Beechcraft Heritage Museum Magazine – First Lady of Aviation & Pioneer Businesswoman: Olive Ann Beech

It is very fitting that, as the residents of Waverly celebrate the 114th Annual Ohio Days, remembering the origin of many Waverly settlers, we are here today to dedicate a Historical Marker to the daughter of two of those Ohio-born settlers. Frank & Susannah Mellor were both born in Ohio, married in Ohio, and then moved to Kansas where the youngest of four daughters, Olive Ann Mellor, was born on September 25, 1903, near Waverly.

By 1910, the family had moved about 50 miles east to Paola and little is known about Olive Ann’s early years except that she had a knack for money matters. She had her own bank account by age eleven and the local bank agreed that she could even write checks and pay the family bills.

Olive Ann’s mother, Susannah, played an important part in family decisions and as a matriarchal role model. Family property was in Susannah’s name and decisions to move the family were hers. Efforts to upgrade the family’s living standard were also hers. For example, she persuaded husband Frank to build four hamburger stands and operated each until it was profitable and then sold each.

At age 14, Olive Ann enrolled in a Wichita business school and studied bookkeeping and stenography; at age 17 she took a job as a bookkeeper and office manager. When her boss died a number of years later, she became the 12th employee at the Travel Air Mfg Co in Wichita; the only woman and the only non-pilot. A Saturday Evening Post article described some of the fun and work of the Travel Air employees. To meet payroll during one slow period, Walter and his men took their planes to a suburban cornfield on Sundays and gave rides to one and all for $1 each. Olive Ann worked selling the tickets and once in a while Walter took her stunting, just for laughs. One of his favorite sports was trying to scare her. He never did. Once, though, she scared him by sliding to the floor of the open cockpit. Walter thought he had lost his passenger.

On another occasion, when Walter and his colleagues did not return from a sales trip in time to pay the workers, as office manager, Olive Ann went to Fourth National Bank in Wichita and requested a $2,000 loan. The bankers were annoyed. She had no authority, they said. Even then, however, her manner conveyed authority. She persisted and walked out of the bank with the money.

The Travel Air Co under Walter Beech became very successful and by 1929 was building more civil airplanes than any other company. That year they merged with Curtis-Wright Co and in 1930 he and Olive Ann married. Walter grew restless spending much of his time behind a desk in New York City so he sold his shares in the company and made a handsome profit. In 1932 they began the new Beech Aircraft Co. in Wichita and gradually made it profitable using his marketing talents and Olive Ann’s skill at managing money. Even during these difficult Depression times, she insisted that she would not work for nothing. She recalled that “I made him pay me a salary or I wouldn’t work. I wasn’t willing to give my life’s blood and not have it properly evaluated.”

During a discussion of the Beech Staggerwing entry in the important 1936 Bendix Trophy cross-country race, Olive Ann convinced Walter that having two women pilots fly the plane would show that the Beech biplane could be flown without brute strength. She was correct and not only that, Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes won the race in under fifteen hours and beat all the men. The plane, the company, and the pilots all won international fame.

During very rapid company expansion in 1940, Olive Ann was in the hospital giving birth to their second child, Mary Lynn. Walter was on the same floor of that hospital in a deep coma suffering from encephalitis (that was not public knowledge). Olive Ann ran the company with a direct phone line to the factory. Even the company directors met at her bedside. A group of fourteen company executives tried to take advantage of the situation to gain control of the company, so she discharged herself from the hospital and fired all fourteen executives and directors. During Walter’s year in the hospital, the general manager got the planes built while Olive Ann ran the rest of the show, including arranging for $50 million credit with 36 banks and approved a generous profit sharing plan with employees.

After Walter’s untimely death in 1950, Olive Ann led Beech until her retirement in 1982. Throughout her 50 years with the company, it grew from 10 employees to over 10,000 and sales exceeded $900 million. These years included challenging times but through it all she earned the respect of business leaders around the globe. In a cover story in 1956, Business Week magazine called her a “financial genius.” Fortune magazine in April 1973 recognized her as one of the ten highest-ranking women in business (and of those, the highest paid). The list of her honors is very long; they include induction into the National (1981), Kansas (1986), and International (1995) Aviation Halls of Fame. She is the only Kansan and one of only three women inducted into the American National Business Hall of Fame (1983). Wichita residents knew her as a very generous benefactor of the arts and education.

As I interviewed former Beech employees in 1995, I was so impressed with how often their answers to my questions about the airplanes came around to include mention of Mrs. Beech. The respect they had for her came through clearly in the pride they felt when they talked about her awarding them a 25-year watch or a 40-year ring. How proud they were to have had their picture taken with her.

For her lifetime of dedication to building the best possible airplanes, she clearly earned the title “The First Lady of Aviation.” For the Beechcrafters, as several pointed out to me, she helped make Beech Aircraft Corporation, “not the highest paying airplane company, but the best airplane company to work for.” For young men and especially young women in Waverly today, there can be no better a role model.

Thank You.

Given by Bob Parmerter Sunday, July 11, 2010 at the Dedication of the Olive Ann Mellor Beech Historical Marker in Waverly, KS

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