“Oh, honey!” Meet Belle of Steel #16 June Simmons Phillips

June Phillips never met a stranger in her life.  Her attribute as the penultimate people person made her one of the most successful women’s wardrobe mavens in Fort Worth, Texas. If one needed the perfect outfit, you called upon June. June loved to work.  Her career in women’s wear sales spanned over sixty years in some of Fort Worth’s most iconic boutiques.  The patrons of Wally Williams, Edison’s, Margo’s La Mode, HR Lowes, and Leon’s knew that no matter what the event, June would have them impeccably dressed.

june phillipsbestAs for her own style, avante –garde fits the bill.  June always made her own unique fashion statement with beautifully cut suits, designer dresses, and matching scarves, hats, shoes and jewelry. Her signature was her hats. In her later years, she didn’t like carrying a purse, afraid she would leave it somewhere.  Her ample bosom served as storage for her lipstick, cell phone, keys and credit card, which she would never leave without.

Growing up as an only child of two adoring parents, June considered her father a driving force in her life. She believed he taught her the tenants of life without gender stereotype. Once, he tied boxing gloves on her to show her how to take and throw a powerful punch.  Matching her up with a boy her own age, he taught her to spar.  The young boy reached back and threw June a hard punch to her face.  It hurt and stung, making her cry.  “That’s okay,” her Dad said.  “That’s how it feels. Now let him have it.”  June wiped tears away from her face and delivered a blow hard enough to knock the young boy off his feet.  She got a thumbs up from her “Pops.”

It was this steely toughness and plucky grit that gave June the strength and courage to take on any challenge handed to her.  Behind her perfect makeup, ruby red lipstick and lovely skin, she was no showy flower, she was one of the most brutally honest and remarkable women her friends had ever seen.   June was a consummate story teller.  They always began with an intense flash of consternation in her eyes. When relating life lessons from her parents, her eyes filled with tears. She described her childhood as “14 carat gold.”  As for time with family? She was heard to frequently say “Hold your memories close, for they are golden and never to return.”

June loved to sing. Loudly. She was admitted to Julliard School of Music.  But having met a dashing young man, her plans changed after her father’s warning. “You can leave home, study with the best, and have a songster’s career, or you can choose to have a family. Not both.”  June chose family and never looked back. She sang at every party and gathering.  Remarkabley in Pre-Vatican II times, she was ensconced as the only divorced and Protestant member of St. Peter’s Catholic Church choir.

June sized you up with a knowing eye, engaged you with a bright smile, and drew you in with a mesmerizing gaze. As a customer, she’d have you instantly pegged.  “Hi, honey, what’s your name?” was her classic opening line.  Managing to engage and delight, she almost always  closed a sale.  June educated herself about retail, her merchandise and her customers. With a heart for people and lovely things, she was truly interested in making someone feel like a million bucks.  She would bring out two or three choices of outfits, carefully selected for her customer which they simply “couldn’t live without!” She would tell you what looked right and definitely identify what didn’t. She’d match your personality with your zodiac sign.

One particular June story which gives way to her scrappyness had to do with the proceeds from sales. June worked on commissions and worked hard for them. After one particularly successful sale, during which she sold two ladies thousands of dollars of merchandise, another clerk claimed they were her clients. “Oh, no they’re not, sister. I emptied those ladies pockets with my skills. Those were my loyal customers. I know them like I know the back of my hand.  Which soon is gonna make its way to your  face if you don’t give me back my money.”  This led to an actual rolling-on-the-floor, hair-pulling, nail-scratching brawl at Wally Williams. At one point, her foe ripped off June’s hair clip. Her perfectly coiffed curls fell to her shoulders. Although the other woman was quite larger in stature, June got in her licks. Once the manager broke it up, June straightened her skirt, put her hair back up in the clip and threatened, “Honey, if you ever try that again, you better run for your life!” Wherein, the clerk quit and was never to return.

Cultivating deep friendships, June endeared herself to her companions. She doted over her second husband, Allan. Thirteen years her senior, she knew from the moment their eyes met in an elevator, that he was the love of her life.  They lived in a petite, two bedroom home just a few blocks from June’s parents, to whom she was still very close.  When Allan went to collect June’s things, he was surprised there were not more clothes and shoes.  “Oh, honey.  It’s not all in the bedroom. There’s a whole ‘nuther mess of it up in the attic.”  June’s father wryly pointed to the ceiling.  Alan had no idea now he would store box after box of hats, shoes, and racks of clothes.  He suggested that maybe she should give some of it away to charity.  But June didn’t see obstacles.  Only solutions.  “Honey, why say no, when yes means so much.”  With a sheepish grin, Allan gave in.  But before loading them up, he consulted with his brother on how to turn the spare bedroom into a closet, suspending multiple racks from the beams in the ceiling.

In 1975, while working at Margo’s La Mode, June hand-picked her son’s wife. A lovely, young eighteen-year-old blond with peaches and cream skin walked into the store shopping for an Easter dress.  When June first spotted her, she strode over and remarked, “Honey, you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.  I think you would be perfect for my only son.” Sure enough, a few months after dating, Lisa Ferguson became Raul Pena’s wife.  Having been married for over forty years, they now have two adult children.  June adored matchmaking and love stories.  Intent on finding her grandson a mate, one day she rang him up. “Nathan, I’ve found the perfect girl for you. She is beautiful with brown, sparkling eyes!”  Skeptical, Nathan asked “Okay. Where did you meet her?” June’s answer? “Oh, honey. I haven’t met her yet. She’s the underarm deodorant model in my magazine!”

Despite her strength and independence, June never learned to drive. Allan took her to and from work.  June also didn’t like to cook. So every night, they would eat out deliciously, many times meeting up with life-long friends.  Her quick wit and salty tongue would have everyone at the table in stitches.  The staff and owners of her favorite spots knew and loved Miss June and Mister Allan by name.  Often describing them as the grandparents they never knew. Their booth was regularly reserved and waiting.  In fact, The Café, a longtime Fort Worth eatery on Montgomery Street served as the breakfast version of “Cheers” -where everyone knew their name.  A poem that June wrote about the establishment is posted on the cash register.  When June became ill, The Café had their customary breakfast delivered to the hospital. june phillips

June loved Halloween and many of her friends and colleagues recall her festive Halloween parties. Their quaint home was annually festooned with pumpkins and colorful goblins. June’s costumes and witch’s hats were notorious. How ironic that in 2016, on her most favorite of holidays, June was given her death sentence.  Experiencing some vertigo and recent falls, June received a horrific diagnosis. She had the worst of all brain cancers, a glioblastoma, Stage IV.  At age 79, rosy-cheeked and in perfect health, she was incredulous that she was told she had only months to live. To her shocked family and friends, she remarked “Nobody lives forever, honey! I’m not afraid to die. But I’m gonna give this thing a helluva fight.”

She chatted up folks until the day she died. While having an early morning blood draw, she queried her phlebotomist, “Honey, when’s your birthday?  What’s your sign?” holding out her arm.  “I think I’m a Scorpio,” the tech replied.  “Oh yeah? Me too, honey. That means we’re resourceful, brave, passionate, and stubborn as all get out! But a true friend.”  The lab tech smiled. Yep, that was June.

On one of her last days, she held the hand of another Belle of Steel, Edmee Baird.  ‘Honey, let’s say part of the rosary.”  June was a Catholic for that day. They began the Glory Be. Edmee had tears in her eyes, “But what am I going to do without my best friend?” June’s voice was stoic. “Don’t cry for me gal. You’ve got more life to live.  If this whole thing is terminal, I’ve had a good one.  I have a wonderful son.  I hand-picked his wife.  I was given a second chance at love and have a fabulous husband.  I’ve lived life to the fullest every day.  If this is it, it’s all been grand.”  They completed a decade of the rosary.  June died the next day.  AgeView Press is proud to celebrate the indominatable spirit of Belle of Steel  #16, June Phillips. She forever left her mark and cast her spell of love on her corner of the world.

A young Texas woman turns tragedy into triumph. Meet Belle of Steel #15 Emily Allen Colbert

It’s the doorbell that no one ever wants to answer.  “There’s been a horrific accident,” emily-colbertexplained the policemen.  “It’s your husband.” Emily, a young wife and mother of two fell to her knees on the floor. There had been a car accident on Highway 66 in Rockwall. “Oh my God,” she cried out through tears.  “Is everyone okay?” But everyone wasn’t okay.  A vehicle had struck her Garland Fire Department husband’s car from the side.  The impact caused it to spin violently and roll with their oldest child.  Rockwall Fire Department was on scene. Her husband Devon was trapped inside the vehicle. The jaws of life were being used to cut him out. The car seat of her child was covered in glass shards, but miraculously he was unscathed. In just an instant, Emily’s life changed forever.  It was seven days before Christmas, 2012.

Emily threw her things into a bag and frantically called her mother to drive her to Parkland, one of two major trauma centers in Dallas, TX.  According to the policeman it was controlled chaos and they were still cutting Devon out of the car. He was alive, but in critical condition.  In the trauma bay at Parkland, there were already thirty Garland firemen surrounding her for comfort.  “He’s gonna be okay. We promise.” But he wasn’t. Not totally. The next bad news Emily would hear was from the ER physicians.  Devon’s spinal cord had been sublux’d, or pinched at cervical spine number four. This dashing, young, strong fireman became a quadriplegic at age 29.

Emily’s mother, a nurse, knew what that would mean. Devon would never walk again. Never run again. Never be able to put out fires, the job he loved, again. He would live the rest of his life in a chair with wheels. For most young women, this would be the kiss of death to a relationship; just too large a tragedy with which to cope. Because at first, everyone is helpful. Everyone is there. But it’s the heavy burden of long term care. Bathing your husband. Toileting your husband. Helping him to dress. Finding uncomfortable challenges with intimacy. Helping him find meaning in life. Thank goodness for the brigade of Garland and Rockwall firemen who came to their aid.

The first few months were pure torture. Rollercoaster’s of hope and despair. Their tiny home was not wheelchair accessible. But it wasn’t just the pragmatic day to day. Emily was exhausted from the protracted hours at rehab and caring for their two small children. She was bereft of energy or strength. She missed her husband’s caress. She missed the way he made love to her. She felt alone and, at times, hopeless. She had only one thing – her faith in God. She trusted in God’s love to win the day.

Over months, Devon slowly gained the ability to power his chair with his hands and shoulders.  He regained some gross upper body movement. Emily gave in to the generous charity and time that people provided so that she could get meals on the table and care for her children. Through it all though, she never considered this her rock bottom.  This was just another challenge that God had laid before her.

For years ago, Emily had indeed hit rock bottom. She was a gorgeous young twenty-something. Her life involved parties and partying. She dabbled in drugs and had become an addict; even when she had first met  Devon. She was at her lowest low. “My only option was to go up. I wanted to leave a life story worth knowing and reading. Not a life story of worthlessness and addiction. I chose to ‘forget about it – and left drugs behind. I chose joy.”

Upon that decision, everything changed.  Emily had a new focus on life and chose living. So she channeled that same strength in overcoming Devon’s accident. It had to have meaning. So many people had given to them to help them survive a life of quadriplegia, she had to give back. Emily started The Colbert Project, a non-profit foundation which raises money to bridge gaps for other facing financial ruin from tragedies throughout the fire community brought on by illness or off duty injury. Their mission?  To do behind the scenes work so that all the glory is given to God.

At their first event, a silent auction and ball, the seed money was raised. Now three years later, The Firemen’s Ball is one of the largest fundraisers of its kind in the Dallas area.  They have raised thousands of dollars to assist three families on a large scale and helped countless others with hospitalization care packages, gas cards, grocery money and so much more.

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Emily believes that because God blessed her little family, it is her job to return the goodness.  As a mere high school graduate, “Never in a million years would I have seen myself where I am today.”  She is a mother of two lovely young boys; the wife and life-long partner to a husband with quadriplegia; Chairman and CEO of The Colbert Foundation.  “This is a path that God chose me to tackle. I want to be remembered as a warrior doing good for others, not someone of stature in society.”

The people in life that most inspired her and mentored her to overcome are her grandmother and her parents.  “They are beautiful, unique creatures inside. That’s what counts.”  Despite her success, Emily is extraordinarily humble.  “I’m no one special. I’m just me. I live minute by minute, day by day. I never expected to face the challenges in life that God sent me.  I’m living and screwing up just like anyone else. I really don’t see myself as a Belle of Steel, although I am honored.  I just walk in hope each day. In that hope, I pray to kick some ass along the way.  Maybe that’s what makes me a Belle of Steel. Bam!”

For these reasons and seeing/watching with joy as another strong women overcomes, AgeView Press is proud to celebrate Emily Allen Colbert as its fifteenth Belle of Steel.

You HAVE permission to engage – meet Belle of Steele #14 Vernice “Flygirl” Armour

What does it take to become America’s first African American female combat pilot?  For Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour, it was going from Zero to Breakthrough!  She believes that harnessing the mindset of mission accomplishment no matter what the barriers, or perceived barriers, may be is the breakthrough mentality required to accomplish whatever you set you mind to.

Vernice

Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour

By refusing to settle, even in the smallest moments and demanding a breakthrough in every challenge, Vernice flew to new heights.  She remembers a conversation that became the catalyst for her own new flight plan and mission for life.  Humbly relating that she was “just doing her job” when she used pinpoint accuracy in her Cobra fighter helo to destroy a building housing an enemy mortar position in Iraq, she shared a story.  A few years after returning home from the war, she met a man who’d been in that same battle. He approached her and said, “Ma’am, you saved my life that day.”  He had been one of the soldiers under attack.  It was the deployment of Denise’s missle that took out enemy warriors who had been attacking his platoon.

Vernice completed two tours of duty in the Gulf, earning an Air Medal with a star of Valor, thirteen Strike Flight awards, a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, a Navy Presidential Unit Citation, and load of other awards, decorations, and public recognition. She’s been featured on Oprah, CNN, Tavis Smiley, NPR and numerous other TV and radio programs.  According to Oprah Winfrey, Vernice has “no shortage of accomplishments” describing her as “awesome girl…awesome!”  But despite this notoriety, her sole purpose is igniting the flame of passion within our youth to improve their productivity and commitment to achieve personal accomplishments within our society.

As a pioneering pilot, Vernice used her commanding role in technology and engineering to achieve what many said she could never do – become a combat pilot.  She ignored any naysayers along the way. She believes that women and men from all walks of life have the potential to achieve higher levels of success if they can only create the right flight plan.

Meeting the Commander-in-chief, President Obama

Meeting the Commander-in-chief, President Obama

As such she took her mission on the road, writing the book Zero to Breakthrough.  Her vision for an America that maintains greatness one accomplishment at a time, is for individuals to create their own flight plan designed to take them to new heights. Vernice describes a seven step, battle-tested method for accomplishing goals that matter. Today she works as a coach, national speaker, consultant for large entities such as Bank of America, NASA, the Secret Service, and Comcast. She is very clear in her message that she doesn’t believe in being average, striving for mediocrity, or just fitting in.

When interviewed, she related to me that she never focused on racism or sexism. According to Vernice, who found herself surrounded my a majority of males in her chosen professions, she stayed focused and did her job. Just like the boys. She never demanded special privileges or favors.  In fact, her journey and education started with her becoming a police officer. At one point, she even played women’s professional football. But once she achieved that, she was spurred on to further greatness.  In 1994, attended Middle Tennessee State University and participated in Army ROTC. She trained as a Marine officer in 1998 at Quantico Marine Base. Her first deployment in the Marines was with Marine Air Craft Wing MAG-39, in Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169, learning to fly the Cobra.

