors at Arlington National Cemetery. This strong and determined pilot also received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

A book about Elizabeth Strohfus written by her son Patrick Roberts. He accompanied her on speaking engagements around the country.

A book about Elizabeth Strohfus written by her son Patrick Roberts. He accompanied her on speaking engagements around the country.

Yet, despite all the accolades, all the efforts, Liz Stohfus valued one thing above all. “Her favorite thing to do was to encourage kids,” son Art Roberts revealed at the City Council meeting. His mother repeated that in the many interviews she gave, telling youth that, “The sky is not the limit.” They could, like her, do anything.

Elizabeth “Betty” Strohfus Wall died on March 6, 2016, at the age of 96. Although she did not live long enough to see her hometown airport named after her, her legacy will live on in Faribault. In addition to new signage naming Liz Wall Strohfus Field, renowned local woodcarver Ivan Whillock is creating a woodcarving to be placed inside the airport. And Roberts will be donating items belonging to his mother.

It’s a wonderful thing my community, led by the American Association of University Women—Faribault Branch, is doing in honor of Strohfus. She embodies a strong American woman who always believed she could fly.

FYI: To view an interview with Liz Strohfus, check out Faribault Community Television and its 1855—Faribault History documentary series produced by local high school students Logan Ledman and Samuel Temple. This is top-quality professional. Click here.

Of additional interest is this story from the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Click here.

Click here to read a story about how Strohfus and other WASPs were honored at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, via a theatrical production.

Learn more about that play, “Censored on Final Approach” by Phylis Ravel, by clicking here. Perhaps a Faribault-based theatre company or the History Theatre in St. Paul could consider performing that play.

Finally, click here to learn more about the National WASP WWII Museum in Sweetwater, Texas. What an honor this would be to Strohfus’ memory to bring the museum’s traveling exhibit, “The WASP: Untold Story, a Photographic Exhibit,” to Faribault.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Faribault’s famous (formerly forgotten) flier May 4, 2011

LAST WEEK DALE “RED” JACKSON joined aviators Elizabeth Wall Strohfus, Charles Lindbergh and some 150 others in the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.

If you’re like me, you are surprised to hear that our state has a hall of fame for aviators. I only recently learned that when Jackson was about to be inducted.

So who are Jackson and Strohfus and what qualifies them for an aviation honor?

They are two famous aviators with roots in my community of Faribault. Strohfus, who was inducted into the hall of fame in 2000, was a member of the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots during World War II. She taught instrument flying to male cadets and later ferried B-17 and AT-6 warbirds around the country, according to the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame website. Today she is a noted speaker.

As  for Jackson, he was a stunt pilot and barnstormer during the late 1920s and early 1930s. In July 1929, Jackson and St. Louis flyer Forrest O’Brine circled the city of St. Louis for some 420 hours, refueling 48 times in flight. That broke an aerial endurance record. Later they remained in flight for 647 hours (27 days), setting their second record.

On January 6, 1932, at the age of 25, Jackson was killed while stunt flying over Miami. Nicknamed the “Flying Fool,” Jackson had apparently been warned not to try stunts in the tiny Curtiss Teal amphibian he was piloting on that fateful day. As he tried to straighten the plane after a loop and dive, a wing tore off. Jackson died in the wreckage, reportedly with one hand hooked into the ripcord of his parachute.

When Jackson’s body arrived in Faribault by train from St. Louis, where an earlier memorial service had been held, an estimated 3,000 people gathered at the Rock Island Depot, according to a January 11, 1932, article in The Faribault Daily News.

Jackson is the single word on a tombstone marking the Jackson family graves in Section K, Lot 61, at Maple Lawn Cemetery in Faribault.

I nearly missed this in-ground marker for Dale Jackson, which lies about 12 feet from the family gravestone. I had to pull back the grass to reveal his first name and middle initial.

Dale Jackson's marker lies flush to the ground about a dozen feet from the Jackson family marker, between two cedar trees. I had expected a more opulent and noticeable gravesite.

Dale Jackson is buried here along with his parents, Henry and Josephine, and his wife, Selma. The Jackson family headstone stands between the two cedar trees to the right in this photo.

Given Jackson’s national and international notoriety in the aviation world, I wondered why I had never heard of him before last week. He was born in Iowa, moved here with his family and graduated from Faribault High School.  Faribault has not, as far as I am aware, shone the spotlight on this daring stunt pilot since his barnstorming days and untimely, sudden death.

Why?

I think he would be worthy of more than a marker, half covered with grass, in Maple Lawn Cemetery. I’m thinking tourism possibilities here.

For now, his Minnesota remembrance comes via that Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame induction last weekend. That’s a good start.

I wondered where this museum of sorts is located. After substantial googling, I discovered that an actual museum doesn’t exist. Rather the hall of fame consists of plaques honoring the inductees. Those hang in a secure section of the Duluth International Airport in an area inaccessible to the general public. Huh?

But that’s not all. Once a terminal renovation is completed at the Duluth airport in 2012, the plaques will need to be moved.

The Albert Lea City Council, in a motion passed in late January, has expressed an interest in bringing the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame to its community. No commitment. Just an interest right now.

In the meantime, if you want to check out aviators like Faribault’s Flying Fool, Dale “Red” Jackson, who have made it into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame, you best do that online or visit Maple Lawn Cemetery.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling