5/25/2019 7:30:00 AM Mary Elizabeth DeCanter (Cirilli)
Mary Elizabeth DeCanter (Cirilli) - June 1924-May 2019
Why celebrate the adventures and accomplishments of Mary DeCanter? As Mary herself often said when someone might wonder why she was jumping into yet another endeavor . . .why not? Indeed, one of her friends dubbed her, "Mary Why Not!" Mary lived a lifetime of spirited and purposeful activity at which we who are her family and friends can only marvel.
Mary's grand journey began when she was born in 1924 - when Calvin Coolidge was president, when "Rhapsody in Blue" premiered, when astronomer Edwin Hubble announced the existence of galaxies beyond our own, and when new milestones in aviation were constantly being reached, including the first round-the-world flights (performed by the U.S. Army), and the beginning of regular air mail service in the U.S. Mary was the fourth of eight children born to Emma (Lassig) and Charles DeCanter in the North Woods of Wisconsin, where her immigrant grandparents had homesteaded a beautiful farm. Little did her mother Emma-one of 15 children raised on the farm-know that Mary would not only experience the joys of farm life, but would also go on to college, to travel the world, and to touch innumerable lives in so many positive ways.
But let's start at the beginning. Mary was creative and artistic from a young age. She even perfected her handwriting into a flowing calligraphy. But she was also practical and determined. A teacher and 4-H club leader inspired Mary to earn her 4-H pins by baking, sewing and entering projects in the county fair. She could always recite the 4-H pledge: "I pledge my head to clearer thinking. My heart to greater loyalty. My hands to larger service and my health to better living for my club, my God and my country." She did not just speak these words; she lived by them.
Mary's early years were also shaped by a special gift from her beloved paternal grandfather, who promised her an airplane ride for her twelfth birthday. From that time, Mary never stopped reaching for the skies. For a time, she thought that being a stewardess would give her that opportunity, but in 1943 one could not become a stewardess without first becoming a nurse. Not to be deterred, Mary hopped on a train after graduating from high school at 17, and traveled to Chicago to enter nurses training at Michael Reese Hospital.
With World War II in progress, Mary joined the Cadet Nurse Corps during her training, always maintaining her positive and energetic style. Her Director of Nursing even told her that she was just too "effervescent." Never one to let others slow her down, she kept pursuing her passion for air travel, and in her junior year of nursing she went to United Airlines to inquire about a stewardess position. They turned her down on the grounds that she was too short, wore glasses, and was needed on the war front. Well, there wasn't much to be done about the first two objections, but once the war ended, Mary returned home and continued with flying lessons while taking a job as a camp nurse. She did not even have a driver's license yet; an older sister drove her to the lessons as she learned to pilot an airplane before she learned to drive a car.
After marrying a "home-town boy," Geno Cirilli, Mary moved to Los Angeles, built a home and had two children, Gina and Todd. The family next moved to San Francisco so Geno could attend Podiatry College while Mary worked at St Luke's Hospital. When Geno's studies were over, the family moved again to Corvallis, Oregon so that Geno could establish his practice there as the first podiatrist in Corvallis. Mary worked at the Oregon State University (OSU) Student Health Infirmary for 10 years. Her flying days were interrupted for a time, but Mary always had other passions to keep her busy.
She was elected President of the District Six Oregon Nurses Association and also State Secretary. In a national contest sponsored by Schering Pharmaceuticals, she was chosen as one of five in the nation as "Oregon's Most Involved Nurse." Her community involvement with local youth groups and environmental protection efforts brought national attention, and were featured in a short film shown at the White House and on Oregon Public Broadcasting.
ZONTA, an international women's service club, invited Mary to become a member. Never content to sit idly by while watching the work of others, she became the Chair of the Status of Women and Public Affairs Committee. Later, as President, she became involved in opposing a bypass at the edge of the Corvallis riverfront downtown. She felt that access to a water area was vital for the livability of a community. While President, she attended a ZONTA Convention in Florida and met Amelia Earhart's sister Muriel. Muriel gave her three signed books titled "Courage is the Price," which Mary treasured. She donated one to the Corvallis library and one to the OSU library as inspiration for other young women.
Mary was always drawn to others who were as active and passionate as she was. Her friendship with the OSU Professor of Landscape Architecture and his wife who were also involved in environmental issues brought an invitation to backpack with OSU students to Northern Europe one summer. The next summer the trip was to South America, with other trips to follow, to Japan, Nepal, Thailand and India, studying the local cultures and environments while helping to keep the students healthy as they traveled.
Eventually Mary moved to Independence, Oregon. She continued her nursing career with a job at the Western Oregon University Health Service, and worked 10 years there, again enjoying caring for students. When Mary retired she cast about for other ways to help young people, including as a volunteer for the national organization known as CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate), which partners with volunteers to provide a voice and a connection for neglected and abused children navigating their way through many challenges.
Through all of this time, Mary never lost her passion for flying. Independence Oregon happened to be the terminus of the annual "Palms to Pines" air race, which ran for 40 years and was the longest-running all-female air race. The group invited Mary to host several women pilots. Enthused, Mary bought a plane, an Ercoupe, and reinstated her pilots license. The following year she was co-pilot with a pilot from San Diego. The Ninety-Nines (a national women's flying group started by Amelia Earhart, and originally comprised of 99 women pilots) encouraged Mary to start a Ninety-Nines Chapter in the Independence area. She became the first Chair of the Oregon Pines Chapter and continued to be an active member encouraging young people to get involved in aviation. She joined the Oregon Pilot's Association and was soon chosen as the local chapter president and State secretary.
Mary also became president of the local Ercoupe Owners Club. At an Ercoupe reunion at Fort Collins, she met the designer of the Ercoupe. In addition, she was asked to join the local Flying Farmers organization and became secretary, Queen, and Woman of the Year of that organization. But her biggest thrill was during an Oregon Pilot's Convention when she was chosen "Oregon Pilot of the Year." The award was a walnut-carved model of her Ercoupe handed to her by pioneering test pilot Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than sound!
A pilot friend, Andy, asked her, "What about flying the Oregon Trail to celebrate the centennial?" Yes, Mary thought that would be exciting. So, as co-founder and registrar, Mary formed a group with Andy and gathered 30 planes to fly the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Independence, Oregon. That trip evolved into many historic trail flights for more than 20 summers which included the Lewis and Clark Trail; The Applegate Trail; The Whoop-up Trail into Canada; the Santa Fe Trail; Chisholm Trail; Old Spanish Trail; The Gold Rush and Donner Pass Trail, and others. These historic flights averaged 10-20 planes and drivers with pilots from various parts of the U.S. and Canada. They have enjoyed camaraderie at each historic stop creating lifelong friendships.
Mary didn't just fly airplanes. A friend who was planning to celebrate her 50th birthday by parachuting from an airplane asked Mary if she was interested in coming along. This was on Mary's bucket list, so at 77 years young, she jumped out of an airplane!
Another friend introduced Mary to Colonel Lawrence Lahm. Larry shared Mary's zest for learning and exploring, and they found enduring love living in her home overlooking the Willamette River. During the 17 years they shared, the pair traveled to West Point, Paris, Venice, Hawaii, and College Park, Maryland - where Larry's father (the nation's first military aviator) learned to fly from Wilbur and Orville Wright.
With so much going on in her life, Mary always found time to show her family that they were her real priority. She trekked back to Rhinelander, where her stories began, for the annual family reunion each July to catch up with her siblings and many cousins. She sent impromptu cards and articles when she couldn't visit in person. And she delighted in watching and helping her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren reach for their highest potential, just as she always did. She will be greatly missed by all who knew and loved her, including her daughter Gina and Gina's husband Walt; Gina's daughter Tara and Tara's son Brody; Gina's son Todd, his wife Medley, and their daughter Mae; and Mary's son Todd and his sons Jonathan and Christopher.
Mary may have been "too short" to become a stewardess, but her stature in the community was tall indeed, and those who knew her looked up to her with the highest regard. Of her life, she remarked, "My skies were CAVU (Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited), with a few clouds occasionally-but I flew through them."
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Mary's last flight will be this summer, when her ashes are brought to Rhinelander to rest in the DeCanter family plot.
If you'd like to do something to commemorate Mary's life, please consider a donation to Frederick Place (www.nathnorthwoods.com) in Rhinelander (compassionate temporary housing built at the site of Mary's mother's former home); to a worthy environmental group of your choice; or to CASA or another group that advances the interests of children everywhere.
One more way to honor Mary's legacy . . . live a life full of kind and thoughtful purpose.
A Celebration of Life will be held at 3 p.m. June 22 at the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) hangar, Independence Airport.
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