Vernice uses some of her military jargon to motivate others. One of her slogans is “You have the permission to engage. You are cleared HOT!”  In other words, give yourself the permission to begin; to start steps toward achieving one’s goals and aspirations.  When flying in the middle of combat and needing to engage the enemy, pilots have to ask for permission to shoot their weapons. The magical phrase needed in order to protect Marines and Soldiers on the ground is ‘Cleared Hot.’  That means, go for it.  All clear.  One of her tenants is “acknowledge the obstacles, DON’T give them power.  There will be many times that barriers, such as racism or sexism are present. Financial barriers, societal barriers, or even doubts within ourselves may threaten to thwart plans.  But no matter what the roadblock, she encourages focus to come up with solutions. She emphasizes that how we react versus respond to barriers is the answer.

In her seminars, she has people think of themselves as an attack helicopter.  “Who needs a runway?” she questions. “Take off from where you are!” she motivates. “As soon as you add power (with a solution) and take off, you’re flying! Where you go, either foward or backward is up to you.”  Her five step process for success is:

  1.  Create your own flight plan, develop consciousness and awareness of what you are good at.
  2.  Pre-flight – check out all the details, and troubleshoot. Release fears holding you down.
  3.  Take off – give it some power and just do it.
  4.  Execute – stay on course and focus. In each situation practice self-discipline to achieve mastery.
  5.  Review, recharge, and re-attack!  If faced with obstacles find solutions and go again.Zero to Breakthrough

Vernice tells people, “If you do what average people do, you’ll have what average people have. And honestly, I haven’t met a single person who admits to wanting to be average.” She recognizes that people want to accomplish significant goals and become assets to their communities.  Making that flight plan and committing to go beyond is the real breakthrough that leads to success, significance and a meaningful legacy for our society.

Believing that there is no such thing as a dream out of reach, Vernice integrates the concepts of preparation, strategy, courage, legacy, and the importance of high spirits and enthusiasm to create an inner force.  This “FlyGirl” blends compassion, humor, drive, and a no-nonsense attitude to ignite the fire within, help lay the groundwork for success, and discover the self-discipline that enables anyone to blast through obstacles and challenges.

For these reasons and many more, AgeView Press is proud to have Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour as the fourteenth Belle of Steel.  What are you waiting for?  Go Zero to Breakthrough!

Honor, courage, commitment . . .meet Belle of Steel # 13 Shannon Wermers

Shannon Wermers navy widow

Navy widow and survivor Shannon Wermers

The naval officers’ mantra is honor, courage, commitment. As she stared at the flag draped coffin in which her dashing, young, and brilliant naval aviator husband now rested, Shannon Wermers bit back tears and tried to muster up the strength to get through the military funeral ceremony. It had all started out so brilliantly. Although her husband’s aviation career put his life in jeopardy on each and every flight, she never dreamed in a million years that in one brief moment; one freak accident; her husband would be taken from her forever.

On January 23, 2010, LT Clint Wermers, instructor pilot, and his student were out on an instrument training flight during their cross-country weekend. All had gone A-okay. They were shooting an approach to Lakefront Airport in New Orleans, LA when the foggy and wet weather rushed in, the altimeter dropped from 300 ft to zero, slamming the aircraft down into Lake Ponchartrain, a large body of water emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Climbing out of the cockpit, LT Wermers and his student had survived the landing. Now treading the cold waters with limited visibility due to the fog and dark evening hours, they fought for their lives. The student was the only to survive. When the knock on the door showed to be the command’s Commodore, Deputy Commodore, Commanding Officers wife, and the base chaplain, she began to shake. Surely what she feared wasn’t happening.

RIP Lt. Clint Wermers

RIP Lt. Clint Wermers

But it did happen. She was now standing aside his coffin. The bright smile and adoring eyes that twinkled every time he talked about flying were extinguished. At age 29, she was now a widow with two girls and a baby on the way. She could hear the maritime anthem of the Navy. Its familiar chords poignantly accompanying the tears that she could no longer hold back. She gripped her middle daughter’s hand and put her other arm around her oldest.How would she get through the next hour, the next day, the next week? She hadn’t a clue. As she held her daughters close, she clung to the one thing she had left – her faith. God was testing her. He needed to see her own honor, courage, commitment.When Shannon first started out as a military girlfriend, she dreamed and planned everything out in her mind. She and her handsome naval aviator would be “lifers” in their military career. Even though she knew life would take them in different directions, she never dreamed the road of widowhood would be one. Shannon believes as a society, people plan for marriage, children, and careers. Individuals rarely etch the what-ifs into their aspirations. As she puts it, “life wouldn’t be as fun if we viewed our goals and aspirations from the anxiety producing what-if perspective.”Once everyone went home post funeral, Shannon faced a period of self-doubt, abject loneliness, and depression. The huge psychological impact of her husband’s untimely death threatened to leave her in a dark place. But she refused to stay there for long, pushing through it for the sake of her girls. Her belief in God and her faith were a huge influence in helping pull her out of the quagmire. By studying the scriptures, she identified with the significant struggles that Jesus went through in his life. As bleak as her life without Clint seemed, she was determined to overcome it. She also got support from her husband’s operational and flight instructor commands. As a young navy wife, Shannon admired and looked up to the commanding officer and executive officer wives at TACAMO as a part of Strategic Communications Wing 1. TACAMO stands for “take charge and move out.” She looked up to these woman for their zeal of adventure, leadership and grace in any situation. She credits them for teaching her how to be the best version of herself and how to look out for others.  She needed to TACAMO.

