Like everyone else, Mary Lynn Oliver has been wondering about Wichita’s future with Hawker Beechcraft.
Everywhere she goes, people ask.
What does she think?
“What do I say? I think it is horrible,” says the daughter of Walter and Olive Ann Beech, co-founders of Beech Aircraft Co. in 1932 and who contributed greatly to Wichita’s efforts in building itself into the Air Capital of the World.
Walter Beech died from a heart attack in 1950; Olive Ann died in 1993.
The family no longer is involved with the company that has been merged and reconfigured since Olive Ann stepped away in 1982.
And yet, Mary Lynn Oliver said that as the daughter of those two aviation giants she cares — she cares deeply about the legacy her parents established in Wichita and the people who helped them build it.
That’s one reason she worked with Kansas native and former Wall Street Journal reporter Dennis Farney on a book about that legacy, The Barnstormer and The Lady.
Oliver saw and held the 240-page book for the first time Oct. 14. The book sells for $29.95 and includes family stories and photos of the Walter and Olive Ann Beech, both incredibly private people.
“I started years ago collecting stories about my parents,” Oliver said. “Dennis started two years ago … Wichita would be awfully empty without Beech. Without Beech — without Cessna — I think it would be just horrible. My cousin likes to say it was the golden age of aviation. How can we lose this heritage?”
Like everyone else, she reads the news reports about Hawker Beechcraft. She hears the comments.
“I think my poor parents would be horrified and heartbroken,” she said Wednesday. “It is so hard to even imagine. I don’t know how it could be economically feasible for the company to leave. I don’t know how you could get the work force elsewhere that’s so well-trained and have the work ethic. I think all those things would be hard to replicate.”
The Beech legacy
The book includes some of the traditional corporate stories of how the company was founded and how its roots are tied deeply to Wichita.
But it is also filled with rich family stories of how an exuberant, dashing, daring and gifted man nicknamed “Popper” embraced life and coaxed a small-town Kansas girl he called “Annie” to go along for a ride that would last a lifetime.
Walter Beech came to Wichita in 1921 when he was hired as a pilot and demonstrator for the Wichita Airplane Co.
He was adept at competing and winning flying contests.
In 1924, Beech would join Lloyd Stearman and Clyde Cessna in building an airplane company called Travel Air.
That same year, a 22-year-old business school graduate named Olive Ann Mellor hired on with Travel Air as a secretary.
She had blue eyes, a great figure and a no-nonsense mind for numbers.
She quickly caught his eye.
By then, Beech had been dubbed Wichita’s most eligible bachelor and worked gallantly at winning her heart. Clyde Cessna would tell him: “For God’s sake, why don’t you marry that girl?”
So Walter told Olive Ann: “You’ve got pretty good-looking legs” and then offered to take her for a ride in his plane — in the open cockpit.
Olive Ann accepted but warned there would be no stunts.
So, Walter promptly took her high above Wichita and rolled the plane over and over in the sky, then glanced behind to see what she thought.
She was gone.
He flew low to the ground, looking for signs of a body.
He searched and searched — with no sign of Olive Ann.
He got friends to help. Nothing.
Reluctantly Walter went to her parents’ house to tell them the news that he’d lost her.
He knocked on the door and Olive Ann answered.
She had ducked down and hidden out-of-sight in the partly covered cockpit space.
There are many other stories, such as how he once stopped a train she was riding on by landing his bi-plane in front of it and refusing to leave until she joined him.
Eventually, Olive Ann would oversee much of the company’s business, marry Walter Beech and help co-found Beech Aircraft Co. during “the teeth of the Depression.”
“My parents had this idea that they wanted to do,” Oliver said. “They were willing to sacrifice everything they had and work hard to make it become a reality. I heard my mother say more than once, ‘If you want something, you can do it.’ And that’s the story. It was done and it was done at a horrible time — in 1932 — and they were brave enough to risk everything they had and make it work.”
As a couple, they would entertain some of the world’s biggest and most powerful celebrities. Movie stars, athletes, astronauts, politicians and foreign dignitaries dined in their home.
