Mary Frances Silitch ′57

Hometown: Parkdale, AR

Major at Rhodes: English

Current Home: North Granville, NY

 

Throughout your career you were assistant fiction editor for Mademoiselle and the Saturday Evening Post and have served as associate editor of Flying and executive editor of Air Progress. You have edited newsletters and magazines for the National Pilots Association and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, in Washington, D.C., and have served as executive director of the Seaplane Pilots Association for AOPA. You have earned the Silver Wing Award for lifetime excellence in aviation journalism, from the National Business Aviation Association. Perhaps most significantly, however, you have broken through a long-impenetrable glass ceiling, by becoming the first female editor of a mainstream aviation magazine, Private Pilot. How did your studies in the liberal arts prepare you to be such a pioneer for women in the publishing realm?

 

First, I’ll tell you when I knew I should be a writer. Dr. John Quincy Wolff was my freshman English professor, and one of our assignments was to “write something vivid.” On the day he was to hand back our papers, he was standing at the window, as he always did. He paused for a long time, and then he said, “Only one student wrote what I asked.” And that was me!

On being a “pioneer,” I just worked my way up. I started at Mademoiselle in New York, then worked for the Saturday Evening Post. A friend of mine said he was going to work at Flying magazine and they were going to teach him to fly. I found a copy on a newsstand and found a few mistakes, so I wrote to the editor and informed them that they needed me too. I broke a couple of men in as managing editor and suggested that they just make me managing editor. The publisher of the magazine told me I couldn’t have that job because I was “a girl.” I was soon asked to be managing editor of Air Progress.

At one point, when I was working for the National Pilots Association I found out that a man they had just hired was being paid much more than I was, while I was training him! I raised quite a stink about that. I had never encountered that kind of inequality at Southwestern, and I wasn’t going to stand for it in my professional life. I ended up getting a raise. I became the editor of Private Pilot sometime later, when the former editor, newly promoted to managing director, offered me the job. He was impressed with my previous work and he thought I would do a good job. I worked hard, and gender just didn’t get in the way.

 

What is it about writing that fulfills you? How did your college experience play a part in igniting this passion?

I worked on the Sou’wester in college, as managing editor, and I wrote a column about what was happening in Memphis. That was my first exposure to writing for a publication, and it gave me great experience as I moved forward with writing after college.

 

What was the most interesting story that you wrote during your time as a student?

I’d say it’s a story about a story, really. I wrote a column of school news for the Commercial Appeal and my first big story, about Homecoming, was scheduled to be on the first page of the second section, but Elvis Presley got into a fight on the day it was to be published and my story was pushed off the first page.

 

What words of advice might you give to current students with similarly unconventional post-graduate aspirations?

I would just say that if there is something that you really want to do, you should go for it, and you shouldn’t let being a woman, or being this or that, predetermine or limit what you can accomplish.

 

You have logged more than 5,000 flight hours, have set a world record, have been named 1993 Pilot of the Year by the Orange County, California Ninety-Nines, and have been named to two aviation halls of fame. How did it all begin? What inspired you to become a pilot?

A lot of my friends in Arkansas flew, and I took a few lessons in New York, but it was expensive. I was happy to learn that Flying would send me to flight school, and I got my private pilot license. I later got my seaplane rating (in the Bronx in winter!), my instrument rating at Dulles, and my multi-engine rating at Washington National.

 

How has being a Southwestern/Rhodes alumna served you professionally, as you have “flown” after your dreams?

Being a Southwestern graduate helped me get my first job – which wasn’t in writing or aviation, by the way! I was a secretary at a law firm in Memphis after I graduated, and the firm specifically recruited Southwestern students.

 

You have been named the Distinguished Alumna of the Year for 2014, and the Rhodes College community is so proud to call you one of our own. What is it today that makes you most proud of your alma mater?

I keep seeing Rhodes named on all of these lists as “Most Beautiful,” “Most Service-Minded,” and so on, and I am so proud to be a part of that. I’ll be back for Homecoming this year, and I look forward to seeing how the campus has grown since my last visit in 2010.

 

Interview by Isabelle Campbell, Rhodes College ′15