Together for life until death they did part.

Together for life until death they did part.

In her darkest days, Shannon never lost sight of the fact that she was first and foremost a mother. Her small children needed her to be strong and help them feel safe; that despite the pain everything would be okay. Summoning up all her courage, she forged on. Hour by hour. Day by day. Each and every time a bad thought came in making her want to melt away into a stupor, she leaned on prayer and her faith. Knowing her God had complete control, she felt safe and at peace.

Shannon also credits the Navy for helping her overcome the financial impacts of losing her military spouse. An amazing group of aviators, many of whom are Vietnam vets heard about her story. They are known as Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, a reference to where they flew in Vietnam. Launching a program known as The Air Warrior Courage Foundation, they sought our Clint’s command and established 529 accounts (essentially trust funds) for all three of the girls to fund their future education. Shannon is eternally grateful to the many who donated whom she’s never met. So much so, that she now volunteers for the same organization, touring all over the country sharing her story of survival and encouraging other pilots and families to join.

Shannon believes the most rewarding experience of her young life has been to survive tragedy while playing the roles of both mother and father to her girls. They have now grown into well rounded, happy young ladies – warm, giving, and faithful to God, family and friends. Overcoming adversity with strength, dignity, and yes honor, courage and commitment has developed Shannon into a strong and independent woman; one who is compassionate to others suffering. She is a natural born leader who is cool under pressure. She takes on challenges and overcomes obstacles without blaming others, knowing that forgiveness is indeed divine.

The results of honor, courage, and commitment.

The results of honor, courage, and commitment.

Shannon has drafted a memoir of her journey. For her future plans, she has a second book in the works. She plans to spread her message across the nation by giving briefings and talks to both military and civilian groups about the importance of having your assets (wills, life insurance, etc) in place, so that in the event of a tragedy loved ones are not left with a web of legalities to untangle. For the purity of her honor, courage and commitment to make the world a better place by giving back, AgeView Press proudly honors Shannon Wermers as Belle of Steel number thirteen.

Lady Jessie Beck and the Navy Ghostriders – Belle of Steel #12

It isn’t any secret that the ultimate gift is giving without expecting anything in return.   As the first woman to own a casino in Nevada, for rootin’ tootin’ Jesse Beck, it was second nature.   Jessie was a colorful, spirited woman with an independent streak.  But to VA – 164, a group of Navy attack pilots who flew the A-4 Skyhawk, she was a woman with a heart of gold.

A patriot with the gift of giving.

A patriot with the gift of giving, Jessie Beck.

While on a holiday in Texas, “Pappy” Harold Smith, who owned Harold’s Club in Nevada during the late 1930s, offered Beck a job as a roulette dealer.  He noted her quick mathematical skills while she was working as a cashier, post two divorces.  Never afraid of a new adventure, Jessie packed her bags and relocated to Reno.  She quickly rose through the casino ranks, building a reputation for friendliness and good business sense.  This did not go unnoticed by Fred Beck, who owned and operated the keno, poker, pan and horse race booking concessions at Harold’s Club.  Not able to resist Jessie’s charm, Fred became Jessie’s third husband.  When Fred died in 1954, Jessie, now a widow, took over the operations.

She spent most of her time at the casino roaming the floors, and serving her customers, sometimes staying until three in the morning.  It was not unlike her to take over a 21 game and deal for hours, which is how she met a young future Navy pilot, Richard Perry who worked part time as a dealer.  His dream was to fly jets.  Jessie was moved by his story, and took him under her wing.  She befriended and encouraged him,often bringing him home for homemade meals.  Dick became Jessie’s pseudo-adopted son.  It was a proud moment for Jessie when Richard Perry was commissioned in 1957 and winged circa 1958.   Part of Naval aviation training took place out at Naval Air Station Fallon, just east of Reno.   Jessie would give out baskets of goodies, including playing cards and such from the casino to the young, love-starved pilots.

Lt. Commander Dick Perry, VA-164

LCDR Dick Perry, VA-164

But good times were not to last.  Dick was assigned to VA-164, the Ghostriders who flew the A-4 Skyhawk and was deployed to the Western Pacific to conduct bombing missions in Vietnam.  During his cruise time, Jessie continued sending the care packages.  In no time, the entire squadron came to know and love the generous gifts sent over from Lady Jessie, as they deemed her.   As homage to Beck, Perry had his A-4 painted with Lady Jessie on its side.

Unfortunately, while flying his Lady Jessie, tragedy stuck during Perry’s second WestPac cruise.  During the summer of 1967, Perry, now a Lieutenant Commander, served as VA-164’s division lead and led a strike into Haiphong off the USS Oriskany, CVA-34.  A surface to air missile struck the underbelly of Dick’s Skyhawk. Watching fuel stream out of his plane, Perry turned toward the Tonkin Gulf, speaking calmly to his wingman watching the disaster in horror.  As they reached the coastline, Dick became silent, his A-4 engulfed in flames.  As the plane rolled out of control, he ejected about a mile from the shoreline.  His chute deployed, but due to massive chest wounds received on impact, Perry remained lifeless in the water.  The helo attempting to rescue him came under heavy fire, and it became impossible to retrieve Dick’s body.LadyJessie A-4

As can be expected, upon hearing the news, Jessie was heartbroken.  But she forged on, spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars sending care packages to Vietnam servicemen, especially, VA-164.  The squadron honored the gracious lady from Reno even after LCDR Dick Perry’s death by displaying her name on each commanding officer’s aircraft.  This continued until the squadron was disestablished in 1975.