After Walter died, Olive Ann continued entertaining her clients, bringing in Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power , Bob Cummings and Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson.
We get glimpses into the private side of Olive Ann — why she didn’t sit down for more in-depth newspaper or magazine interviews, for example from this excerpt:
“They’ll ask me why blue is my favorite color,” she said. “What makes me laugh and what makes me cry.
“Maybe I don’t want them to know.”
Or the sage advice Olive Ann offered when a Fortune magazine reporter asked her what in her early life prepared her for being a CEO.
She replied: “My father told me to sit up straight at the table.”
Olive Ann Beech did indeed have a certain love for the color blue, designer business suits, and the early barnstormer weather flags that often decorated her office, letting employees know the climate of her office.
In the early days of aviation, airports often posted flags letting pilots know weather conditions such as sunny, rainy, windy.
Beech’s weather flags, were designed more for the climate of an office executive.
There was a flag with a smiley face, one with a lightening bolt, and an unhappy face that said “Woe.”
These days with current news events of Hawker Beechcraft, Oliver said, as a plane rumbled and flew low over her Eastborough home, her mother’s flags would have undoubtedly been flying “Woe” and “Danger.”
“There is such an atmosphere of distrust among employees towards the management of the company and, of course, that wasn’t the way it was when my parents were there,” Oliver said. “There is all this speculation, people wondering — Are people playing games? Is this just talk?”
What would Walter and Olive Ann do?
It’s not like the Beechcraft company never knew times of adversity, Oliver said.
Founded in the Depression, the company reshaped and remade itself time and time again.
At the end of World War II, production almost ground to a halt.
Rather than lose trained employees, the company began producing products that had nothing to do with aviation: vending machines, metal pie plates, refrigerator components and the Great American Corn Harvester.
Famed futurist architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller designed the Dymaxion House for Beech, a domed structure often described more like a flying saucer than a home. Beech manufactured two prototypes with hopes of selling them.
The dream included using surplus sheet aluminum originally intended for Beech airplanes to build the homes. The theory was that the house would be light, weighing only three tons, compared with a normal 150-ton house, and could be packed in a case of less than 300 cubic feet for shipping by air to any place in the world.
The project fell though largely because Fuller was never satisfied with it.
Later, Beech engineers designed the Beechcraft Plainsman, a concept car, that also never fully took off.
Still, Walter and Olive Ann Beech kept trying.
“I think Hawker Beechcraft should try to find every way possible to keep the company here,” Oliver said. “My parents looked outside the box to employ those people because they cared about them.”
These days, Oliver thinks often about the employees at Hawker Beechcraft.
What would she tell them?
“Please, please hang in there,” she said. “Please believe things will get better. And don’t just give up the ship.”
She ponders the quote: “The few are going to decide the fate of many.”
Her voice breaks and tears briefly come.
She reflected on the union vote on Oct. 15 in which 55 percent of the machinists union rejected a contract that called for a pay cut. Gov. Mark Parkinson had the week before brokered a deal to keep the majority of the Hawker jobs in Wichita, contingent upon approval of the contract.
“I don’t think it is right. I don’t think it is fair. I’d like to know what the employees think — the other employees — not just the 55 percent that voted, not just the Union people that voted on the contract, the hundreds of other people.”
She is surprised there hasn’t been more of an outcry, and more of an outpouring of support from Wichitans saying ‘what can we do?’
She thinks of the corporate giants that were once inspired and built in Wichita: Coleman, Pizza Hut, Beech, Cessna.
She remembers the message her mother often told her.
“If you want to do something you can do it — but that it may also come with a price.”
That what Oliver wants to tell Wichita now.
“If you really want it, you can make it happen,” she said. “My mother understood everything has consequences. And sometimes the things you want carry prices.”
In these times, Oliver said, if Walter and Olive Ann Beech were still alive, “he would somehow go out and do something to make things different and my mother would have garnered support from the business community.”
Oliver’s book is for sale at Watermark Books, Borders, Barnes & Noble, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, the Wichita Center for the Arts and the Kansas Aviation Museum.