In 1967, the Nevada Gaming Commission revoked the gaming license of a casino named the Riverside over a dice-cheating scandal, shutting it down in 1968.  Shortly after, Beck lost the lease to the concessions at Harold’s in 1970 when the club was sold to the Hughes Corporation, who subsequently terminated most of the club’s staff.  Jessie was irate, but was not going to take this latest blow without a fight.  In 1971, Beck scraped up the money and bought the Riverside Casino for three million dollars.  To the delight of many, she rehired the majority of the former Harold’s Club employees.

Jessie's Riverside Casino

Jessie’s Riverside Casino

Now known as the Gambling Grandmother of Reno, Lady Jessie continued to give back, sharing her good fortunes to support military personnel all over the world.  She was bestowed with the Award of Merit, the highest honor the Defense Department can give a civilian, in 1968.  In 1969, the governor of Nevada named her a Distinguished Nevadan.  She was honored at a reunion of VA-164 and VA -163 pilots in the late 1970s.  A lifetime member of the St. Mary’s Hospital Guild, the Washoe County Medical Center League and the VFW Auxilliary, staunch Republican and pro-defense Lady Jessie continued to serve the military she loved.

In 1978, Harrah’s bought out the Riverside Casino which allowed Jessie to finally retire.  In 1987, LCDR Richard Perry’s  remains were returned, having been recovered previously by native fisherman when washed ashore from the Tonkin Gulf. Twenty years had passed since Lady Jessie had endured his loss.  A building had since been dedicated to Dick at the NAS Fallon. Fittingly, this loving warrior was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with our country’s heroes.  Family, Ghostriders, and other fellow officers, many by then of flag rank as Dick surely would have been, gathered from far and near, including his adopted mother, Lady Jessie.

Pilots of VA-164 and VA-163 with Lady Jessie

Pilots of VA-164 and VA-163 with Lady Jessie

On July 17th, 1987, Jessie Beck died at the age of eighty-three.  All that knew her described her as a not only a credit to the gaming industry and to the state of Nevada, but a great business woman.   However for VA-164, Jessie Beck was honored and remembered as a loving, caring, and generous person.  “We all held her in the highest regard.  More than anything else, Jessie was a lady.”The Navy’s ideals are honor, courage and committment.  Lady Jessie Beck lived out these ideals and became the darling to many of our military.  In honor of her service to our country, through her patronage of the  mighty Ghostriders of VA-64, AgeView Press is honored to posthumously name Lady Jessie Beck, Belle of Steel #12.

A woman who tells it like it is, author and journalist Mary Lou Weisman

Author and Journalist Mary Lou Weisman

Author and Journalist Mary Lou Weisman

Putting a pen to words is an art, indeed a gift.  Especially when those words have the power to change lives.   Mary Lou Weisman was born in 1937 in Fairfield, Connecticut to a mother who believed that writing thank you notes was a high art, and to a father who was convinced that one of the great joys in life was the pursuit of the right word.   According to Mary Lou, he was right and so was her mother.   Mary Lou became a writer at the age of seven, mainly due to her father’s influence.  Although initially she protested writing anything at all, she ultimately came to learn about gratitude and enjoyed searching for the right words to put on the notes.  She couldn’t  just write “Thank you, love Mary-Lou” when she received gifts.  She felt compelled to both acknowledge it and graciously go on to tell the person who gave it to her exactly how she was going to use or enjoy their gift.

Later in life, unlike many of her classmates, she found she enjoyed writing term papers.   She recalls two college literature teachers who complimented her on her writing ability.  They were instrumental in helping Mary Lou take herself seriously as a writer.  She feels she owes them a lot.  Mary Lou obtained a solid liberal arts education, married, and secured a position as “clerk typist” in what was called, laughably, “a job in publishing.” The salary at that time during the 60s was a whopping  $62.50 a week.   She believed she was on her way to a career in journalism.

To this day, Mary Lou laughs at her unlikely success.  She believes she’s still a work in progress, despite having published numerous books, articles, and journalistic works.   At first she wasn’t sure she had the stamina for writing.  Every single writing job involved an initial anxiety attack, but once she delved into the project, she found she loved the process.  She describes the culmination of a writing project and the ultimate payoff as a thrilling sense of resolution and accomplishment.   For Mary Lou, writing has become not only her career, but a passion.   When she first began, she had no other ambition than merely to write.  But over the years, she has fallen in love with the process.   Of course Mary Lou still gets disappointed if her writing project gets rejected, but she never regrets having written.

Mary Lou is inspired still by her parents. Even though they had no intention of making a writer out of her, inadvertently through her mother’s interest in basic writing skills and good manners, and her father’s love of words, they did so. Later on, the professionals in her life, helped her to do her best. Mary Lou’s first newspaper editor, Paul Good, remarked, “You don’t write bad for a housewife, kiddo.”   Some women might have taken offense to that, but for Mary Lou, it made her day. He was no feminist, but, hey, she was happy for the compliment. Further into her career, the editor of Woman’s Day, Ellen Levine, would invariably return her work back two or three times. Saying it could be better, without giving details, Levine never revealed what about the work she didn’t like. Ultimately, Mary Lou realized that there wasn’t anything specific Levine didn’t like. What she was trying to teach her was the life lesson that everything can always be better.

Despite working during the sixties, pre-women’s lib, Mary Lou remained naïve of any ways in which she’d ever been discriminated against as a woman.  She believes this largely to be because she normally worked alone or among other women and did not compete with men directly in the marketplace.  Although she’s never experienced a male writer, for instance, being chosen over her, Mary Lou constantly runs into a prejudice against women writers.  She believes, that tendency is reflective of a lingering prejudice against women in general.  If someone, male or female, asks her what she“does,” Mary Lou answers that she’s a writer. Often their next question is, “Have you been published?”  She suspects that if she were a man, they wouldn’t ask her that question.

Mary Lou has written five books and scads of newspaper and magazine articles, all of which she considers to have been very rewarding. One of the books, MY MIDDLE-AGED BABY BOOK was a bestseller. Despite that commercial success, the book INTENSIVE CARE has given her the greatest sense of accomplishment.   Not just because the book is about her beloved son Peter, who died at the young age of sixteen from Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy, although that was enough to make it her most rewarding experience.  -and not because it received high praise from literary critics, although she is humbled and rewarded by that, too. It is because so many mothers and fathers of children with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy and other life-threatening diseases have written to Mary Lou, including myself, to thank her for writing an honest, unsentimental  book.  Mary Lou’s description of the painful saga is frank and unforgiving.  From the very first chapter, she tells it like it is.  Organizations like The Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy recommend that all families read this valuable life lesson.  These families thank her for acknowledging how difficult their journey is, for inspiring them and for giving them the courage to go on.

Mary Lou Weisman Intensive Care

An intense look at demanding care.

Mary Lou is humbled that she was named a Belle of Steel.  For her, writing is her passion.  According the Mary Lou, “As anyone who has had a passion for anything – caring for the elderly, rearing children, playing the violin, fixing cars, teaching, — knows, passion is a strong driving force. If that passion is reinforced by talent, discipline, and a determination to persist in the face of rejection, you are likely to succeed.”

My Middle Aged Baby Book Mary Lou Weisman

Best Seller!

When asked what she hoped to be doing five years from now, again she was frank and honest.   First and foremost, she’d like to be 81 and alive. Given that gift, she’d still like to be writing, teaching writing, enjoying her husband, grandchildren and friends, and traveling.  But she supposes she won’t be riding her bike by then.

For her courage in writing the truth about an unpopular and devastating disease, and the book that has changed the lives of so many families, including mine, who face the battle of Duchenne’s, AgeView Press is proud to name Mary Lou Weisman its eleventh Belle of Steel.

Contact Mary Lou Weisman at www.marylouweisman.com

 

Belle of Steel #10 Captain Valerie Ormond, USN (Ret.)

What would it be like to be aboard a floating city of men? Essentially , a men’s only club, where the sign reads “No Girls Allowed.”  Retired Navy Captain Valerie Ormond knows. She was among the first female naval intelligence officers aboard a combat ship for the United States Navy. One of very few women aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

All aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln

All aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln

An aircraft carrier’s crew consists of the ship’s company, those permanently assigned to the ship, and  the air wing personnel, who come on when the air wing is deployed. Normally, the air wing comes aboard for training, work ups, and deployments. The total ship’s company is normally around 3200.  The air wing totals about 2400. Therefore, the total personnel on board a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is usually over 5500 people. In addition, there are others that are not part of the ship’s company.  These peeps consist of NCIS agents, contractors, teachers, the Admiral’s staff, and the like. Some interesting factoids on the USS Abraham Lincoln and photos can be found here.

The number of women assigned to the USS Abraham Lincoln’s ship’s company, air wing, and Admiral’s staff was 363 out of 5500.  She was one woman amidst a sea of men.

Valerie was assigned to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron FIVE (VQ-5) as part of Carrier Air Wing ELEVEN (CVW-11) from November 1994 – July 1996. Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron FIVE flew the ES-3A Shadow, an aircraft carrier-based electronic reconnaissance aircraft. Carrier Air Wing ELEVEN  was assigned to the USS Abraham Lincoln in 1994 and 1995. Missions included a Western Pacific and Arabian Gulf deployment participating in Operation Southern Watch, the enforcement of the no-fly zone over southern Iraq, and Operation Vigilant Sentinel, in response to Iraqi threats against Jordan and Kuwait. VQ-5 is now decommissioned, but for some great data on VQ-5 and naval aviation click here .

As an intelligence officer, Valerie found that being on the squadron’s first six-month deployment on board a carrier with real world missions to be very fulfilling. There were some who said that as a woman, she had no place there.

But Valerie would hear nothing of it. To her, it mattered not whether she was male or female. She was there to use her mind over matters of war. With a dual Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Mass Communication from Towson University in Maryland, as well as a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence from the Defense Intelligence College in Washington, D.C., she was a match for any man’s mind. She loved school and learning, and it showed. Valerie later attended the U.S. Army War College and was awarded her second Master’s degree in Strategic Studies. She believes that all of that schooling reinforced what her parents taught her early on: education teaches one how to think.

Valerie’s training has ranged from basic military survival skills to executive military leadership. But she doesn’t believe that any education or training is as important as experience. She feels she’s learned from every experience and as such, has tried to apply that learning to future steps in life.

Captain Valerie Ormond, USN (Ret.) at work as an author.

Captain Valerie Ormond, USN (Ret.) at work as an author.

As a retired, decorated, naval officer, Valerie never dreamed she would be where she is now; especially as an author. She didn’t plan either path from childhood, but fortunately followed where life led her. One of Valerie’s favorite quotes is from Alfred Lord Tennyson, “I am a part of all those I have met.”  She describes being lucky to have met extraordinary people and sharing the lessons learned from them with others.

The top two mentors who have inspired Valerie are retired Vice Admiral Jake Jacoby, U.S. Navy, and her dad.  But her mother comes in a very close third!  Admiral Jacoby believed in her, supported her, and never told her she couldn’t do something because she was a woman.  He advised her to take jobs which at the time she didn’t understand would be the best for her and her future in the navy.   Valerie now understands that being a mentor doesn’t mean always telling the person who seeks your guidance what THEY want to hear.   Sometimes a mentor must bear bad news and say, “No, I understand that’s what you’d like to do, but this is what you need to do.” She appreciates that Admiral Jacoby took her under his wing and never steered her wrong.

Although Valerie hadn’t planned on a naval career from childhood, her father indoctrinated her in the Navy from day one. Her father served as an active duty officer, a reservist, a naval civilian, and a navy contractor. Quite simply – he loved the navy.   A ship’s clock rang in their house 24/7. Her dad explained the meaning of the bells and their relation to watch shifts aboard ships. Her brother and she grew up with and learned expressions like “Rank Has Its Privileges,” “Change Step Move Out,” and   “Reveille, Reveille” in grade school. Her father taught her about navy traditions, leadership, and the pride and value of service. Interestingly, he was also a very gifted writer, which he never pursued beyond a hobby.

With such a strong, naval minded father, what about her mother? Valerie describes her as “brilliant, sassy, creative, supportive, and still working at the age of 78. Need I say more?”  Valerie thinks SHE is the real “Belle of Steel” here.

Concerning obstacles in her path to success in a male dominated world, Valerie remembers early in her navy career being teased by salty fleet sailors. They felt since she hadn’t served at sea, that somehow she was a less worthy member of the team. It made no difference to them that there were so few positions at sea for women officers at the time. And they were not being filled by English major Ensigns.  A memory struck her regarding the sign outside of a boy’s fort. “No Girls Allowed.”  As a young girl, she would have walked in and challenged the threat, but Valerie knew the United States Navy was far from a kid’s fort. Protocol and decorum were at play. She had to navigate the game.

Although she felt it was unfair to have something held against her, it was something over which she had no control. She volunteered for and served in assignments designated “sea duty equivalent” per the bureaucracy, but that didn’t seem to matter to naysayers. The impetus which compelled her to do her part occurred when the exclusion on women serving on combat ships and in aviation squadrons was lifted in 1993. She decided she could and would overcome the obstacle. Finally, she had the Navy’s permission to enter the fort.

When the first jobs opened up for female intelligence officers on combat ships, there were few positions for the many seeking them. Valerie was lined up for four separate jobs before she finally received orders as one of the first women aboard a combatant aircraft carrier as an intelligence officer in its air wing. Persistence, flexibility, and a willingness to do things never done before paid off in the end.

Valerie believes her most rewarding experiences in the military occurred when she could do something for someone else. In her current career as an author and national speaker, sharing her leadership experiences with others through media is the most rewarding experience. It struck her that she still had much to offer. Valerie believes that sometimes, “We don’t know what we know about ourselves until we share with others.”

As a naval officer, Valerie attributes one of her personal strengths to be the revelation that she can’t do everything herself. It was earth-shattering to realize that it’s okay to admit that. Valerie knows that tenant probably comes from having support from so many for so long. To this day, she is thankful to have the most amazing support a person could ask for from her husband, also a retired naval officer. She never takes that for granted. Valerie describes herself as someone not afraid of change. In fact, she’s become pretty good at not only accepting, but embracing, change. And finally, Valerie still believes that everything happens for a reason. Her mantra? Rather than dwell on the negative, try to move on to the positive.

Believing in Horses

Believing in Horses

Five years from now Valerie would like to still be helping other people – such as young women aspiring to leadership positions .  She trusts that helping someone else by sharing something she’s learned will achieve goals far beyond her own.   Her award winning book, Believing in Horses just won the Gold in young adult fiction for the Military Writer’s Society of America.    It is a story  of a young girl whose father is serving in Afghanistan.    It’s a coming of age story regarding overcoming the fear of losing her father in battle through horsemanship.   The powerful fiction is a beacon for children of deployed parents.    Again, Valerie giving hope.   For this reason, AgeView Press is proud to select retired Captain Valerie Ormond, U.S. Navy (Ret.) as Belle of Steel #10.

Follow Valerie Ormond and her career inspiring others.